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Vikings Take Off with Houston, Super Bowl LI on Minds

View images from 'move out day' as players said their goodbyes and cleared out their lockers at Winter Park.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Vikings players who make their offseason homes away from Minnesota began booking flights Monday morning.

The thought of Houston, where Adrian Peterson lives during offseasons, was in the mind of the Texas native, but for a whole different reason.

"My top goal for next year is to win the NFC North and play in the Super Bowl in Houston," Peterson said.

The Vikings had the Seahawks — the NFC's representative in the past two Super Bowls — on the ropes Sunday and led by nine into the fourth quarter but lost heartbreakingly 10-9.

Instead of preparing for a team trip to Arizona with brothers united by blood, sweat and even tears, the players quietly bagged cleats, shirts and other gear to return to their family members.

"I don't think anybody had plans of us doing this today," safety Harrison Smith said. "We just didn't think about it, and now, we've got nothing. It's almost like I should be studying for Arizona. I wasn't mentally ready for that, so that's how it goes, but I still think that's the best way to approach it because it gets you ready to play that week."

A week after the Vikings won their first NFC North title since 2009, players lamented the oh-so-close loss in the coldest game in franchise history (minus-6 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of minus-25) that had an even more brutal ending.

"It's hard to forget about it, but you've definitely got to use it as motivation," Peterson said. "You take the negative things and try to take out all the positive things out of it that you can. It will be motivation for us, something for us to build on. At the end of the day, we lost. We were the better team. We were able to see a lot in ourselves that we knew we had, just confirmation, so there's a lot of things to take out of it."

The reason it is so hard to stomach is two-fold. The Vikings pushed the Cardinals to the brink last month and felt they could have won a rematch, and they know that these kinds of opportunities are never guaranteed.

The Vikings increased their win total by four this season to finish 11-5. They also became the first team playing home games in a temporary stadium to make the playoffs. A year ago, the locker-clean-out day didn't seem like a funeral because the 2014 team had to fight and scratch and claw for seven wins but felt an uptick on the horizon.

This team, in just the second season under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, overcame its own share of adversity and thrived when outsiders said, "You can't." The football world has said, "You could have" on loop in the 24-plus hours since the season ended. 

"There's probably a lot more disappointment this year because I think a lot of guys think we left something on the table, whereas last year, there wasn't," Smith said. "We knew we weren't in the playoffs. It definitely feels like we left something out there."

Zimmer's locker room speech to the team was poignant. He said he's "probably never been more proud of a football team than I am this team."

Brian Robison, a nine-year veteran who always seems to have a blue collar beneath his shoulder pads, embodying Zimmer's virtues, said the outlook is promising.

"This has been one of the hardest-working teams I've been a part of. The way we work is second to none," Robison said. "Personally this is as hard as 2009 because as a nine-year guy, you don't know if you're going to get this opportunity again. Being part of this team, I feel like we've got a bright future and opportunities ahead of us, but you don't know if that's going to happen or not."

The Vikings will open U.S. Bank Stadium with home games against Arizona, Dallas, the New York Giants, Houston and Indianapolis. They will visit Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington, Jacksonville and Tennessee, and have home-and-away series with Chicago, Detroit and Green Bay.

Young players like second-year pro Jerick McKinnon and 2015 second-round pick Eric Kendricks like the blend of the Vikings roster and the potential. Kendricks said he still has "gas in the tank" and believes this year's team created a standard based on "honest hard work."

"I think this team has still got more to offer. We're still fairly young, have got a good group of vets," McKinnon said. "Next year's team won't be the same as this year's team. That's just the way it goes. We've got the pieces and we're going to put it together. Everybody is going to do what they do this offseason if everybody is accountable, and we'll just come in next year and be stronger like we did last year to this year."

Love being a Viking:Smith, a 2012 first-round pick, was asked about his long-term future with the Vikings. The 2016 season is the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. Smith said "I haven't really talked with [Vikings General Manager] Rick [Spielman] too much about those things."

"I've just been focused on playing. I'm not really into that. I don't have any information on that area," said Smith, before adding, "I've always wanted to stay here. I love being a Viking, playing here and this community, this team and what we've got going on in the building right now.

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