Through all the turmoil of the 2001 season for the Vikings, one thing that has stuck in the back of the minds of almost all players was how the 2000 season ended. After earning home field advantage for their first playoff game, the Vikings were one win from the Super Bowl — only to get crushed 41-0 by the New York Giants. That game has stuck with them and, 10 months later, the Vikings get their chance for revenge at the Metrodome on Monday Night Football.
The Giants team they face Monday is essentially the same, but, like the Vikings, with a first-place schedule, New York hasn't been as dominant this year. The Giants have struggled to get over .500 all season, much like the Vikings, and this could be a game both teams need badly to keep pace in their divisions.
The Giants offense has sputtered at times, as quarterback Kerry Collins has returned to the form that got the Panthers so frustrated with him. He's not only thrown interceptions but had passes picked off for touchdowns. He has been vulnerable to a heavy pass rush, so expect to see the Vikings blitzing often to try to shake him up and force him into bad throws. The Giants offense has gone back to its conservative ways, with many of Collins' passes being screens and short timing routes. If not given time, he will make mistakes.
The passing game is again secondary in New York, as the Giants hand the ball often to Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne. Barber is ideally a third-down back but has the speed and receiving ability to be a threat like Warrick Dunn and Ahman Green. Dayne, while seen by some as a pounding back, is much more of a finesse runner and not built to grind out short yardage. That job falls to fullback Greg Comella, but look for the G-Men to try to run the ball 35-40 times to eat up clock and keep the Vikings offense on the sideline. To the extent they have success on the ground, they will stay with it.
The receiver corps is as deep as it's ever been. Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard are both skilled possession receivers and deep threats, and Joe Jurevicius has been pushing for playing time. All three will be on the field when the Giants try to mix things up. Tight end Howard Cross is little more than a glorified offensive lineman and won't draw much attention from the defense.
The offensive line has underachieved this season, despite having a veteran group that performed extremely well last season. Tackles Lomas Brown and Luke Petitgout, guards Glenn Parker and Ron Stone and center Dusty Ziegler haven't been opening the holes for Barber and Dayne that they did early in the year, but Jim Fassel is recommitting to the running game, and these guys will be a big part of that. If they control the line of scrimmage the Vikings defense will be in for a long night.
While the offense has been shaky, the Giants defense has been stellar, led by defensive end Michael Strahan. Heading into last Sunday's game, he led the NFL with 14 sacks and is on a record pace. He will be forcing the action with Daunte Culpepper and, along with fellow end Kenny Holmes and DTs Keith Hamilton and Cornelius Griffin, the Giants have the ability to dominate a top offensive line, much less one that has had some recent problems and injuries like the Vikings have endured. Expect the Vikings to line up more tight end formations on the right side of the offense in an attempt to double-team Strahan and negate his pass rush.
In the middle, the Giants are solid at linebacker. Jesse Armstead is a Pro Bowler with both pass coverage and run stopping responsibilities and can pass rush when asked. On the other side, Brandon Short has been a downgrade from last year's starter, Ryan Phillips, but Short has shown improvement in recent weeks. In the middle, Michael Barrow is one of the few middle linebackers that can dominate a running back and drop into coverage, meaning the team doesn't have to mix personnel depending on down and distance. This group has been improving all season and will be a key to keeping the Vikings' short passing game at bay.
The big question is going to come on the deep passing game. Jason Sehorn is viewed as a top corner, but teams have been throwing at him a lot this year. He's made big plays and been burned on others, making him a little less attractive than his actress wife. On the other side, rookies Will Allen and Will Peterson are both seeing playing time, but both are still learning the game. Look for Daunte Culpepper to target both and, if locked in single coverage with Cris Carter or Randy Moss, both will be attacked. Single coverage may be hard to find, since the Giants have promised to slide safeties Sam Garnes and Shaun Williams into double coverage and force the Vikings to beat them without Moss or Carter. The Giants made the blueprint of how to shut down the Vikings last year, and other teams have followed.
The biggest difference may come from location. When the Giants got on a roll last year in the NFC title game, their fans kept the momentum going. The Vikings' fans will be raucous and, like the team, looking for revenge in the rematch of the One That Got Away.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
OT Chris Liwienski vs. DE Michael Strahan — On a night when the Vikings are retiring the number of Korey Stringer, they sure could use him against Strahan. Liwienski has held his own against many DEs, but Strahan will be a unanimous Pro Bowl selection and is on pace to set an all-time sack record. It will be up to Liwienski to keep him off of Daunte Culpepper — a tall order.
QB Kerry Collins vs. the Vikings' 12th man — Collins is a quarterback prone to being rattled, and the Monday night Metrodome crowd will make it impossible for him to audible. If he sees a defense he doesn't like, he may be forced to run the play that was called regardless. If he tries to improvise, he may very well make mistakes that could cost the Giants the game.
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