Playoff heartbreak truly makes Minnesota United ‘one of us’

A friend of mine who watches soccer far more closely than I do and suffers the vicarious trauma of Minnesota sports to a greater degree than I do, watched with cautious optimism as Minnesota United built a 2-0 lead in the second half of its Western Conference finals match at Seattle on Monday.

The Loons were undoubtedly tired, playing on two fewer days of rest than the Sounders, with a travel day out West mixed in for good measure. But if they could just hold on, they would play Saturday for the MLS Cup.

“Long 25 minutes here,” he texted.

The next two texts: “Unreal” and “What did I tell you.”

A two-goal lead with less than 20 minutes to play is usually enough of a cushion for a soccer team — even a tired one in an underdog role.

But not for the Loons, who got an unfortunate indoctrination into what it really means to be a Minnesota sports team: Having just enough success to make the crash landing that much more painful.

Their 3-2 loss — with the final two goals coming near the end of 90 minutes and then in stoppage time — ended what had been, to that point, a remarkable playoff journey. The sting of defeat shouldn’t lessen their accomplishment in making it that far. Then again, fans in Minnesota have been trying to talk themselves into that sentiment, with one major exception, for the last three decades.

Of the six big-time professional sports leagues in our market — defined here as those that allow their athletes to at least make a living wage, often times far more than that — only the Lynx have managed to even get past the game or series to get to the game or series that determines the league championship.

In conference finals/league semifinals, the Lynx are 6-2 in the last decade (wins in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017 and losses in 2014 and 2020). They’ve heaped on four WNBA titles for a legacy that stands on its own.

Since 1991, when the Twins won the World Series, this is the tally for the other five teams when reaching the brink of playing for a championship: Twins (0-1, loss in 2002 ALCS); Wild (0-1, loss in 2003 Western Conference finals); Wolves (0-1, loss in 2004 Western Conference finals); Vikings (0-4, losses in 1998, 2000, 2009 and 2017 NFC title game); Minnesota United (0-1, loss in 2020 Western Conference finals).

That’s a combined 0-8, with every major men’s pro team contributing. For a more thorough list of all that has gone wrong since 1991, I will point you to this tweet.

The accompanying list of things that have gone right would be shorter, even if it was filled with remarkable individual moments — almost all of them in games before the stakes got really high.

For the most part, that’s Minnesota sports: not the stuff that dreams are made of, but the stuff that memes are made of.

You have to have an endless reserve of optimism or have a doctorate in the Law of Averages to believe the next 30 years will be any different. But I have a feeling that just like my friend referenced above, you’re going to keep watching all the same.

Because you never know, even if you do.

Should the Wild look into playing games outside at TCF Bank Stadium?

The Wild, which waited years to finally land a Winter Classic, had to postpone that outdoor Jan. 1 game at Target Field because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Minnesota should stop thinking about the benefit of outdoor ice this season.

Per a recent report:

Several NHL teams are are exploring the possibility of playing some 2020-21 home games in outdoor venues and in front of fans if local COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings would allow for them.

The Wild was not listed among those teams, but the list was rather extensive. Among those reportedly exploring the idea: the Bruins, Kings, Ducks, Penguins, Hurricanes, Stars and Predators.

On its face, it makes some sense. NHL teams are more dependent on gate revenue than their peers in the NBA, NFL and NBA because the NHL’s TV/media contract is not as large.

While much of the United States is currently in the grips of an explosion of virus cases that have created additional restrictions — Minnesota, for instance, does not allow public gathering of more than 250 people — it is at least possible to spin forward a few months to an improving reality.

As the NHL season progresses and a vaccine potentially reaches more and more people, some restrictions on crowds might start to lift — particularly outdoors, which has proved to be a safer environment than indoor air during the pandemic.

Would it be worth it to the Wild to play games at, say, 50,000-seat TCF Bank Stadium — even at a limited capacity — if restrictions were eased?

That’s hard to say. When the Wild played at TCF Bank Stadium against Chicago in 2016 (Photo above via the Star Tribune’s Aaron Lavinsky), the NHL reportedly paid $800,000 in rent for access to the facility.

But with the NHL lurching toward a season without a start date yet — maybe 52 or 56 games starting in mid-January? — it’s clear no idea should be dismissed out of hand.

With plenty of competition, these Vikings rank among most frustrating

Congratulations to the 2020 Vikings. In clawing back to .500 — defying season-wide odds and game-specific odds to win five of their last six games — they have shown themselves to be good enough to be considered frustrating.

I dare say, in fact, that this current incarnation of the Vikings, via twists and turns that alternately made us wonder if they could land the No. 1 pick in the draft and now have us thinking about the playoffs, have broken into an exclusive group: The most frustrating Vikings teams in recent memory.

In this thought exercise, let’s draw the boundary a little more firmly and set up some criteria. Since the 1998 season has come to define modern fandom and heartbreak, let’s say only years AFTER 1998 are under consideration.

What makes a team frustrating? That can be in the eye of the beholder, but to me there are often some key ingredients: Special teams lapses. Huge momentum swings during a season. Agonizing defeats. Breathtaking skill and execution undercut by bewildering decisions and turns of event. A general feeling that, from game to game, the team you are rooting for is not the more disciplined or intelligent of the two on the field.

Hello, 2020 Vikings!

To me, it is a season-long ethos — which is why, even if 1998 was included in this list, it wouldn’t crack the top five. While the NFC title game that season was one of the single most frustrating games in franchise history, the season as a whole up to that point was a whimsical walk in the park picking up W’s on the cobblestone.

As such, here in order of oldest to most recent are the main contenders that 2020 is dealing with in my opinion (with assists from many of you on Twitter). There are, to be sure, plenty of options.

1999: The year after the Vikings went 15-1, they started 2-4 (with all of those losses coming by five points or fewer). Randall Cunningham was benched. Jeff George led a frantic 8-2 final 10 games, which culminated in a playoff berth and the chance to be absolutely walloped in the division round by the Rams.

Perhaps this season holds a special place in my heart because I attended as a fan the 1999 game in Chicago. The Vikings chose to kick off to start both the first half and second half. They were going against the wind to start the fourth quarter. They missed a chip shot field goal that would have won it at the end of regulation. George was intercepted in Vikings territory in overtime. And they still managed to win — 27-24 in overtime, just like they did Sunday.

2003: Randy Moss had 111 catches for 1,632 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Vikings started the season 6-0 and had a very favorable schedule the rest of the way — having already gone 3-0 in the division, including a road win at Green Bay to start.

And then … they lost to all four teams that finished 4-12 that season, including an 18-17 defeat to the Cardinals on a desperation catch by Nate Poole on the final play of the season. An extremely frustrating season capped by an extremely frustrating play. This is a prime contender.

2010: You’ll notice a theme of sequels here. Just like 1999 couldn’t live up to 1998, the follow-up to Brett Favre’s magical 2009 season was just the opposite. Something didn’t feel right from the jump, with back-to-back losses to open the year despite allowing just 14 points in both. In the second of those, Adrian Peterson was stuffed on 4th-and-goal from the 1 late to help seal their fate.

Before everything started going REALLY wrong — like, you know, the roof collapsing — that was already a tough season to watch.

2016: A 5-0 start gave way to an 8-8 final record, with crushing defeats along the way. The offensive line was so bad that Sam Bradford was allowed, at maximum, a half-step drop before throwing the ball 17 inches forward. Blair Walsh missed four field goals and four extra points in the first nine games — and failed to execute a kickoff that led to a bad loss to the Lions.

It was mayhem. Pure, frustrating mayhem.

2018: This year was about the sum of the parts not adding up to the whole. Coming off a 13-3 season, the Vikings added Kirk Cousins. He threw for more than 4,000 yards with 30 TDs and 10 interceptions. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen both had more than 100 catches and 1,000 yards. Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray were a nice 1-2 punch in the backfield.

The defense was positively loaded compared to this season. Front four: Danielle Hunter, Linval Joselph, Sheldon Richardson and Everson Griffen,

But they would go entire games where it looked like they either couldn’t stop anybody (556 yards allowed to the Rams) or couldn’t move the ball three feet let alone 75 yards.

Through it all, they still had a chance to make the playoffs by beating the Bears in Week 17. Chicago, with nothing to play for, crunched the Vikings 24-10 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings gained 164 yards.

Honorable mentions: 2004 and 2009. The former is a first cousin of 2003, with a 5-1 start giving way to an 8-8 finish. But that team backed into the playoffs and beat the Packers. One game doesn’t erase 16, but it sure can try. The same notion, but in reverse, for 2009 keeps it out of my top five most frustrating. The NFC title game loss to the Saints was excruciating. But the season itself was a sight to behold.

Overall verdict on 2020: Some of the frustration of results is mitigated by the strange nature of this season as a whole. But I dare say it will crack the top five of the last 20-plus years when all is said and done.

There are still four regular-season games left to play, and all the evidence gleaned from tear-your-hair-out losses and wins in the first 12 games suggests there are some special surprises still in store.

Wait, a Minnesota pro team is overachieving in the playoffs?

For those who enjoy a good underdog sports story and also root for Minnesota teams, there was a thin but prominent overlapping slice of Venn diagram in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The 1987 Twins, with just 85 regular-season wins, dispatched the mighty Tigers in the ALCS and then the Cardinals in the World Series to stun the world.

That same year, the 8-7 Vikings (really 8-4, but 0-3 with replacement players) upended New Orleans and San Francisco in the playoffs to nearly reach the Super Bowl.

The 1988-89 Gophers men’s basketball team reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed; a year later, Clem Haskins’ crew reached the Elite Eight as a No. 6 seed.

Throw in the worst-to-first 1991 World Series champion Twins and the North Stars reaching the 1992 Stanley Cup finals after winning just 27 of 80 regular-season games and it is more than clear: That was quite a five-year run of success, much of it of the unexpected variety.

Surprise success is often the sweetest for fans. With limited expectations, any time a season is extended feels like a gift.

For the last three decades or so, though, Minnesota teams haven’t really been in the spirit of giving.

There are a few notable exceptions: The Twins dispatching the A’s in 2002; the Wild reaching the Western Conference finals in 2003 and winning a couple first-round series under Mike Yeo; the Gophers women’s basketball team reaching the Final Four in 2004. The Vikings upsetting the Packers in the 2004 playoffs and upending the Saints just a year ago.

But most of the last 30 years or so has been dominated by:

*Expected victories (the Vikings reaching the NFC title games in 1998, 2000, 2009 and 2017), the top-seeded Wolves reaching the 2004 conference finals and even the Lynx dynasty after seeing just how good they were in winning their first title in 2011.

*Unexpected losses (1998 Vikings, NFC title game) and others that pale in comparison.

*Lopsided playoff rivalries (Twins vs. Yankees, Wild vs. Chicago) that never went Minnesota’s way.

*Seasons so bad that the playoffs were a mere fantasy.

With that history as a backdrop, we can more adequately frame just how stunning Minnesota United’s 3-0 victory over Kansas City in the MLS conference semifinals was.

Not only were the Loons the No. 4 seed facing top-seeded Kansas City … but they had never won an away match against Sporting KC, being outscored a whopping 15-1 in six matches.

And their win wasn’t some hang-on-for-dear-life affair. Yes, they withstood an opening 15-20 minute barrage, when defender Michael Boxall cleared a ball from the goal line less than two minutes in and keeper Dayne St. Clair made two huge saves to keep the game scoreless.

After that? They dominated the run of play for the latter part of the first half, getting all three of their goals on well-touched setups from playmaker Emanuel Reynoso — the first two cashed in on classy finishes from Kevin Molino.

With that skill producing a stunning 3-0 lead, the Loons then went to work on a calm and controlled second half — never really letting the favored KC side even think about making a game of it.

It was, frankly, almost a perfect game — a series of clutch performances when they were needed the most. Imagine if the 2009 Twins had swept the Yankees. That’s how dominant and unexpected it was.

The Loons are now in the conference finals. They are two wins away from securing their first MLS Cup in just their fourth MLS season. But they will be underdogs again Monday when they play in Seattle.

Can they achieve the unexpected again? It would be out of character for a Minnesota team, but maybe this group of United characters is good enough and different enough to make it happen.

Is Kirk Cousins having a Pro Bowl season?

From the “life comes at you pretty fast” department we bring you the headline you see above, wondering if Vikings QB Kirk Cousins is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season.

Wait. Didn’t I just read in this space a month ago a fever dream about desperately trading Cousins because he had been so awful?

You did. At the risk of sounding like a flip-flopper, I will invoke a quote attributed to famed economist John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

While I still think some of the long-term questions about Cousins are valid — in particular whether the combination of his performance and salary will keep the Vikings from truly competing for a Super Bowl — there is little doubt that he has at least turned the season around both for himself and the Vikings.

Cousins on Thursday was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Carolina, which included a late touchdown drive in a 28-27 win. I dare say he’s in the running for conference player of the month honors, too, after throwing 12 touchdown passes with just one interception in guiding the Vikings to a 4-1 November record.

That November turnaround leads to the loftier notion you see above. While I inched close to declaring this is Cousins’ best season of his career during the most recent Access Vikings podcast, I’m not quite there yet.

But building the case that Cousins could be selected as one of the NFC’s three Pro Bowl quarterbacks this season — even though the game itself isn’t going to be played because of COVID-19 — is a surprisingly reasonable task.

Let’s assume for now that the first two spots are reserved for Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, both of whom are having MVP-caliber seasons.

Drew Brees and Dak Prescott were trending in that direction, but both sustained serious injuries. Prescott is out for the season with a gruesome ankle injury and Brees will miss a number of games with broken ribs and a punctured lung.

The rest of the competition is pretty underwhelming. Nobody in the damaged NFC East is in the mix. Same with the rest of the NFC North minus Rodgers.

I’d say someone old (Tom Brady) and someone new (Kyler Murray) are Cousins’ chief challengers, which could hurt Cousins in voting that often amounts to a popularity contest.

But if we look at passer rating, Cousins is No. 3 among healthy NFC QBs at 104.5 (and No. 8 overall in the NFL) above both Brady and Murray. He falls to No. 17 if we look at Total QBR, perhaps a more accurate measure of a passer’s overall contributions to a team, but other advanced stats help Cousins bounce back.

Cousins is averaging 8.7 yards per pass attempt this season — second in the NFL to only the Texans’ DeShaun Watson.

Lest you think that damage is being done on short passes turned into long gains by catch-and-run plays, Cousins is averaging 7.4 air yards per completion — meaning that’s how far past the line of scrimmage his average completion travels. That’s tied for second in the NFL.

There’s still a ways to go. Heck, even his own team didn’t include him in a tweet about Pro Bowl worthy Vikings.

But if Cousins can come anywhere near his November performance over the final five games — always a big question with Cousins, whose up-and-down nature is one of most maddening features — and somehow rally the Vikings back into the playoffs, his final numbers will probably add up to being Pro Bowl-worthy.

Eddie Rosario picked the wrong year — and wrong era — to get paid

In his last full season with the Twins in 2019, Eddie Rosario hit 32 home runs and drove in 109 runs. He batted cleanup a whopping 127 times that season for a team that broke the Major League Baseball record for home runs, became affectionately known as The Bomba Squad and won 101 games.

On a pro-rated basis, his 2020 pandemic-shortened season was quite similar. If he would have had 590 plate appearances — Rosario had 592, 589 and 590 the previous three seasons, so that’s a reasonable benchmark — Rosario’s 13 homers and 42 RBI over 231 plate appearances, more than half of them batting cleanup, would have translated into 33 homers and 107 RBI.

A generation ago, those numbers would have almost automatically qualified Rosario, a 29-year-old power hitter in his prime, as a franchise player in line for a big contract — particularly as a success story who has spent a decade with the organization after being drafted as a teenager in 2010.

Perhaps even a few years ago, before the Twins changed leadership, Rosario would have been in line for a big-money deal.

It’s possible that even a season ago, if faced with the dilemma of either paying him roughly $10 million for the upcoming season or letting him walk for nothing, the Twins would have ponied up the money.

But this era in particular and this year specifically are combining forces to lead the Twins to one of two decisions: either work out a below-market deal to keep Rosario or non-tender him and let him become a free agent when a deadline for such a move arrives Wednesday night.

If you’re wondering: What the heck? Isn’t Rosario one of the Twins’ best players? Why would they just let him go?

Here is a brief explanation:

Baseball has moved in two directions, both of which devalue a player like Rosario: away from traditional counting stats like home runs and RBI in favor of advanced metrics that paint him as more of an average corner outfielder; and away from paying productive non-star players once they start to get older and more expensive.

The second of those directions — the love of cost-controlled young players as cheap replacements for productive veterans — is particularly damaging to Rosario in 2020, as MLB owners stare down an estimated $3 billion in lost revenue from the pandemic with more losses likely to come in 2021.

So while 30 home runs and 100 RBI used to be benchmarks for major success, we now know that Rosario surely benefitted from his spot in the batting order and other factors to achieve those numbers in 2019 (and the pace for those numbers in 2020).

We can compare his OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) from the past few years (right around .800) and determine that it’s nothing special. Not bad — but replaceable for a corner outfielder.

We can evolve beyond just knowing that he led AL outfielders in assists as a rookie to find that in many years he’s been a below-average fielder despite having adequate speed and a strong arm.

And perhaps most importantly, we can look at the Twins minor league system and see Alex Kirilloff (and to a degree Brent Rooker) ready to replace Rosario’s production for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Add it up, and leveraging Rosario’s place in the baseball economy to either get him cheap or give him up — despite his popularity and his seeming place as an emotional leader on the Twins — becomes the sort of shrewd business decision an analytics-minded front office would make, particularly in 2020.

It just happens to be terrible for Rosario, a fun player who is productive despite his flaws and who still qualifies as one of the players in the Twins lineup I’d most want to see up with the game on the line.

If you’re in favor of good players getting paid, I’m afraid 2020 isn’t your year — and the 2020s aren’t your decade.

North Dakota hockey players kneel during anthem

Before No. 1-ranked North Dakota’s 2-0 win over Miami (Ohio) on Wednesday, history was made.

Two UND players — Jasper Weatherby and Jacob Bernard-Docker — followed through with their plan to kneel during the playing of the national anthem as a means of protesting racial injustice.

Per a lengthy story in the Grand Forks Herald, they are believed to be the first Division I men’s college hockey players to kneel during the anthem. 

“I think change is uncomfortable for a lot of people,” Weatherby told the Herald before the game. “If this (demonstration) is uncomfortable for you, it’s a great opportunity to educate yourself and look inside and ask yourself, ‘Why does that upset me?’ and ‘Why is someone from my hometown doing this?’ We hope the hockey community knows that we stand with people of color and we are not OK with the way people are being treated in this country.”

In the midst of a year that has seen a remarkable rise in athletes speaking out against racial injustice and matching their words with actions, the words and deeds of these two North Dakota hockey players strikes me as particularly notable for a few reasons.

*In addition to the historical college hockey element noted in the story, there is a sense that in general hockey — far less racially diverse than sports like basketball, football or even baseball — has lagged behind its peer sports when it comes to addressing these issues.

The Wild’s Matt Dumba became the first NHL player to kneel during the anthem in August when the league resumed play. Dumba, who is Filipino-Canadian, has become a large presence and in some ways the face of the NHL’s social justice movement.

Both UND players are white — the types of allies needed to advance social justice reform. Weatherby in particular has a fascinating back story that has made him an outspoken advocate for reform.

“At the end of the day, we want UND to be a safe place,” Weatherby said. “As athletes who do have a platform, we stand with our brothers and sisters of color.”

*This comes at a time when it feels — at least to me — like the momentum of social justice activism among athletes that was building for a lot of the summer and into the fall is starting to fade. The increasing impact of the pandemic has occupied a lot of the off-field stories on the NFL and other major college sports. The NBA, which was front-and-center with social justice messaging on its courts during its bubbled return to play earlier this year, will not have “Black Lives Matter” on courts when the 2020-21 season starts in a few weeks.

In general, pandemic news and the fallout from last month’s election have dominated news cycles. It’s convenient to lapse back into old habits and avoid the uncomfortable changes Weatherby referenced. But that’s not the path forward to progress.

*As the article notes, UND has not been immune to racial problems. As a Grand Forks native myself, having lived all but one of my first 18 years there, I saw plenty of the problems of my hometown and its major university close up.

But I also saw and participated in a lot of activism growing up as well, so I don’t want to lapse into the narrative that small- and medium-sized communities are the only places that lag behind on social justice issues.

That said: The significance of two players kneeling during the anthem for a school that for decades refused to change its racist nickname and in an arena named for a man who hosted parties celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday, should not be overlooked.

Nor should we overlook that the two players have attended protests and spearheaded other initiatives — such as hosting a movie night for teammates to watch a documentary on the killing of George Floyd.

For me and Jasper, it was an opportunity to educate our team,” Bernard-Docker said of the movie night. “We’re trying to learn more every day as well. We’re not perfect. We still have a ton to learn. With our team being mostly white males, we’ve never had to deal with racial injustices. Just to open some of our guys’ eyes and show them the history of the past hundreds of years in America, and around the world, how minorities have been treated is important. It makes you realize how well we have it.”

Much-maligned Carson Wentz costs bettor $500,000 with Hail Mary

As a fellow native North Dakotan, it gives me no pleasure to bring you up to speed on the increasingly downward trajectory of Carson Wentz’s NFL career: From promising rookie in 2016 to MVP-caliber player in 2017 to slightly above-average starter (and still injury-riddled) in 2018 and 2019 to the near-bottom of the NFL (at least in terms of Total QBR and the eye test) in 2020.

What happened? Aside from injuries, which are a simple and probably correct explanation, that question leaves even those closest to him like Eagles coach Doug Pederson at a loss for adequate words.

Wentz’s struggles were on full display Monday night, as the Eagles failed to get a first down on any of their first five drives against Seattle. Things got a little better as the game went on, but there was seldom any doubt that the Seahawks — a team with huge issues on defense all season — were going to hold Wentz in check and win the game.

Indeed, all that was left to decide was the final score in the closing seconds. The Eagles trailed 23-9 and had the ball at the Seattle 33. Wentz lofted a Hail Mary into the end zone that was tipped … and snagged by Hail Mary specialist Richard Rogers (yes, the same guy who caught Aaron Rodgers’ desperation heave against the Lions in 2015) with just 12 seconds left in regulation.

The Eagles decided to go for 2 and they converted. A failed onside kick later, the game was decided. Final score: 23-17.

Wentz had come up short again for the 3-7-1 Eagles, who wasted a chance to once again climb atop the putrid NFC East.

But hold on. Wentz was a hero to some people: Those who run and operate sports gambling books.

The final line for the game had the Seahawks favored by 6.5 points. That was the spread at which a lot of action was wagered on the game — the vast majority on Seattle — including one particularly tortured soul who bet $500,000 at BetMGM on the Seahawks.

The late TD padded Wentz’s stats and helped a tiny fraction of gamblers who wagered on the Eagles. But more than anything, it opened Wentz up to a brand new set of angry fans beyond just those who root for the Eagles.

The Vikings finally got a little bit of luck in 2020

The more fortunate among us are fond of saying that people make their own luck, but reality reveals that luck typically charts a more random path independent of our actions.

What appears to be particularly lucky (or unlucky) at a certain point in time is likely influenced more by sample size and an inadequate opportunity for things to even out than it is by any certain favor bestowed upon one entity.

With that in mind, consider the plight of the 2020 Vikings and this idea: They were pushed to the brink of extinction – at least in any sort of realistic playoff sense – by miserable luck in two key and quite random facets of football.

One of them continued in blistering fashion on Sunday. The Vikings have been unlucky virtually all season when it comes to recovering fumbles, and it doesn’t get much worse than it did against Carolina when they lost fumbles on consecutive offensive plays – with both returned for touchdowns! – and then had a muffed punt covered by the Panthers to seemingly seal their fate.

But the other element of bad luck that had stuck with them all season changed just in time to allow them to escape with a 28-27 victory: An opponent missed a field goal, and a big one at that. Joey Slye’s 54-yard attempt – twice as far as Blair Walsh’s fateful miss in the 2015 playoffs and wide left by perhaps as much as well – was just the third missed field goal of the season by a Vikings opponent.

The second came earlier in the game when the Vikings blocked a Slye attempt. The only other miss was a 46-yarder by Matt Prater a few weeks ago when Minnesota beat Detroit, as kickers entered Sunday having made 24 of 25 field goals against the Vikings.

Through Week 10, per Sharp Football, Vikings opponents had made 3.1 more field goals this season than would have been expected based on distance and league accuracy marks. No other team in the NFL had worse luck at that point on opponent field goals.

At that same Week 10 benchmark, the Vikings had recovered 2.1 fewer fumbles than expected. Only three NFL teams had worse luck corralling an oblong ball in 2020.

If Sunday had played out the way the rest of the year was trending, the 1-2 punch of fumble luck and field goal luck would have finished off the Vikings.

(And indeed would have carried on a 60-season tradition, Vikings fans might say, in which the purple have never once benefitted from any sort of good fortune).

Instead, Slye gave them a reprieve.

Sure, a 54-yarder is hardly a certainty. But NFL kickers have made 84 of 122 (69%) from that distance this season. Kicking indoors on turf in an empty stadium, Vikings kicker Dan Bailey had calmly drilled a 53-yarder at the end of the half to give Minnesota a 10-7 lead.

An NFL kicker more often than not makes that kick. Against the Vikings this season, opponents had been a perfect 5-for-5 from 50 yards or more before that Slye attempt — including a 3-for-3 mark from that distance for Stephen Gostkowski in a 31-30 Titans win over the Vikings earlier this year.

But after all the twists and turns Sunday, including a brilliant go-ahead touchdown drive engineered by Kirk Cousins and capped with 46 seconds left, it was good old-fashioned luck that kept alive whatever hopes the Vikings have of making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in more than a decade.

It was fitting that the final difference was one point — the Vikings’ third such margin this season after not playing a one-point game since, you guessed it, that infamous Walsh miss five years ago.

Unless you consider Slye getting his cleat stuck in the U.S. Bank Stadium turf to be an example of making your own luck – it is the Vikings’ home stadium, after all – the only thing left to conclude is that the random nature of fortune and the NFL happened to go the Vikings’ way for a change.

Rocco Baldelli’s cap adds fuel to Twins-Saints affiliation reports

A few weeks ago, our La Velle E. Neal III reported that the Twins and Saints were working on a deal to have St. Paul replace Rochester (N.Y.) as the organization’s Triple-A affiliate — a fairly seismic shakeup for the two biggest baseball entities in the Twin Cities.

While a lot of questions remain — including how to finance the up to $20 million required to become an affiliate and exactly what becoming an affiliated team would mean for the Saints’ brand — we seem to be inching closer to a final decision.

Baseball America, which has been ahead on the reporting on the massive nationwide overhaul of the minor league affiliate system, reported recently that a full list of 120 affiliates for the 30 MLB clubs could be announced this week.

But in between La Velle’s report a few weeks ago and the official announcement sometime in the near future, the Twins-Saints story was advanced in a different way — via a hat tip, literally and figuratively, from Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.

In a video message posted on Twitter on Saturday, Baldelli thanked Twins fans for their support, told them how much the Twins miss them and reminded them that because of Covid-19 the organization had to cancel TwinsFest and the Winter Caravan this season.

The text of the 88 second video was nice. The subtext was far more interesting.

In the video, Baldelli is wearing a vintage St. Paul Saints cap. If that was some sort of mistake, I’m sure Baldelli wouldn’t have tweeted it out — nor would the Twins’ official Twitter account have retweeted it just minutes after he sent it.

So we are left with the possibility that it’s just a massive coincidence and Rocco just likes vintage caps … or that the Twins-Saints affiliation is close enough to being a done deal that Baldelli is already wearing the merchandise of the new Class AAA team.

“I’m really excited to see what the Twins have in store and are coming up with right now,” Baldelli says in the video.