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Vikings defense quiets doubters -- for a week

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2001


MINNEAPOLIS -- At times like these, when the offense is clicking and the ball is shooting all over the joint like a pinball, the only question about the Minnesota Vikings and the Super Bowl appears to be this.

Where are they going to make dinner reservations?

Berns on Tuesday? Donatello's on Wednesday? Chattaways on Thursday?

At times like these, in this big top of a dome they call home, the Vikings are the Greatest Show on Earth. They can move it here and there, this way and that, and they can leave a free safety suffering from whiplash as he tries to keep up. Every play is three-card monte. Is it going to be Daunte Culpepper rambling, or Randy Moss flying, or Cris Carter picking balls out of the lights, or Robert Smith flashing through the hole? There they were, the Four Norsemen, confusing the devil out of the Saints en route to a 34-16 victory in a divisional playoff game.

At times like these, the Super Bowl seems to be the land long promised. Who can match these weapons? Who can slow them down? Who can keep them out of Tampa Bay?

Then you remember. You have believed this before. Two seasons ago with these guys. With the old Buffalo Bills. With the old Houston Oilers. Because great offenses tend to impress us, they also seem to fool us this time of year.

Which brings us to the lingering question about the Minnesota Vikings.

Are they complete enough to go to the Super Bowl?

As half-teams go, this is a very good one. They have the best possession receiver in the game (Carter) and the best deep threat (Moss) and one of the two best young quarterbacks (Culpepper, along with Donovan McNabb). If they would agree to merge with the Bucs, you'd have a heck of a team.

On the other hand, the Vikings also have the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL. Twenty-eighth. For all you can say about Carter and Moss, the most amazing thing is they are doing it all without benefit of playing against these guys. There are matadors who studied the techniques of these linebackers during December.

That's a Super Bowl defense?

Well, maybe.

With the Vikings, it is always a tightrope walk that leaves you with two choices. You either admire the sights, or you fear the fall. The last true thing in the NFC this year is this: The only defense that can stop Minnesota is its own.

Perhaps that is why, for all of the fireworks Saturday, so much of the conversation was about the Vikings defense, which held an opponent to a single touchdown. Never mind it was the Saints, a charmed team held together by bubble gum and baling wire that, in the end, ran out of parts. Never mind that Aaron Brooks still threw for 295 yards or the Saints averaged 4.1 yards per run. This was a defense that was in the mood to crow a little bit.

"As long as we play together, we can go where we want to go," said cornerback Robert Tate, who would not explain why the team had played separately throughout the season.

"I don't care what you believe, I believe we have a good enough defense to go the Super Bowl. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be here," said linebacker Ed McDaniel, relieving concerns there might be a mass exodus of players walking away from their playoff checks because they could not live with the self-doubt.

Someone asked safety Howard Griffith if he believed the defense was the victim of a bad rap. "That goes without saying," Griffith said. And how dare those league statisticians hang such a rap on the Vikings?

In other words, you don't have to look very far to find a bit of a chip on the shoulders of the Vikings. Ask them about a defense that had a good day, and they will frown at you for daring to suggest something might have been out of whack all those other days. Wonder if they are good enough, and they look at you as if the previous season was simply an ugly rumor that has swelled beyond control.

"Everyone knows the number," Griffith said. "We were 28th. So what?"

So this. So history tells us that it is difficult to win a Super Bowl with a bad defense. So statistics tell us that, despite Saturday, the Vikings no longer eat purple people. So the question is whether the defense will weigh down the offense like a bad doubles partner.

Look forward a week. Even if the Eagles win today's game against the Giants, I can't see them coming into this house of noise and winning. Home field matters just too much.

But what if the favored Giants win? Can the Vikings take this defense on the road and win? After all, bad offenses, like bad defenses, tend to keep games close, and even a team of bricklayers such as the Giants will be able to hang in there for a while. Can the Vikings survive in such conditions?

Personally, I think they can. I think they'll win close.

I think they'll come to Tampa Bay and leave scorch marks in the Super Bowl.

I think they'll score 30 points on whoever the AFC has to offer.

Whether that will be enough to win is anybody's guess.

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