Sat, Jan 08, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Minnesota senses doom

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , EDEN PRAIRIE, MINNESOTA

Vikings running back Michael Bennett, right, outruns Packers cornerback Al Harris on his way to the endzone on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Daunte Culpepper in Minneapolis on Dec. 24. Minnesota plays Green Bay in a wild-card game tomorrow.

PHOTO: AP

His boss picked up his US$1 million contract option for next year. His team fulfilled a goal by making the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Tice should have been in a cheery mood this week.

But the Vikings (8-8) backed into the playoffs after another late-season collapse, and Tice found himself trying to glue together the pieces of his team's shattered psyche -- as well as his own -- before Sunday's wild-card matchup with the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

"I think Monday, we were the only one of the playoff teams that wasn't happy. I really believe that," Tice said Wednesday. "I think I was the only head coach out of 12. There were 20 guys doing physicals with their teams and firing coordinators. They were not happy. There were 12 other guys, and 11 were happy. I was probably the only one not happy.

"Why? Because you want to win that last game and have a better taste in your mouth. We didn't have that good taste in your mouth."

For the second consecutive season the Vikings lost seven of their final 10 games to ruin any chance of unseating the Packers as NFC North champions. In last season's finale, they lost to the Arizona Cardinals, 18-17, on the final play of the game, which cost them a playoff berth. This season, thanks to the NFC's ineptitude, the Vikings sneaked into the post-season despite finishing with a 1-4 record, which included back-to-back losses to the Packers and Washington in the last two games. The only reason they beat the Lions was a botched snap on an extra-point attempt that would have sent the game into overtime.

With a pile of statistical evidence against them - the most damaging a 2-20 mark outdoors since 2000 - the Vikings invade Lambeau with the daunting task of trying to beat Brett Favre, the best big-game quarterback in the NFC.

"I'm not Knute Rockne; they know they're the underdogs," Tice said. "Probably half their wives don't think they can win."

Penalties? Breakdowns? Poor defense? Lately, the Vikings have been guilty of all three.

Last Sunday, offensive tackle Adam Goldberg committed a holding penalty that wiped out a 62-yard touchdown catch by Randy Moss. A wide-open Nate Burleson dropped a sure touchdown pass. And a false start by Moss, on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the second quarter, forced the Vikings to kick a field goal.

And with two seconds to play, the Vikings trailed by 21-18 and lined up for an onside kick, when Moss angered teammates by walking to the locker room. Center Matt Birk later confronted Moss with language unbecoming a Harvard graduate, and Birk and quarterback Daunte Culpepper both criticized Moss for giving up before the game was over.

Tice, who occasionally chest-bumps Moss after touchdowns, did not fine Moss, suggesting instead he make it up to his teammates with a big game against the Packers. In 13 games against Green Bay, Moss has seven 100-yard days and 12 touchdowns. "If he stays on the field for 60 minutes, we've got a chance," Tice said, smiling.

Even if Moss excels, the Vikings will be hard-pressed to win. The Packers have beaten the Vikings twice this season, both times by 34-31 on Ryan Longwell field goals in the final seconds. Fifteen times since the 1970 merger, division rivals met in the playoffs after one team swept both regular-season games; the sweeping team won 10. Green Bay is three-for-three, beating Detroit in 1993 and 1994 and Tampa Bay in 1997.

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