Vikings need consistent ground game

Nearly an hour after his team's last-play loss to the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Eve, a game in which the perennially underachieving Minnesota Vikings surrendered 10 points in the final 3:34, Mike Tice was still hanging around the locker room talking about a defeat that "rips your heart out." His hands were trembling and his face ashen.

Despite all that, the Vikings are still likely to qualify for a postseason berth in the blighted NFC, and owner Red McCombs has already excercised the $1 million option on Tice's contract with the Jan. 1 deadline to do so looming. Exiting the Metrodome on Friday night, into temperatures below zero, one couldn't help but wonder if Tice even wants to return and if the $1 million salary is worth the trouble.

If he does come back for the '05 season, however, these two suggestions for the Vikings head coach: First, find yourself a shrink. Second, find yourself a tailback to stick with for more than a week or two.

The Vikings have an admirable depth chart at the position, with backs any team would love to have, but that hardly guarantees Minnesota will advance deep into the playoffs. Only a year ago, this was a team that loved to power the ball inside against defenses, that took advantage of one of the biggest offensive lines in the league. This season, though, there just seems to be something missing from the Minnesota ground game, and that absent ingredient is consistency.

Even excluding quarterback Daunte Culpepper, the NFL's second-most dangerous running quarterback, the Vikings have four players with more than 150 rushing yards. But they don't have any back with more than 539 yards. One week, Onterrio Smith is the starter. Another week, it's Mewelde Moore. The last two games, it has been Michael Bennett. And there is always the reliable Moe Williams for short-yardage chores.

Certainly, the Vikings have some justifiable alibis for the tailback roulette approach, like Smith's four-game suspension for a repeat violation of the NFL substance abuse policy, and Bennett's injuries. But there just doesn't seem to be the commitment to the run that there was in the past. Coordinator Scott Linehan had a pretty simple philosophy in 2003: If the opposition put eight defenders "in the box," he threw. When the other team backed off, and played soft upfront, the Vikings ran. But there is a flawed infatuation now with the passing game, as if Minnesota believes that is the only way it can challenge for a Super Bowl berth, and it has backfired a bit.

Even on Friday, when the Vikings pounded out 131 rushing yards against Green Bay, there was this spasmodic feel to the running game. Statistically, the Vikings rank 15th in rushing offense, but average 4.8 yards per carry, the second-best mark in the league. But they have thrown the ball on 59.8 percent of their snaps and, while Culpepper is in the midst of a career season, a bit more balance might serve them well.

That won't come, we're guessing, until the Vikings decide on one primary back and allow him enough carries to get into a flow. Depth is a fleeting commodity anymore in the NFL, at any position, but it may be a detriment for the Vikings running game right now.

Pennington comes up short
In a three-day stretch that began on Christmas Eve and concluded Sunday, I saw a pair of 34-31 games (the Packers over the Vikings and Indianapolis topping San Diego in overtime), and witnessed two of the best two-minute quarterbacks in history. Brett Favre was sensational in rallying the Packers in the final four minutes of a game in which Green Bay secured its third straight division title. Peyton Manning overcame an uncharacteristic stretch of inaccuracy, and an aggressive Chargers defense, in a stirring victory that gave the Colts the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoff bracket.

It was a privilege to watch the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks operate at such peak efficiency. And, yes, we employ the term privilege here as an excuse to turn our attention to New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington.

You'll recall, of course, that in his ill-advised and poorly-executed recent diatribe against the media, Pennington noted it is a privilege to cover the team. It was, of course, his reaction to suggestions that he did not play big in the big games. Well, Sunday presented Pennington and the New York offense yet another opportunity to silence their detractors. In case you missed it, the Jets scored one time in a 23-7 loss to the rebounding New England Patriots, and Pennington threw a couple of interceptions.

Not all the focus, of course, should fall on the brainy and accommodating quarterback. Tailback Curtis Martin, for instance, registered just 33 yards on 13 carries, with a long gain of five yards. No receiver had more than four catches or 51 yards. The offensive line didn't play especially well. But it was Pennington who begged for the spotlight and, under its heat, he once again failed to deliver in what could be construed as a "statement" game.

Pennington is a wonderful quarterback, a guy who compensates for a lack of raw arm strength with uncanny timing and accuracy. Some of the criticism that his numbers don't measure up against good teams is a tad unfair, as we will show here, but the only number that's supposed to matter for a quarterback is winning percentage. And against good teams, Pennington has come up short.

Over the last three seasons, he has started 15 games each against teams that had winning records at the time of the game and
teams that were on the negative side of the ledger. Versus winning teams, Pennington has completed 299 of 443 passes for 3,424 yards, with 24 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 95.2. Against losing teams, the numbers are eerily similar, with 289 completions in 436 attempts, for 3,182 yards, 20 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, for a passer rating of 95.6.

But, ah, here's the difference. Versus losing teams, Pennington is 10-5 as a starter. Against winning teams, he is just 8-7, including Sunday's lopsided loss. In fact, against teams with winning records, Pennington has lost three of his last four outings. We're not exactly sure what all the numbers-crunching (executed in the wee small hours of Monday morning) really means. But this much seems clear: It will be a lot bigger privilege to watch Pennington, and his words will ring a lot truer, when he can claim a few more big-game victories.

Not much talk now
Is there anything better than watching, even on a television monitor, the insufferable Brian Billick on the sideline during a game in which his tough-guy Baltimore Ravens are being whipped like the big-mouthed bully who couldn't back up his words with his muscle? OK, so maybe there are a few things better, but not many.

The Ravens, especially on defense, like to pretend that every snap is a back-alley battle between the Crips and the Bloods. Nice approach until they turned into the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight on offense and a defense that can't stop the run when the opposition muscles the ball inside on them. That's what the Pittsburgh Steelers did again on Sunday, imposing their will on the Baltimore front seven, and demonstrating that, while it might be viewed as sacrilegious in the Inner Harbor, middle linebacker Ray Lewis had, indeed, lost a critical half-step to the ball.

Time after time the Steelers battered the Ravens with either Jerome Bettis (27 rushes, 117 yards) or Verron Haynes (eight carries for 61 yards), and the Ravens were seemingly helpless.

Offensively, the allegedly improved Kyle Boller didn't get it done in the passing game and Jamal Lewis eked out a measly 26 yards on 14 carries. Take away one 11-yard run and he averaged a whopping 1.15 yards per attempt.

The Ravens, for the year, finished 3-5 on the road and totaled just eight touchdowns in those games. It was supposed to have been a war of attrition at Heinz Field on Sunday, a toe-to-toe slug-out between despised foes, but the Steelers pretty much turned the fight into a TKO. And turned Billick, even with his well-polished vocabulary, into a guy who had few words to explain what has become of a trash-talking bunch that used to be able to back up its rhetoric with deeds.

In the days preceding the game, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs suggested the Ravens were "like kryptonite" to the Steelers. In just his second season, maybe Suggs has already been hanging around big-talking teammates too long.

Snake has some bite
We've ripped him enough so, when Denver Broncos quarterback Jake "The Finger" Plummer has an outstanding performance, as he did at Tennessee on Christmas night, we figured it was time to show him a little love.

Coming off a three-game stretch in which he had just one touchdown pass but eight interceptions, Plummer was terrific versus the battered Titans defense, completing 21 of 26 for 303 yards, with two touchdown passes and just one interception. It was, to say the least, a superb performance for a Broncos team in peril of plummeting out of the AFC wild-card race.

Plummer played under control, got nice production in the running game from Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell, and put the Broncos in position now to secure a postseason berth with a victory at home next Sunday against an Indianapolis team expected to play its starters only sparingly. It was the kind of game from Plummer that coach Mike Shanahan has envisioned as commonplace, but which has been far too rare over the last two seasons.

It didn't hurt, either, that the Broncos got terrific defensive performances from end Reggie Hayward (four tackles and three sacks) and first-round linebacker D.J. Williams (10 tackles and an interception).

Denver, and more particularly Plummer, remain too inconsistent to expect much noise from them in the playoffs. But in what has been a serpentine season, "The Snake" demonstrated he might have enough venom to make the Broncos an interesting dark horse choice, provided they don't choke next weekend.

Swimming with fish
Miami owner Wayne Huizenga had better hope Nick Saban spent Sunday night deep into preparations for LSU's bowl appearance, and not in front of a television watching the travesty foisted upon a national audience. 'Cause if Saban was watching the Dolphins, he might pull a Rick Majerus and renege on his agreement to come to South Florida in an attempt to get The Fish swimming the right way again.

About the only redeeming grace in a game that only train-wreck rubberneckers could have appreciated was that good-guy interim sideline boss Jim Bates evened his head coaching record at 3-3. No small feat there, given the records of in-season "replacement" coaches (a winning percentage of under .333) since 1970. In fact, the NFL should have dubbed it the Interim Bowl, since Cleveland was also operating with a replacement, Terry Robiskie, on the sideline. That is not to be confused with the Lame Duck Bowl, aka the Fiesta Bowl, in which outgoing coaches Walt Harris of the University of Pittsburgh and Urban Meyer of Utah will try to focus before bolting for Stanford and Florida, respectively.

There is little doubt that, if Saban decides to honor his commitment to Huizenga, the first order of business in making the Dolphins at least semi-competitive in 2005 is finding a quarterback. If he was tuned in Sunday night, perhaps watching the game with his hands mostly over his face, Saban found out that guy isn't A.J. Feeley.

The Minister of Defense
A couple thoughts on the wonderful Reggie White, who passed away in his sleep on Sunday morning, at the far too young age of 43 years: During his 1993 free agency tour, most people forget that White came through Atlanta on his fact-finding trek. At that time, yours truly was covering the Falcons for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the arrival of White at the club's complex was like a visit from a rock star. Make that a well-grounded rock star. Terrific, accommodating, introspective guy. The Falcons, not all that surprisingly, didn't have much chance of landing White but he treated team officials with respect and dignity, when he could well have been dismissive.

From a football standpoint, one angle I think people missed on Sunday night as they spoke about his talents on the field, was how disruptive and destructive White was when defensive coordinators moved him down inside to tackle on some passing downs. White is recalled, correctly so, as being a great pass-rushing force from the outside. But a great many of his sacks came when he was at tackle, where he could use his speed and trademark "hump" move to get inside of overmatched guards.

As a Pittsburgh native, I possess a bias toward Joe Greene as the best defensive lineman I've ever seen. Truth be told, as far as the complete package and the ability to author game-altering plays, Reggie White was probably peerless.

In the Oakland loss at Kansas City on Christmas evening, Raiders quarterback Kerry Collins completed passes to at least eight different receivers for the 10th week in a row. ... It barely registered on the radar screen, but Indianapolis suffered a pretty big loss on Sunday when "nickel" linebacker Jim Nelson sustained a fractured clavicle. Nelson is a terrific cover player on third down, logs plenty of snaps, and will be very difficult for the Colts to replace. ... The resurgent Muhsin Muhammad, who is making himself a lot of money in next spring's free agent market, now has six 100-yard games in his last 13. In that stretch, the Carolina wide receiver has averaged 6.2 catches, 93.7 yards and one touchdown. Over the last nine games, Muhammad has been held under six catches and under 95 yards only once. ... Seattle left offensive tackle Walter Jones exited Sunday's game with a leg injury of undetermined severity, but not without going a 15th straight outing without surrendering a sack. Jones hasn't been in training camp on time in any of the last three seasons. So much for needing all that practice time, huh? ... Houston tailback Domanick Davis, who has been superb in recent weeks, posted a career-best 150 yards in Sunday's upset victory at Jacksonville. ... Dallas has now defeated Washington four straight times and in 14 of the last 15 meetings. The rivalry has never had such a dominant streak by one franchise. ... For the first time since 1992, Cincinnati sold out all of its home games. ... New Orleans has changed its coverages a bit and is getting nice play from cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Fakhir Brown. McKenzie now has at least one interception in five of his last six games, and in three straight contests. ... Seattle has qualified for consecutive playoff berths for the first time since 1983-84. ... Lost amid the strong showing of AFC quarterbacks this year is that Trent Green of Kansas City now has seven 300-yard games and is enjoying a career-type season.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.