MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have sure made it hard on anyone who wants to declare, once and for all, whether they are "for real."
The Vikings won seven consecutive games to start this season 8-1.
But they were all one-score games. And they played three backup quarterbacks and only three teams who currently have winning records during the streak.
They beat the Super Bowl-favorite Buffalo Bills in overtime in a wild signature game in Week 10.
Sunday was when the debate finally, mercifully could have ended. If the Vikings had defeated the Dallas Cowboys at home, they would have indisputably pushed themselves into the NFL's upper tier.
Even a close loss would have maintained their buzz. Instead, the Vikings absorbed the second-worst home defeat in team history, a 40-3 shellacking that offered fuel to anyone who thought their record was a mirage.
Coach Kevin O'Connell acknowledged afterward that "a lot of narratives" will follow his team during a short week of preparation for Thursday's matchup against the New England Patriots (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). The question, though, is if those narratives will be fair.
"I don't think we can get concerned with those things," O'Connell said. "I just know each and every week in this league is another opportunity to really prove who you are. As a football team, I don't think we did that [Sunday]. I don't think we gave ourselves a chance to compete. We've got a lot of things in a short week to try to get right."
Even after the win over the Bills, however, the Vikings were being historically belittled. They closed as a two-point home underdog Sunday to the Cowboys, the first time that has happened to an NFL team that was 8-1 or better since 1976.
Simply losing at home to the Cowboys (7-3) would not have been a devastating or shocking outcome on its own. But the historic nature of Sunday's margin is worth delving further into.
In NFL history, there has been only one game in which a team that was at least seven games over .500 lost at home by more points. That happened in the final week of the 1961 season, a 41-0 loss by the San Diego Chargers to the Boston Patriots. It was also the second-largest margin of defeat in the Super Bowl era -- home or road -- by a team that had one loss or fewer after Week 10; the worst was 42 points (45-3) by the 1986 New York Jets to the Miami Dolphins.
The margin of defeat didn't faze quarterback Kirk Cousins, who called the game a "disappointing outcome" but added: "What I've learned in this league in my years is they all count as one. The point differential doesn't end up becoming a thing that sticks with it, but the loss or the win does. We've got to find a way moving forward to get wins and play much better than we did tonight."
Several players made sure to note that the Vikings' record remains 8-2. The truth is they still have a 99.7% chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN's Football Power Index, thanks to a down year in the NFC North.
But they have two teams with winning records up next on their schedule in the Patriots (6-4) and the New York Jets (6-4) in Week 13. And any evaluation of their competitiveness relative to the league must include another historic fact: They are the first team in NFL history to be 8-2 or better with a negative point differential (minus-two).
That startling revelation speaks both to the rarity of their winning streak and the sound nature of their two defeats: by 17 points at the Philadelphia Eagles and 37 to the Cowboys.
Receiver Adam Thielen theorized that "sometimes, these games are good just to kind of wake you up a little bit." Thielen went on to say: "You've got to bring it. And you've got to find a way to bring your best football. It doesn't matter if you're sore or you're tired or you're injured. You've got to find a way to mentally play your best football. Otherwise, what happened tonight happens."
In truth, 37-point losses almost never happen in the NFL to 8-1 teams. More than anything, Sunday speaks to the particularly thin margin for error this team must balance to win.
As has been noted many times this season, the Vikings have won when they dominated the small and undervalued parts of a game that add up to influence the outcome. When they haven't, they've been blown out -- and on Sunday in historic fashion.