- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
If you're looking for a dark horse in the NFL playoffs, look no further than the team that can light it up with the best of them, maybe better than anyone in the league with the exception of Indianapolis.
Speaking of horses, if Minnesota was a thoroughbred, even the riskiest of gamblers would be reluctant to wager on the Vikings in what is now a three-game race. The Vikings stumbled down the home stretch, losing their last two games, four of five, and seven of 10 after a 5-1 start. They lost at Washington on Sunday, 21-18, to finish 8-8 but still claimed the NFC's sixth seed because New Orleans won at Carolina by the same score.
Minnesota fades every year. The Vikings are said to lack heart. But they have the talent on offense to break some poor team's heart. There is not a more frustrating team in football.
"This team's going to drive me crazy," head coach Mike Tice said after Sunday's loss.
The Vikings can also drive defensive coordinators crazy, which is why they're capable of pulling of an upset or two in the playoffs. The way they're playing, they don't deserve to still be playing. Yet they could end up ruining someone else's season.
The Vikings open the playoffs Sunday at NFC North rival Green Bay, to whom they lost twice this season, both defeats by a score of 34-31, and both on game-ending field goals by Ryan Longwell. Should the Vikings advance, they would get a rematch with the top-seeded Eagles, whom they played tough in a Week 2 loss in Philadelphia. And the Eagles, who are without Terrell Owens, aren't exactly soaring, either.
The rest of the playoff field should fear a streaky team such as the Vikings because that aerial attack of theirs can be hard to deal with. The Redskins' defense shut them down, but the thing about an explosive offense is you don't know when it's going to blow. Minnesota may not be on a roll right now, but on any given play, Daunte Culpepper by the end of it could be "getting his roll on."
In Culpepper and Randy Moss, Minnesota has a pair of difference makers on offense, and that combination alone can make the difference in a single-elimination game. If Peyton Manning didn't have the award on lock, Culpepper would be among the favorites for league MVP. Moss, when healthy the most dangerous receiver in the game, is getting back into game condition after a strained hamstring suffered against the Saints on Oct. 17 cost him five games and slowed him for two more.
We're talking about the league's third-most-productive offense, behind the Colts' and Chiefs'. Kansas City's season is over, which means Minnesota's offense is second best among the teams still playing. Minnesota has the No. 2 passing attack, and the best in the conference. The Vikings have been more of a passing team this year, but they can run it, too, and do so effectively. Their per-carry average of 4.7 yards ranked second in the league to Atlanta's 5.1.
Before running into the league's No. 2 defense on Sunday, the Vikings' offense was clicking as well as it had since early in the season. But it's the second season, now, and it doesn't matter what they've done against everyone else. All that matters is what they did and, more important, will do against Green Bay.
Culpepper threw seven touchdown passes in two games against the Packers, four (to go along with 363 yards) in the first meeting, at Lambeau Field, site of Sunday's three-match. Minnesota gained 416 yards on Nov. 14 and Moss didn't play. With two catches, he wasn't much of a factor in the de facto division championship game on Christmas Eve, either, but the Vikings still gained another 416 yards against Green Bay.
They've pretty much been able to have their way with the Packers' defense. Problem is, so have the Packers with Minnesota's.
Brett Favre matched Culpepper's seven touchdown tosses in the two games. The Vikings allowed 442 yards in the first contest, 206 on the ground, and 452 in Week 16 with Favre throwing for 350.
The Packers finished behind the Vikings in passing yards per game and just ahead of them in total yards and scoring. And if Minnesota's defense didn't already have its hands full, it looks like it'll be shorthanded for a while with strong safety Corey Chavous suffering a broken left elbow Sunday.
Then again, the defense has been a liability all year. But if the Vikings can avoid shooting themselves in the foot, particularly with penalties, they just might be able to win a few shootouts.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
11hEric D. Williams
1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo