The transformation of the Minnesota Vikings in the adoring bedlam of the Metrodome Sunday was sudden, utter and virtually uncontested.
In one stroke with their 44-7 victory over the collapsing New York Giants the Vikings shook up the handicap sheets for the National Football League playoffs and restored them as a serious contender for the Super Bowl.
Today for the Vikings, peace and redemption reign. For a bonus, add days of rest. It means the second seed and a first round bye in the NFC playoffs that begin this weekend with the Dallas Cowboys playing the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals against the Green Bay Packers. In both cases the games will be a re-do of Sunday’s match-ups in which Dallas defeated Philadelphia decisively to lift the Vikings into the No. 2 seed behind New Orleans, and Green Bay pounded an Arizona team playing most of the game with reserves to avoid injuries to their big playmakers.
What does all of this portend for the Vikings? The results of the Green Bay-Arizona and Dallas-Philadelephia games will decide the Viking and New Orleans opponents the weekend of Jan. 16 and 17.
For television viewers who enjoy small agonies, and because Dallas, Arizona, Green Bay and Philadelphia are seeded in that order behind New Orleans and the Vikings, it translates this way: A Dallas win over Philadelphia means the Vikings will play Dallas two weeks from now. If Philadelphia wins, the Vikings will face the winner of the Arizona-Green Bay game. Of this bunch, Dallas is the hottest today and probably a more worrisome match for the Vikings.
But how about the possibility of the Vikings playing the Packers? Again. For the third time this season and in the Metrodome, where thousands of outnumbered Cheese Heads would mingle boisterously with tens of thousands of boisterous Horn Heads?
It’s probably worth a wish. What’s unarguable is the site of that Viking game two weeks from now. It will be back in the high-decibel madhouse of the Metrodome, where the Vikings have won all of their eight games since the arrival of Brett Favre on a declared mission to win the Super Bowl.
So nobody in purple was fretting today after the Vikings’ resurgence against the Giants. The makeover was dramatic. The Vikings had spent a bumbling December playing like imposters. In it they lost three games on the road and appeared in serious need of clinical intervention to keep their coach and quarterback on speaking terms and their star running back from wondering if he was still part of the offense.
But right now Brett Favre and his team are closer to that Super Bowl grail than either his admirers or the skeptics of last summer would have imagined. His four touchdown passes and 316 yards made it nine times in his career in which he has recorded 30 touchdowns or more and six times when he passed for more than 4,000 yards in a season. All of this he did with only seven interceptions., a master performance by any quarterback, let alone by a 40-year-old man who just a few weeks ago was the object of serious doubt about his recuperative powers in the bleak mid-winter days of pro football.
Warm and sunny inside
The Metrodome ignores bleak winter days. There the conditions on football days are mostly balmy and wind free, and predictably nutty for the locals. But even in frosty Chicago last week Favre brought the team back within a wisp of victory, and Sunday he was nearly flawless, throwing two touchdown passes to Sidney Rice, one to Visanthe Shiancoe and a fourth to the rarely chosen fullback, Naufahu Tahi. Together with Adrian Peterson’s 54 yards that included a touchdown, and the Vikings’ game-long domination on the line of scrimmage, it produced a final Viking score sheet of 12 wins and 4 losses for the regular season, the best for a Viking team in more than 10 years.
But the news from Dallas, which buried Philadelphia’s hope of dislodging the Vikings as the No. 2 seed, crowned a day. It began with the Vikings’ mauling of a Giant team that had opened the season with five straight victories and suddenly degenerated into disorder. From the beginning Sunday the Giants looked like a team lost, dispirited and clueless, despite the presence of holdovers from the Giants’ Super Bowl champions of two years ago, led by Eli Manning. They tried for a while but were outmanned and wilted quickly when the Viking lead began to mount.
The Viking focus since the debacles of Chicago, Carolina and Arizona had been to re-establish the swashbuckling command that had carried them through most of the season. Its keynotes became an aggressive defense, a diversified attack and Favre being Favre. They needed to make a statement across the board to reinforce who they were, Coach Brad Childress told them last week, on offense, defense and special teams.
Afterwards, as part of his often introspective post-game news conference, Favre addressed that commitment and identified his personal lodestar in his quirky decision to come out of retirement a second time to play for the Vikings.
“The only reason I came back was to get to Miami, [the scene of this year’s Super Bowl]. That’s my main goal and my only goal. I can only do what I can do, and hope that it’s good enough. I’m very pleased with where we are right now….If we can win more, it sure would make it a lot sweeter…What we did was exactly what we needed today… It doesn’t guarantee anything ahead, but it’s proof that we can play that way. We stuck with what we knew would work. We made a lot of plays, but we also got back to basics.”
One popular story line among the tea leaf analysts who have charted the Vikings peculiar behavior of December runs something like this: The Vikings entered the season with the established running star, Adrian Peterson. With Favre new to the team, assimilating the offense, and dealing with the attrition of 19 years in pro football, the Vikings looked on him early as a complement to the running game. Opponents still stacked their defenses to stop Peterson, and his running totals dwindled. But Favre revealed few signs of any erosion of his skills, and his passing game soon became the dominant force in the Viking offense. This recognition was late in coming to the Viking coaching staff, it was argued, and like Aries, the Vikings kept battering heads against walls and it became a struggle before they found their true offensive identity — which is the Favre passing game that dominated again Sunday.
A simpler explanation is that the Minnesota Vikings, like most teams in the NFL, don’t play consistently well on the road. But like kids in a sandbox the Vikings thrive in their familiar soundbox of the Metrodome. They know that the rolling thunder of the Metrodome when the visiting team is on offense makes the Viking stadium one of the horrors of life in the NFL for those unfortunates.
The significance of Sunday is that with their victory over the Giants, the Vikings don’t have to play anywhere next week, by which time the field in the NFC playoff divisions will be reduced from six to four. And they will then make their first appearance in the playoffs at the Metrodome. If they win there they will play either in the dome in New Orleans or, if the top-seeded New Orleans loses its first game, the Vikings will be back in the Metrodome in the division finals for the right to represent the National Football Conference in the Super Bowl in Miami.
Is that some kind of moonbeam in the sky? Hardly. The National Football League is full of identity mysteries. Four weeks ago:
New Orleans with its Drew Brees’ aerial carnival looked unbeatable, especially in New Orleans. Since then it has lost two games there, and another at Carolina Sunday, with reserves playing most of the game for New Orleans. Still that’s a three-game losing streak. Philadelphia, the presumed No. 2 seed just two days ago, looked wretched in losing to Dallas. The Cowboys, needing therapy of their own a month ago, now look like a bona fide Super Bowl contender. In the American Football Conference, Indianapolis, unbeaten two weeks ago, has been protecting its stars but now is worried about regaining the finesse of its passing game, and streaking San Diego is suddenly a menace.
But in Minneapolis Sunday, early in the game, Brett Favre saw Sidney Rice breaking off his short slanting pattern and bolt down field. Favre shifted out of the pocket and threw ad lib, arching a pass deep. Rice leaped and pulled the ball away from the safety. It went for 50 yards. Almost nobody does it like Favre, age 40, and few like Rice. It’s called making a play, and it may have been prophetic.