Panic Bowl? Maybe on one side

ESPN is dubbing Sunday's game between the Vikings and Cowboys the Panic Bowl. But in the Vikings locker room, there is hardly a sense of panic. Quite the opposite. See what the veteran players are saying and the similar experiences they've had.

ESPN, for the lack of better phrase, has spent the last couple of days pounding home their self-styled theme for Sunday's Cowboys-Vikings game. They're calling it The Panic Bowl. They do it for a reason, because some Cowboys players have admitted that there is a sense of panic in their locker room – the inference being that the same level of panic is taking place in the Vikings locker room.

The fact of the matter is just the opposite. At least outwardly, there is much more the sense of frustration that this time they couldn't just dial up the success they enjoyed in 2009. But panic? Not a chance.

One of the reasons is that, while the media types hammer home the point of how teams that start a season 0-2 or 1-3 fare overall, it doesn't take into account teams that have the talent on both sides of the ball that the Vikings do. Last year, through four games there were 11 teams that started 1-3 or 0-4 and none of them made the playoffs. But that list of teams included a lot of awful organizations, including Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, Kansas City, Detroit, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Seattle and St. Louis. These same nine teams aren't given much of a chance to make the playoffs in 2010 just because they don't look to have the horses to succeed in the long haul of 16 games.

Also not factoring into the numbers is that, for the third time in four years, the Vikings have come out to a 1-3 start. In 2007, the Vikings fell to 2-5 and then 3-6. Things seemed hopeless. But then the Vikings rolled off a five-game winning streak and controlled their own playoff destiny. A Sunday night win over Washington and they would have guaranteed a playoff spot. They came up short, which some credited to expending so much energy just to get back into sniffing distance of the postseason, finishing 8-8.

In 2008, the Vikings started 0-2 and were 1-3 after four games. With aged veteran Gus Frerotte at QB, , the Vikings won their next two to get to 3-3 and, after losing a game to drop to 3-4, won the next two. As they had done in 2007, the Vikings strung together four straight wins to move into first place in the NFC North and, when they beat the Giants in the regular-season finale, they won the division title – despite a 1-3 start.

Linebacker Ben Leber, who was on both of those teams with half the Vikings locker room, said that the experience they all gained during those stretches and their ability to string together wins four and five at a time is one of the reasons why there isn't the panic in Minnesota like it sounds is taking place in Dallas.

"You always perform better in any situation if you've been there before," Leber said. "You can take comfort in the fact that most of the players and the coaches have been here before. There's never a time to panic, but you do have a sense of urgency. But it's never without some control. I think that's what we're in right now. There's a sense of urgency, but not out of control and fanning the fire."

Lito Sheppard wasn't part of the Vikings early-season woes in 2007-08. He was part of something worse. After getting off to a 3-0 start with the Jets in 2009, a road loss to New Orleans Oct. 4 began a tailspin in which the Jets lost six of seven games, giving way to a record of 4-6 and they were all but left for dead. They were able to turn things around, win five of their final six games and barely made the playoffs (head coach Rex Ryan admitted their odds of making the playoffs with two weeks left was all but dead). Yet a good team got hot and it carried over into the playoffs with road wins over Cincinnati and San Diego, and they had a lead on the Colts on the road in the AFC Championship Game. It can be done, Sheppard said. But it's pretty simple what caused their problems – and the Vikings'.

"Our situation last year, we had to look at why we were losing," Sheppard said. "A lot of it was basically the same as what we've had this year – turnovers. We're making too many and not causing enough. If you cut down on turnovers and play sound football on offense, defense and special teams, eventually things turn around and get back to normal."

The best news the Vikings have is the timing of their early-season sluggishness. Had they been entering Week 6 a year ago with a 1-3 record, there would be plenty of reason for panic. At the time, there was a tremendous amount of separation in the NFC. The Vikings and Giants were both 5-0, the Saints were 4-0 and Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia were all 3-1. A team sitting at 1-3 was in bad shape, because, at the time, the six playoff teams were set early. Only two of them (the Vikings and Saints), would eventually make the playoffs, but this year, there is no such demarcation between the good and bad teams.

At the same point in the 2010 season, nobody is unbeaten and only three teams – Chicago, Atlanta and Tampa Bay – have just one loss. Considering that, of that group, Atlanta is the only team viewed as a legitimate playoff contender, there is a lot more parity in the league this year, which makes the hole the Vikings have dug themselves not quite as deep.

"It's not hard to look at the landscape of the NFC and see that, despite a poor start, we're certainly not out of it," kicker Ryan Longwell said. "Last year at this time, both us and the Saints were unbeaten. This year nobody has run away from the rest of the pack and everybody still has a shot if they can get on a roll."

That roll is hoped to start Sunday. As has been Brad Childress' habit as head coach, he has compartmentalized the season into four quarters – each consisting of four games. The first quarter was a failure by any measure, but linebacker E.J. Henderson said that it is history and they're looking to improve their grade in the second quarter of the season.

"We're a quarter of the way into the season, that's why I think this game is so crucial," Henderson said. "Not to go into that second quarter of the season with a loss. With that mindset, it's crucial for (Sunday's) game to be a win, but, at the same time, we're just a quarter of the way through the season and want to start the second quarter off with a win."

The biggest hurdle in that logic is the second quarter is the most brutal of all four seasonal quarters with a home game against Dallas and road games at Green Bay and New England before returning to the Metrodome to play Arizona. Like it or not, if the Vikings are to pull themselves out of their 2010 dive, it will have to come at the expense of three division champions and a wild card from last season – a tall order indeed.

"If we want to have any chance of getting to the playoffs, these next five or six weeks will be critical," Sheppard said. "It's going to tell how things are going to go. At some point, we need to start acting on and quit talking about what we're going to do."

There isn't panic in the Vikings locker room. If anything, it's denial. As veteran nose tackle Pat Williams sat in his rocking chair in front of his locker, he said the Vikings can't look at this as a must-win game; they're looking at it as a will-win game.

"Everybody has got to play great this week, not just some of the guys," Williams said. "We've got to. We've got to win this week. We've got to. Maybe Dallas is going to be in a lot of trouble. We aren't going to be in a lot of trouble. We're already in a hole and we're trying get out of the hole."

The only problem? Dallas is saying the exact same thing, with just as much at stake.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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