The Vikings are going (almost) all the way

Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Near certainty: The Minnesota Vikings, already 6-0, will get to the NFC championship game. Not the Super Bowl, necessarily, because they have a habit of losing title games. But probably one step from it.

Why? Because they're getting every break this season. They have a soft division and what turns out to be a soft schedule; injuries are hitting dangerous opponents; they get touchdowns on plays they have no business trying; and they have overall good health.

A case in point is the final play of the first half of their 28-20 win over Denver on Sunday, when the Vikings broke a 7-7 tie with a 59-yard touchdown. Randy Moss caught a long pass from Daunte Culpepper and flipped a no-look lateral over his shoulder to Moe Williams, who took the ball to the end zone.

''Sandlot football is for the street, but sometimes you get away with a sandlot play,'' coach Mike Tice said.

Yup.

If some other team, say the Giants, had tried it, the opponent would have picked it up and returned it for a TD of its own.

As for the schedule, playing Denver looked like a tough assignment a couple of weeks ago. Then Jake Plummer broke his foot getting up from a couch last week. Steve Beuerlein got hurt during the game and the Vikings got to face Danny Kanell, who had been out of the NFL since 2000, playing minor-league baseball and in the Arena League. Kanell played better than Beuerlein, but not well enough.

In the next two weeks, the Vikings get the Giants and Packers, both at home. Name the two biggest underachievers in the NFC? The Giants and Packers, and the Packers almost always lose at the Metrodome nine of the last 11 games.

Then Minnesota is at San Diego, Oakland and home to Detroit. Any loss there would be a stunner. And while their 15th game is home against Kansas City, the Vikings close at Arizona, meaning there's unlikely to be a late-season collapse like the one in 2000. That year they started 11-2, then lost their last three games and home-field advantage for the playoffs.

But their recent history in title games is dismal.

In 1998, Minnesota finished 15-1, but lost in overtime to Atlanta in the Metrodome, where the Vikes had been invincible. Two years later, that late-season collapse forced them to go to the Meadowlands, where they were beaten 41-0 by the Giants for the NFC crown.

Dennis Green was the coach then. Now it's Tice, who has won nine in a row dating back to last season after starting his coaching career 3-10. He was the offensive line coach on Green's teams, so he knows the history.

He has the benefit of a better defense than Green. He also knows when luck is on his side when playground improvisation turns into a touchdown.

BAD BUCS: In 1984, San Francisco finished 15-1 and breezed to the NFL title, beating Miami 38-16 in the Super Bowl. The next season, the Niners stumbled to 10-6 and were eliminated in the wild-card round.

''When you win a Super Bowl, you think you're ready for the next season, but you're not,'' Randy Cross, who played guard for that team, said in 1985. ''The margin in this league is too small for you to win when you're playing with just a little less emotion than you need.''

And that was before salary cap-enforced parity; the 49ers won five Super Bowls between 1981-94. But it relates to what's wrong with Tampa Bay, 3-3 after losing 24-7 in San Francisco on Sunday.

''They want to dance. They want to look pretty,'' Chidi Ahanotu, a former Buccaneers defensive end who now plays for San Francisco, said after the 49ers ran for 212 yards against Tampa Bay's supposedly dominant defensive line. ''When you run it right at them, you really get into their psyche and take them out of everything they want to do.''

Truth in advertising: Ahanotu, released by Tampa Bay in 2001 after eight seasons there, is not a fan of ex-teammate Warren Sapp. ''He should have some pompoms. That's all he is, is a cheerleader. He's just dancing back there,'' Ahanotu said of Sapp after the game. ''He's a fading star just trying to hold on.''

Injuries have hurt, too, especially to cornerback Brian Kelly, who on Sunday reinjured the chest he hurt in a loss to Indianapolis. When he went out of that game, Peyton Manning threw at his replacements as the Colts ran up 28 fourth-quarter points and pulled out the game in overtime.

The more thoughtful Tampa Bay players know there are problems. Next week, the Bucs face streaking Dallas in another ''return'' game for Bill Parcells, who twice (1993 and 2002) almost became their coach.

''Who knows what the Super Bowl champions look like?'' cornerback Ronde Barber said. ''We don't look like the best team in the league, that's for sure.''



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