The warning flags for the Minnesota Vikings are still rattling in the wind today.
The storm alerts were spectacularly public over the weekend in advance of the Vikings playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday and were available on every television screen in the country. They practically screamed: “Be Ready, Early.”
The New England Patriots, playing at home and favored over the Baltimore Ravens, gave up a long touchdown run before the first commercial, played the rest of the game in a trance and lost miserably. The Green Bay Packers, favored over the Arizona Cardinals, fell 21 points behind in the first half, and lost in an other-worldly, 51-45 overtime game. A day earlier, playing at home and favored, the Cincinnati Bengals fell behind early, became a bungling embarrassment as the game wore on and lost to the New York Jets.
On the other hand you had Dallas, full of muscle and steam, prodded by Tony Romo’s arm, the running of Felix Jones and the din of more than 90,000 delirious Texans, establishing early and total domination over the Philadelphia Eagles.
The head coach of the Minnesota Vikings — slightly favored to beat Dallas at the Metrodome Sunday — acknowledged the Cowboys’ sudden late-season metamorphosis into one of the NFL elites, playing with mounting confidence.
“They have Romo who has matured into one of the best NFL quarterbacks;” Brad Childress said, “big guys on the line, receivers like [Miles] Austin, Jason Witten, [Roy] Williams, [John] Philips, a great pass rusher in DeMarcus Ware…guys like that.”
“We have a good and sound football team with leaders. I told our guys that from the beginning: It comes down to being ready. Winning means your good guys have to make good plays. Your great players have to make great plays.”
It was an open invitation to Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Steve Hutchinson, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Percy Harvin and the rest of the cast. “In the playoffs you’re also talking about intensity. There’s one kind of intensity during the regular season. There’s another, at an even higher level of pressure, in the playoffs.”
Meaning this is elimination football. Coaches will tell you it means every player preparing mentally by his own prods and control vibes that harness his professionalism and his nerves. When they have absorbed all of the tutorials, the game plan gobbledygook, the practice field run-throughs, the repetitions, the film sessions and the predictable jitters in the locker room before the game, a few of them simply step into the john and throw up. Before the game one of the veterans leads a yell and builds the adrenalin. They’re together. The crowd is ignited, but just before the kickoff they can also be very alone. And then they bolt downfield and the brawl is on.
Childress on Harvin and Favre
All of it is part of the intensity Childress talks about.
“I feel good where we are. I knew we had a good team going in. We were solid at most positions. And then Brett Favre joined the team, and Percy Harvin as a rookie. I remember spending time with Percy at his home before the draft. There was some question about character, a marijuana thing before the combine in the spring where you evaluate players. We talked about his hopes for a career and personal things. I liked his family. Grandma sat there while we talked. I said I thought Percy had a lot of good things going for him, but he probably was a little moody. I looked at her and she smiled and pursed her lips and nodded, ‘Yes.’ I said I could tell that because I was pretty moody myself. And so we took him on the first round. And now Percy has given a lot, as a receiver, a runner, a fearless guy, a kick return guy who is feared around the league. A rookie of the year in spite of the migraine issue, and we’re so much better because we took a chance with him.
“And Brett has brought more than anybody had a right to expect, on the field, in the locker room. The guys like him and admire him, a fun guy and practical joker when he wants to be, swatting guys on the rear end when they go by, joking with Jared [Allen] and Chester [Taylor], creating great rapport with our receivers like Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe, Bernard Berrian, Percy, and showing so much respect for Adrian Peterson. Very much a leader. When we signed him I couldn’t have imagined that a quarterback 40 years old, even a Brett Favre, would have the kind of season he’s had and put up those great numbers. Nobody could have predicted it. And we’ve had first-rate performance across the board — offense, defense, and special teams. Special teams — a big plus from a year ago.”
About those big explosive numbers in the passing game: “It comes to a matter of trust. Brett builds trust with his receivers. You take guys like Sidney and Visanthe. They may be covered, but he’ll throw it out there because he knows those guys will go up there and get it.”
But the obvious question: Is there any lurking residue from that exhaustively psychoanalyzed spat between Childress and Brett Favre? A struggle for power? A candidate schism? “Hey, listen, I told Jon Gruden and Jaws Jaworski [ESPN broadcasters] when they covered one of our games. I said, ‘Jon you said a lot worse to your quarterbacks when you coached, and Jaws, you said a whole lot worse to Dick Vermeil when you played for the Eagles.'”
If Childress felt offended a few months ago when the media folks polled the public on whether he deserved the contract extension he received from the Vikings, he doesn’t haul it around with him. His record in successive years is six wins and 10 losses, then 8-8, 10-6 and 12-4 plus two division titles. It’s a progression that seems to end the debate but, of course, doesn’t. What do you do in the playoffs? It’s life in big time, nobody’s-safe football, and the Vikings-Cowboys on Sunday make it ever bigger.
Jerry Jones and Wilf brothers
The subplots leap out of the history books, the locker rooms and the pages of Forbes Magazine. Here are the Cowboys, representing the highest value sports franchise in America, and second worldwide only to Manchester United of international soccer, facing the lowest value franchise in the NFL, a difference of about $700 million.
Here is the Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, the league’s MVO (Most Voluble Oligarch), matched against the Vikings’ Wilf brothers, who are the essence of modesty at a net worth somewhere in the range of a billion or two, which is a nice range for humility. Their teams, now two games away from the Super Bowl, are matched Sunday in a venue (the Metrodome) that compares with Jones’ new Cowboy Stadium in the same way that the St. Paul Cathedral compares with the old Coney Island Café.
But finally and more significantly it matches the pass-rushing assaults of DeMarcus Ware against the Vikings’ Bryant McKinnie; the Vikings’ own pass-rushing terror, Jared Allen, against the Cowboys’ veteran on the offensive line, Flozell Adams, the running furies of Adrian Peterson against the Cowboys’ new sensation, Felix Jones, plus the former Gopher Marion Barber. And at the head of the casts, Favre against Romo: Favre the game’s living immortal, Romo the gossip sheets’ cover boy who idolized Favre when he was a kid and who this year has discovered himself and become the leader of his team.
In the wings Sunday are the still lively ghosts of a Viking-Dallas playoff game 35 years ago at the old Met Stadium. Then a wide receiver named Drew Pearson caught a disputed touchdown pass from the Cowboys’ Roger Staubach in the final 24 seconds to beat what may have been the best Viking team of them all and knock them out of the Super Bowl.
The kickoff Sunday is at high noon. The ratings should go through the roof.