- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Left tackle Bryant McKinnie showed up at practice two weeks ago with his afro in full bloom and prompted an idea in a Vikings team in need of solidarity.
Randy Moss walked by him and suggested McKinnie wear that style to Sunday's playoff game against the Packers. The word spread through the locker room as it did a year ago when the Vikings beat the Chiefs in a game in which the afros came out. They didn't do it for the season-finale loss to the Redskins. Instead, they saved their best hair day for the playoffs.
Even short-haired center Matt Birk joked that he teased the top of his crew cut with a pick Saturday night. By letting their hair down, the Vikings laughed their way through another week of Moss controversies, uncertainty surrounding Mike Tice's coaching future and character questions about their team. They whipped the Packers at Lambeau Stadium, 31-17, and played with all of the looseness of a team enjoying an exhibition game.
"Everybody was saying wear you hair out," McKinnie said. "It was just for everybody to let their hair down, stop playing tight and just go out there and have a good time. That's just what everybody did."
Playing loose, the Vikings reversed weeks of being their own worst enemies on the field. Last week's embarrassing 21-18 loss to the Redskins was the worst. They trailed 14-3 to a team out of the playoffs with nothing to gain.
Tice went back to the more physical practices of training camp. There was hitting. There was intensity. There was urgency. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper came out throwing and was on fire. He hit Moss on a quick 7-yard gain on the Vikings' second play. On the next play, he scrambled to his left, spotted Moe Williams wide open in the flat and lobbed a pass to him. Williams did the rest and went 68 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.
On the next possession, Culpepper hit Moss for a 20-yard touchdown in the end zone. Brett Favre threw his first of four interceptions and the Vikings followed with a Morten Andersen field goal and a 17-0 lead nine minutes into the game.
"This was the first time since the opener with Dallas that we carried over a week of preparation into a game," Tice said. "Guys took their preparations seriously and had enthusiasm. For a week, they blocked out distractions others tried to create for us."
No playoff team had as much going on as the Vikings. Moss created headlines when he walked off the field in the final seconds of the loss to the Redskins, giving a signal he was giving up on his teammates. In national interviews during the week, Moss made matters worse. He said he "had the back" of Tice as a coach, but he added that he wasn't sure Tice was the right coach for the team. And then there was the ongoing uncertainty about Tice, whose contract was exercised for 2005 at $1 million, but the 8-8 record still had critics wondering.
After the game, Tice sounded embittered by the turmoil. Things got so bad for him that Moss had to call the head coach's radio show to explain to Vikings fans he was a Tice supporter. He had to apologize to his teammates for some remarks. As satisfying as it was to win his first playoff game as a coach, Tice sounded perturbed.
"The whole damn season has been challenging," Tice said. "It hasn't been a whole hell of a lot of fun. I can tell you that much. But today is fun. I'm going to enjoy it. It hasn't been a whole lot of fun. But you know what, that's what makes it satisfying when you have a moment like this. I'm going to cherish the hell of out of this."
The controversies and challenges aren't going to go away, though. Moss beat Al Harris for a second touchdown, and his celebration might draw some letter from the NFL office. Moss moved to the goalpost and faked as though he was going to moon the Packers fans. He faked pulling down his pants. The pants stayed up, but the controversy raged on.
Afterward, Tice and Culpepper didn't care. They savored a moment that had been missing since that season-opening blowout of the Cowboys. This was the Vikings team they had expected. Culpepper was exceptionally sharp, completing 19 of 29 passes for 284 yards and four touchdowns. The offensive line, while it may not have been as solid in run blocking, gave Culpepper plenty of time to throw the ball.
Particularly surprising was the play of the defense, a target for criticism all season. Tice let defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell be more aggressive. Linebacker Chris Claiborne harassed Favre all game with blitzes.
"I think we just wanted to get after him," Claiborne said. "When you come with the mentality that you are going to take the game to somebody else and not allow them to dictate the pace, it usually works out best for you. I think he was throwing off his back foot. A lot of the balls started to go. He threw off his heel. Usually he's rocking. The ball was sprayed a little bit and we went out and made catches."
Favre throwing off his back foot is nothing new. But from the sounds of his post-game conference, the old subject of retirement is starting to creep into his head. The Vikings frustrated Favre in what was a battle of attrition because of injuries and the elements. The temperature in Lambeau was 26 degrees. The wind-chill was 21. Favre was even colder than the conditions. He was 22 of 33 for 216 yards, but his quarterback rating was 55.4 because of two sacks and four interceptions.
Mistakes frustrated him. Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport combined for three fumbles although none were lost. Javon Walker suffered a shin injury in the second quarter and missed all but a few plays the rest of the game. Left tackle Chad Clifton suffered an ankle injury early in the second half and was lost for the game. Davenport played with a bad shoulder. Robert Ferguson didn't dress, so suddenly, all Favre was left with was Donald Driver running short comeback routes and inexperienced wide receivers such as Antonio Chatman and Andrae Thurman.
After losing two last-second games to the Packers, the Vikings dominated Sunday in Lambeau, their second win in this stadium in as many years, but clearly their most significant. They outgained the Packers, 384-306. Culpepper topped Favre four touchdowns to one and didn't throw an interception.
"This win was huge," Culpepper said. "Not only is this our biggest rival but it was a playoff game, a game pretty much everybody said that we couldn't do it. We just pulled together. We never bought into the negativity and it just showed us what we can do. I'm glad we did it because it showed us as a group what we can do when we pull together."
The Vikings let the hair down Sunday. Now, they plan to make things hairy for the Eagles next Sunday.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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