MINNEAPOLIS -- The scene Sunday afternoon at U.S. Bank Stadium was almost surreal.
Scott Tolzien -- last seen by Minnesota Vikings fans in a putrid November 2013 tie with the Green Bay Packers -- stepped in for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to run the clock with cursory handoffs. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson cooled his heels on the sideline. And a Vikings fan base that filed into the stadium against minus-15-degree temperatures excused itself early, choosing a return to the frigid weather over the carnage on the field.
No, the Vikings haven't technically been eliminated from the playoff race yet. But their postseason hopes can only be fulfilled on the most circuitous of paths after Sunday's 34-6 pummeling at home that sent their season veering off course and raised the possibility that a campaign that began with five straight wins could end with two insignificant games. The Vikings' loss to the Colts officially extinguished Minnesota's chances to win the NFC North for a second straight season.
Nothing leading into the game suggested the Vikings were headed for such a lopsided defeat. Not after last week's win over the Jacksonville Jaguars kept Minnesota's playoff hopes alive, and not after Peterson did enough in three days of practice this week to prompt his return from injured reserve. But a team that coach Mike Zimmer has chided for being undisciplined at times this season showed its most unsightly tendencies at the worst possible times.
Linval Joseph's attempt to vault himself over the line to block a Colts field goal attempt led to a penalty and a first down in the first quarter, and the Colts scored two plays later. Chad Greenway, running two steps behind Indianapolis tight end Erik Swoope, had no help downfield on the Colts' second touchdown. Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Andrew Sendejo all missed tackles on Robert Turbin's 6-yard touchdown run that finished a Colts drive started by a Peterson fumble.
Griffen also committed a neutral-zone infraction that gave the Colts a first down on third-and-5. Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford got picked off by Mike Adams, and the Vikings' defense was dissected by a Colts offense that was content to keep Minnesota in its base personnel, run the ball and exploit throwing windows over the middle.
It's not the most one-sided defeat of Zimmer's tenure with the Vikings, but given what was at stake, it might be the most unnerving. And as the Vikings head to Green Bay next week for a date with a Packers team that has won four straight, they have more questions than answers.
Will Peterson -- who didn't play most of the second half after gaining 22 yards on six carries -- see the field again this season? Should the Vikings push to get Harrison Smith back for the Packers game, as they'd initially hoped to do? What caused such a collapse in a game in which the Vikings still had everything to play for?
The Vikings will be asked many of those questions this week, and they'll have plenty of questions to pose on themselves, too. A season that began with championship aspirations -- which seemed to persist even after injuries to Teddy Bridgewater and Peterson -- is officially on the brink.