- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- On this first day of December, snow falls lightly on the Vikings' facility known as Winter Park.
Inside, it's about 50 degrees warmer. In the lobby, the receptionist unpacks the amber glass ornaments, preparing to dress the Christmas tree. In the field house, Mewelde Moore, Troy Williamson and Koren Robinson laugh and joke as they take turns gathering in those high, deep kicks that seem to scrape the ceiling. The tone of Thursday's practice is spirited, to say the least.
In the former racquetball court that now serves as the media room named for Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman, coach Mike Tice addresses reporters in a manner that approaches, for a former tight end, jolly. He offers an encouraging update on injured quarterback Daunte Culpepper, then moves to his team.
"They were very focused yesterday," Tice says. "They understand what is at stake this week."
That anything is at stake for these Minnesota Vikings -- outside of their position at the top of the 2006 NFL draft -- is remarkable.
Six weeks ago, they had been left for dead with a record of 1-4. The team was awash in controversy in the wake of a cruise that allegedly featured lewd behavior by some Vikings players. Owner Zygmunt Wilf was out working damage control, speaking to civic groups, and Tice was feeling the heat.
A month ago, Culpepper suffered a season-ending knee injury at Carolina and the 2-5 Vikings -- already without center Matt Birk -- seemed quite out of it.
Well, somehow, today they're back in.
The Vikings have won four consecutive games and, at 6-5, have thrust themselves back into the playoff race. Modest wins over four modest teams -- the Lions, Giants, Packers and Browns -- leave them two games behind the 8-3 Chicago Bears in the NFC North and just one game out of the wild-card race.
Considering the teams' respective schedules over the next four weeks (Bears: vs. Packers, at Steelers, vs. Falcons, at Packers; Vikings: at Lions, vs. Rams, vs. Steelers, at Ravens), it is not unreasonable to think the Jan. 1 Bears-Vikings game at the Metrodome on the final day of the season could have playoff implications.
There have been many factors in the dramatic turnaround. The defense has played better, forcing 15 turnovers in those four games. Special teams have been more productive. The running game is coming around. But more than anything, Brad Johnson has had a calming influence -- a soothing presence offensive coordinator Steve Loney likens to a father comforting a distressed child during a thunderstorm.
For some reason, this surprises people.
Here are the top three active quarterbacks with more than 100 games played, ranked by winning percentage: Favre (137-79, .634), Manning (77-46, .623) and Johnson (62-41, .602).
Johnson won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has been voted to two Pro Bowls. Yet the Minnesota newspapers still damn him with faint praise as "efficient" and "reliable." One local columnist (who shall remain nameless) went so far as to opine that the Vikings traded in a Porsche for a Volkswagen when Culpepper was injured.
Maybe this is why Johnson was a tad defensive when the subject of comparison came up Thursday.
"I think it's unfair to compare Daunte and myself," Johnson said. "We're two different quarterbacks. I've proved myself with other teams. And my 14 years. Winning a Super Bowl. Both of us can win in our own way.
"My goal is to give our team a chance to win every week, and for the most part over the years, it's been true."
Johnson's touchdown, fumble and sack statistics are similar to Culpepper's, but one number stands out. In four starts, Johnson has thrown only two interceptions. In Culpepper's seven starts, he threw 12. Scouts say the loss of Moss and Birk seemed to have forced Culpepper into an old habit: trying to do too much.
Johnson likes to use baseball analogies when describing his style. He is not a Randy Johnson firing 98-mph fastballs but more of a Greg Maddux painting the corners with a vast variety of speeds and angles.
"Some chicks dig the long ball," Johnson said, echoing a memorable advertising campaign that featured MLB players. "My wife digs winning at night."
All Johnson does is manage the game.
In Sunday's game against the Browns, he was a tidy 19-for-28 for 208 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. When the defense presented him the ball three times, at the Browns' 35-, 17- and 32-yard lines, Johnson finished the job with three touchdown passes to Marcus Robinson.
Johnson is among the NFL's leaders in touchdown passes since 1996, when he made his first impression with the Vikings. If you examine his touchdowns-per-game number, it compares favorably with the best: Manning (1.93), Favre (1.85), Drew Bledsoe (1.32), Johnson (1.28), Mark Brunell (1.19), Kerry Collins (1.16) and Steve McNair (1.15).
That Johnson returned to the Vikings during the offseason was fortuitous. He started only four games for the Bucs in 2004 and was looking for a starting job. When Gus Frerotte, Culpepper's backup a year ago, went to Washington, there was an opening.
"He was sought after by many teams," Tice explained Thursday. "Fortunately for us, no one was able to step up and tell him that he was the starter, which gave us a window, and we recruited the heck out of him."
Johnson, who did not start a game in his first four seasons with the Vikings, always has been a late bloomer. He missed 19 starts from the time he lost his job to Brian Griese in Tampa Bay to Culpepper's injury. He was ready when the opportunity came.
When Johnson finally emerged as the starter in Minnesota in 1996, he guided the Vikings to the playoffs. When he took over in Washington three seasons later, it happened again. In 2001, his first year with the Bucs, Johnson led his third team to the playoffs in his first year as a starter.
Does he have a fourth in him?
"I hope so," Johnson said, smiling. "We'll find out."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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