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Vikings go belly-up, win a title and restore a soap opera

The Brett Favre soap opera is alive and fully restored today with a new and juicy variation: Who runs the team?

Brett Favre is sacked by a host of Carolina Panthers defenders during the Vikings loss to the Panthers Sunday.
REUTERS/Chris Keane
Brett Favre is sacked by a host of Carolina Panthers defenders during the Vikings loss to the Panthers Sunday.

The night of their coronation turned into a messy cartoon.

In the midst of their mind-scrambling 26-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte Sunday night, the Minnesota Vikings head coach and their celebrity quarterback argued on the sideline over the coach’s decision to remove him from the game.

Favre gets $12 million to quarterback the Vikings. He gets feature billing at all of the post-game press conferences. He wears Wrangler pants, Nike shoes and is openly adored by all of the Viking pass receivers plus the owners of the team and a few million Viking hornheads.

So when Brad Childress wanted to get him out of harm’s way in the middle of the game, or to try another way with Tarvaris Jackson running the offense, Favre defied the coach and ran back to the field to resume the night’s futility.

And so the Brett Favre soap opera is alive and fully restored today with a new and juicy variation:

Who runs the team?

Childress had a choice. He could have run after the hard-headed old gladiator and tackled him. But the way penalty flags were flying around the NFL Sunday, somebody in stripes was a cinch to dock the Vikings for putting too many men on the field..

The good news today is that the Vikings won the title of the NFC North when Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass on the final play to beat the Green Bay Packers Sunday. The bad news filled out the rest of the script. Its sequels will run every day of the week until the Vikings play the Bears in frozen Chicago next Monday night, and they probably won’t end there.

Damage control
The antidote for Childress will be damage control later today and he might want to bring in Jared Allen, one of team’s ranking comedians, to turn it into an office gag. But the episode will linger, and may go unresolved    

Childress’ style in talking publicly about player relationships is borrowed from the doctors’ Do No Harm mantra. He doesn’t confront those relationships head-on when talking to reporters. So he finessed the post-game questions about his sideline argument with Favre, but Favre, being Favre, wanted to make a point, with no apparent malice, when questioned by reporters after the game. He is Brett Favre, and nobody tells him when to leave the game, at least nobody with a mustache and bald head.

Favre does not cast himself as a rebel and is immensely popular with the team. “We were up 7-6,” he said. “It’s not 70-6. So I said I’m staying in the game. I’m playing. I don’t know if it was exactly to protect me, or we had seven points. I’m not sure. That’s his call. But we talked it out. We didn’t have time, I didn’t have time to sit there and say why or what. My response was we’ve got to win this ballgame and I want to stay in and do whatever I can. Unfortunately, I didn’t do that, but that was my intention…Being up 7-6 and being banged around a little bit…In no way would I consider coming out. I don’t even know if I would consider that being down 70-6.”

Considering the Vikings’ field performance Sunday, Favre was lucky to escape with his head. If the offense spluttered, their widely admired defense pancaked in the last 20 minutes. Among their improbable tormentors was a novice young quarterback, Matt Moore, an obscurity who might have been plucked off the waiver wire of the European Football League.

 If you want to put the shock of it all in historical perspective, picture the pillaging old Vikings venturing out on their longboats, steering for Newfoundland and winding up in the straits of Madagascar.

All of this makes sense only if you are prepared to accept that there is nothing especially normal about life in the increasingly irrational National Football League when it approaches the playoffs.

The Vikings lost to a Carolina team that had won only five games, whose veterans had been bickering over who was to blame and seemed ready to blow off the Viking game as another lost cause. And then suddenly they made a discovery. The Vikings didn’t seem all that interested in burying them. They also remembered what their old professionals, Julius Peppers and Steve Smith, had been telling them: This was a game they could win. And why not?

Nutty month
The National Football League has basically turned nutty in December. Last week’s reality was this: Dallas is folding, New Orleans is unbeatable, Brett Favre is the MVP. Those slam dunk certainties became this week’s fable. In fact, reality changes faster than that. By mid-afternoon Sunday the most widely acclaimed of the Sunday afternoon TV bobble head shows, the network analysts, were convinced that New Orleans is fading, Dallas has been rescued from its December swoons and the Minnesota Vikings not only will be the No. 2 seed in the conference but probably will topple New Orleans as the No. 1 seed.

By 11 o’clock Sunday night the Vikings were under serious scrutiny by all of oracles and by the usual gnashing and mourning among their fans when they lose a football game. Still, you can’t reasonably explain what happened last night in Charlotte. Carolina was alleged to be a running team, but their No. 1 runner, DeAngelo Williams, went out with an injury early. The provisional quarterback in the absence of injured Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore, looked like a choir boy and had about that much professional experience. They didn’t want to pass and they weren’t all that crazy about running against the defensive front of the Williams, Jared Allen and Ray Edwards.

But Adrian Peterson’s frustrations began early and he was ultimately marginalized as an offensive threat with 35 yards in 12 carries, prolonging his late season doldrums. And Favre’s struggles mounted with the gradual breakdown of left tackle Bryant McKinley in the face of Julius Peppers’ furious rushes that disorganized the Viking passing game. On one series, harassed by the Carolina rush, Favre threw one pass, underarm and left handed. While this was happening Peterson seemed strangely out of synch in the Viking offense again while Jonathan Stewart stepped in as the Panthers’ workhorse and ultimately became the first running back in three years to go over the 100 yards against the Vikings .

It got worse
This happened against the generally accepted best defensive front in the NFL. Carolina looked harmless enough early but found life with Moore hitting Smith, Jeff King and then Brad Hoover for a second-quarter touchdown. But they blew the extra point and the Vikings led 7-6 at the half after Peterson broke three tackles on the goal and scored from four yards out. Yet when they did the arithmetic after the first half it came to 66 total yards for the Viking offense, a figure that left at least one significant Viking, Brad Childress, stunned.

But it got worse when Carolina took over the game in the fourth quarter. It neutralized the Vikings’ pass-rushing energy basically by moving the pocket where Jared Allen wasn’t. Young Moore’s competence grew as the game deepened and Allen’s frustrations mounted. The discourse between Favre and his handlers on the Viking bench looked terse and untouched by a whole lot of mutual love and appreciation. And the Panthers went on the offensive in the fourth quarter, the young quarterback Moore got bolder and Stewart got stronger. With Smith creasing the Viking pass defense, the Panthers ran off 21 points in the fourth quarter while Peppers and his emboldened gang shut down the Vikings offense the rest of the way.

All of which means the Vikings now stand 11-3. They play in Chicago Monday and at home against the New York Giants Jan. 3. New Orleans, 13-1, plays Tampa Bay and the same Carolina. The Vikings now have to worry about being overtaken by Philadelphia (10-4) for the second seed in the NFC playoffs.

The good news is that Brett Favre will start in Chicago — and undoubtedly play as long as he wants.