Coach's fortunes turned on one play

There's a good chance Mike Tice wouldn't be on the Vikings' sideline Sunday night if not for one play during the 13th game of what had been a dreadful season...

There's a good chance Mike Tice wouldn't be on the Vikings' sideline Sunday night if not for one play during the 13th game of what had been a dreadful season.

The 3-10 Minnesota Vikings, after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in a Sunday night game at Lambeau Field, were staring at loss No. 11 against the playoff-hopeful New Orleans Saints. Instead, trailing 31-24, the Vikings marched down the field to score a touchdown with 5 seconds left to send the game into overtime. Wait! Not so fast!

To heck with overtime, Tice reasoned. In a move that would live forever in NFL lore had the Vikings been in playoff contention, Tice elected to go for two points and the win. Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper scored on a keeper to make his coach's inspiring move pay off as Minnesota prevailed 32-31.

Until the Vikings loss to the New York Giants last Sunday, Minnesota hadn't lost since Tice's go-for-the-win gamble.

Tice was perilously close to the unemployment line at the end of last season, but instead he's the front-runner to win coach-of-the-year honors. Owner Red McCombs, who had an itchy trigger finger while watching the losses pile up last season, now calls his coach the best in the NFL.

"I think he's the same coach (as last year)," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said, "but it is like being a rookie in this league; when you get that first year out of the way and find out how to do things, you get in a routine. Last year he was dealt a bad hand because he had a lot of players who weren't ready to play. But now he's got some more players and better coaching, and it's falling into place for him.

"He is one of the better head coaches in the league, and it shows."

While it won't in a mathematical sense, Sunday night's game in the Metrodome could wrest the NFC North Division championship from the Packers. A Vikings victory would push their record to 7-1 while shove the Packers down to 3-5.

It's "do or die," acknowledged Packers guard Marco Rivera.

Tice, being the good soldier, credits having better players for the team's turnaround. No doubt the addition of linebacker Chris Claiborne and the selection of defensive end Kevin Williams in the first round helped the defense, but Tice deserves a lot of the credit.

It started in that Saints game and carried over to the Friday before the Week 6 game against Denver, when Tice — a former tight end — came to practice decked out in full uniform.

"We had a stressful week, and I thought the guys would have a good laugh with it," Tice told the New York Times.

Said Mike Rosenthal, the veteran offensive tackle signed away from the New York Giants: "At first, you didn't know what he was doing, or who it was. He likes to have fun and he likes to laugh. If we can laugh together as a team, we're going to win."

No doubt things have been fun in Minnesota. With a talent like Randy Moss catching passes from a talent like Daunte Culpepper, the offense is due to be exciting. The excitement last season, however, ranged from euphoria to dread.

Culpepper and Moss engaged in a few shouting matches. Moss had his worst season as a pro — partly stemming from Tice's creation of the "Randy Ratio," a ploy to get Moss the ball on 40 percent of the passing plays — while Culpepper created enough turnovers to make Martha Stewart envious.

Gone is the Randy Ratio and back is the big-play Moss, who is tearing up the league with a new-found dedication and maturity. Gone, too, is Culpepper's sloppiness. Culpepper led the NFL in interceptions last season and had more fumbles than some teams. He threw his first two interceptions of the season in the loss to the Giants, and one of those came in the desperate final  minutes.

The Vikings' offense, which ranks fifth in scoring and second in yards, will get more potent Sunday with the return of running back Michael Bennett. The former Olympic sprint hopeful was a Pro Bowler last season while rushing for nearly 1,300 yards, but has missed the first seven games due to a stress fracture in his left foot. The Vikings won without Bennett in the opener because Tice, while he has Culpepper and Moss at his disposal, deep down is a run-it-down-their-throats kind of coach.

That comes from six seasons as an offensive line coach. And with an offensive line anchored by Pro Bowl center Matt Birk and flanked by tackles Rosenthal and the mountainous Bryant McKinnie, the Vikings have the line and mentality to turn any running back into a star.

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