MINNEAPOLIS — Well, that was easy. Other than giving up a meaningless touchdown after Case Keenum's departure allowed Teddy Bridgewater to mop up on Sunday, Dec. 17, the Vikings destroyed the Cincinnati Bengals 34-7. The score, despite its margin, is not indicative of how thoroughly the Vikings dominated in a win that clinched the NFC North division title. This statistic tells you much of what you need to know: The Vikings held the Bengals to one third-down conversion in 13 tries. The Vikings (11-3) did what good teams, particularly the very good ones, are supposed to do. They crunched a lousy team. And, make no mistake, the Bengals are lousy. They've lost their way and, soon, will lose their coach. According to reports, Marvin Lewis will be gone when the season is done and, over these past few weeks, they have shown themselves to be the Bungles once again.
Meantime, it was a statement game for the Vikings, and they stated, quite emphatically, that what happened in Carolina was a loss, not a setback, and the goal of winning the Super Bowl hasn't changed or been derailed.
"This is part of the bigger picture. This is just the start. We're not finished," defensive end Brian Robison said. "We understand this isn't the ultimate goal. We have more things we want to accomplish."
He wouldn't even say those two words — Super Bowl — as if saying them would somehow unravel what has been a season as impressive as some of the special effects in "The Last Jedi."
In the locker room after the game, about a dozen players squeezed in tight to take cell phone photos of them wearing their NFC champion hats and shirts. To a man, though, they talked, as Robison did, about this just being the beginning of a journey they hope ends Feb. 4 in the same US Bank Stadium where they dismantled the Bengals.
"It's a good feeling to know 100 percent you're going into the playoffs," receiver Adam Thielen said. "But we have a long way to go."
If they win their final two regular-season games, against the Packers and Bears, the Vikings will finish with no worse than the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, which would assure them of a bye during the wild-card weekend and at least one home game.
Vikings fans who fretted about the return of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and losing ground to the Philadelphia Eagles in the chase for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, should rest easy.
The Packers lost 31-24 to the Panthers in Rodgers' return from his broken collarbone, so their playoff chances are pretty much kaput. Rodgers, by the way, threw three interceptions — and all were short of the intended Packer. If the Packers are smart and looking to next season and beyond, they'll tell Rodgers to take off the final two weeks and let that shoulder fully heal from the 80 percent it's at now.
And then there are the Eagles, who aren't the team they were with a healthy Carson Wentz.
Even if the Eagles (12-2) get the NFC's No. 1 seed, they are much less likely to advance out of the divisional playoff round with Nick Foles at quarterback instead of Wentz.
Foles threw four touchdown passes Sunday in a 34-29 victory over the Giants, but he stuck with short throws and the Eagles almost lost to a team with just two wins and no real incentive to win another one. And over the past two games — wins over the Rams and Giants — the Eagles have allowed 64 points.
The Eagles are looking vulnerable and certainly could lose their final two games, against Oakland and Dallas. And that would give the Vikings home-field throughout the playoffs, provided they win out.
"Now we're playing for seeds," tight end Kyle Rudolph said.
"We have three goals," cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. "Win the division, win the NFC, win the Super Bowl."
Every playoff-bound player talks about being on a mission this time of the season, and that is what the Vikings are doing. But they're also showing no signs of being content, and that is a good sign.
"I think there's a lot of room for improvement. I think a lot of plays were left on the field," Thielen said. "That's encouraging when you win like that and have a lot of work to do, and have a lot to improve on."