Vikings try to pick up pieces

The Minnesota Vikings enter Sunday's playoff game at Green Bay fresh off their usual late-season collapse. There's controversy, with Randy Moss walking out on his teammates in the final seconds of the regular-season-ending loss at Washington. There's the future of coach Mike Tice, whose status for next season remains shrouded in intrigue even though the option for the 2005 campaign was exercised by owner Red McCombs.

Those three strikes should be enough to count out the Vikings for Sunday's playoff battle at Green Bay. But for the Vikings, all those negatives are swept under the rug. All of the franchise's failures can take a backseat as this game is more grudge match than playoff game.

"It couldn't be a better draw for us," said Vikings offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

The Vikings enter the playoffs on a 3-7 nosedive. Two of those losses came to the Packers. Of their last five games, their only win came when the Lions flubbed a game-tying extra point. When it comes to momentum, the Vikings have none.

"Well, it's hard to find any joy in Mudville," said Tice. "We have to move forward and know that we are very fortunate that we have a chance to play this week."

Still, the Vikings have plenty of reason to feel, if not optimistic, that there's at least hope they can silence their legion of doubters. The Packers won both regular-season matchups by identical 34-31 counts. With a wink from Lady Luck, however, the Vikings could have won both games.

In the first meeting at Lambeau Field, the Vikings rallied from a 31-17 fourth-quarter deficit to tie the score. Green Bay's Robert Ferguson fumbled the kickoff return following the tying touchdown. For all the world, it looked like the Vikings recovered the loose ball. When the mass of bodies got done scrapping for the ball, Green Bay's Ben Steele emerged with the pigskin. The Packers capitalized by kicking the winning field goal as time expired.

In the second meeting at Minnesota, the Packers scored 10 points in the final four-and-a-half minutes to win the NFC North title. After Green Bay's tying touchdown, the Vikings appeared to be marching for the go-ahead score. A holding penalty, however, proved fatal. The Vikings punted, and the Packers marched to the winning score.

"Everybody worries about the physical part of the game and having the players ready physically. But I think the psychological part, the psyche of the players, is equally important," Packers coach Mike Sherman said when talking about the importance of his team's season-ending win in Chicago.

He could have been talking about the Vikings, however, when he continued: "When you lose a game, it affects you. They read about how they lost the ballgame; they hear about how they lost the ballgame. Then you have to go win a game."

While the Packers come off a resounding thumping of Chicago, the Vikings are coming off a resounding loss to Washington. The Vikings got into the playoffs despite the 21-18 setback, but the mood in the locker room was sour afterward. That will happen when you are losing 21-10 after 59 minutes and 58 seconds of action to one of the dregs of the NFL.

"I'm happy to see some long faces because it's disappointment — it's frustration," linebacker Keith Newman said. "Guys know that we're not putting our best product on the field. We're not doing what we're capable of doing."

What the Vikings are capable of is an enormous mystery despite an entire regular season under their belts. Minnesota started this season and last season like a bolt of lightning, only to close both seasons like a drizzle. With Daunte Culpepper, Moss, a stable of quality running backs, a quality offensive line, a talented defensive line and a Pro Bowler at cornerback, the Vikings have the talent to beat any team in the league. Poor execution and a doom-and-gloom history, however, are leading to the execution of the Vikings' season.

"It depends on execution and not making dumb mistakes," center Matt Birk said. "Don't beat ourselves. Don't make it any harder than it needs to be."

The Vikings have spent the second half of their season beating themselves. In the Week 16 game against the Packers, the Vikings spent most of the game missing tackles, committing penalties and letting Donald Driver catch 14 passes for nearly 200 yards. Then, the next week, the defense was fine but the offense fired blanks against a team that had its bags packed for the off-season.

"This team's going to drive me crazy," Tice said after the Washington game. "You spend the whole week trying to make sure they understand that you don't want to get yourself too worked up or too uptight, and you don't want to go out and play like you can't make a mistake. When you play like that, you go out and make mistakes."

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