The Minnesota Vikings were convinced they wouldn't end this season like they did the last, when a 6-0 start was wiped out by a 3-7 finish. They could be right. This season might be worse.
Fresh off their fifth loss in seven games, the Vikings are 7-6 and coach Mike Tice's future is in question. For Minnesota's tortured football fans, these circumstances are hauntingly familiar. This franchise can surely compete with anyone in the disappointment department.
''Right now things don't look very cheerful,'' said Tice, who spent much of his Monday playing Dr. Phil to those needing therapy after a 27-23 home defeat to struggling Seattle.
''You want all your goals to come out exactly as you planned ... not many times does it come out exactly the way you dreamed about.''
Over their 44-year history, the Vikings have been one of the NFL's most consistent winners - but something always keeps them from greatness. As people who root for the rival Green Bay Packers love to point out, Minnesota was beaten in all four Super Bowl appearances - the last coming after the 1976 season.
Coach Dennis Green won 100 games in 10 years, but his teams frequently choked in the playoffs. The most memorable, or cringe-inducing, of those disasters came in the NFC championship game following the 1998 season. The team that went 15-1 and set the league's all-time scoring record blew a late lead and lost in overtime at home to the Atlanta Falcons.
Two years later, the Vikings dropped their final three regular-season games to lose the NFC's top seed and were embarrassingly eliminated by New York in the conference title game at Giants Stadium, 41-0.
Tice's rebuilding project seemed to hit stride last year with six straight wins to open the season, but then came a brutal stretch in which Minnesota lost to all four teams that finished 4-12. The last one, to Arizona on the game's final play, stung the most - and left the Vikings out of the playoffs for a third consecutive year.
Owner Red McCombs, in town for the organization's annual Christmas party, was reminded Monday of a somber plane ride back to San Antonio with his family after that devastating defeat to the Cardinals.
McCombs asked his grandson, Joseph, if his friends would be teasing him the next day in school because the Vikings lost. He said they would, and McCombs asked him how he usually handles it.
''Well, you know, it's not the first time,'' the 13-year-old replied.
Nope, it certainly isn't.
Despite a 5-1 start in a soft NFC that suggested a chance for January success, the Metrodome - perennially one of the most difficult places for opponents to play - hasn't been as loud this season.
Especially in situations, like a critical third down for the defense in a tight game or a long touchdown reception by Randy Moss, that normally require earplugs or threaten long-term hearing ability.
It's almost as if these scarred patrons are simply expecting something bad to happen and can't conjure enough energy to lift their voices to the usual high level.
Tice, the league's lowest-paid coach, has managed to maintain his optimism despite the uncertainty. McCombs must decide by Jan. 1 whether to pick up a $1 million option on the coach's contract for 2005, and inaction would give Tice the freedom to pursue other jobs on Jan. 31.
McCombs has said repeatedly he'll deal with it after the season, but the Vikings' final regular-season game is the day after the deadline and their playoff fate probably won't be decided by then.
If Minnesota doesn't qualify for the postseason, it's hard to imagine Tice coming back. But McCombs reiterated his support this week.
''I've never owned a team that I've seen anybody anymore together than what all of the people are in place on this team at this time,'' McCombs said. ''Players, coaches, staff, all together.''
Yes, solace comes from solidarity - and from the standings. The Vikings still can take the NFC North - needing only to win their three remaining games, regardless of what the Packers do. Even just one more victory could get Minnesota a wild-card spot.
Indeed, three of the five defeats during this skid have come by a total of 10 points. Moss, a nonfactor for five games with a partially torn hamstring, is just about at full strength. Though the offense has just three second-half points over the last two games, quarterback Daunte Culpepper is enjoying a career season and he's got a very capable core of running backs.
And while the defense continues to self-destruct in the first half, the Vikings have given up a total of 26 post-halftime points in the last five weeks. Lance Johnstone and Kevin Williams have 10 sacks apiece, tied for fourth in the league.
No signs of quitting or locker-room dissension, either, as was sometimes the case during Green's tenure.
''The goals that we set for us back in training camp, back in minicamp, they're still there for us to reach,'' free safety Brian Russell said.
Achieving them will require a very unVikings-like finish.
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