A Time To Heal

The bye comes at a great time because the Vikings are scrambling to solidify their linebacking corps before they travel to Houston on Oct. 10. Still, this is a team left razor thin on depth because of their injuries.

Although there is a remote possibility MLB E.J. Henderson (knee) will play and a slightly better chance WLB Chris Claiborne (calf) will play, the Vikings are preparing as if neither will be healthy enough to play. That enables the Vikings to focus on three players for the two positions.

Rookie Dontarrious Thomas, who was benched as the WLB midway through the Philadelphia game two weeks ago, is expected to start in the middle. He filled in admirably for Henderson against Chicago, notching a game-high 13 tackles despite having not played or even practiced in the middle since he was at Auburn last season. Thomas needs the extra week to learn how to make the calls and alignment adjustments that a MLB must make.

Meanwhile, the Vikings will give Raonall Smith an opportunity to start at WLB. They were disappointed with how Mike Nattiel filled in for Claiborne against the Bears. Smith has been a major disappointment since being selected in the second round of the 2002 draft. But this is the healthiest he has been in his career, and he is showing signs of confidence on special teams.

The Vikings can say what they want about having the depth to sustain their ridiculous amount of injuries, but this is a Super Bowl contender that might have reached its breaking point in terms of losing starters and key players.

Yes, they're 2-1 entering their bye weekend. But they're coming off a victory over a 1-2 Bears team that somehow was rocked even harder by injuries, especially on defense (No Brian Urlacher, Mike Brown, Charles Tillman, Jerry Azumah, etc., etc.).

And guess what? The Vikings only won by five, 27-22, and were in danger of losing had Bears QB Rex Grossman not blown out his ACL on a touchdown run at the two-minute warning.

"The way we overcame the injuries makes this a very satisfying victory," coach Mike Tice said.

He's right, especially considering a loss would have been devastating heading into a bye.

But let's not get carried away with how far the Vikings can go without Henderson, Claiborne, Jermaine Wiggins and Matt Birk, not to mention the players who already are on injured reserve (Mike Rosenthal, Jim Kleinsasser and Ken Irvin).

"We didn't panic," receiver Kelly Campbell said when asked about the injuries. "We were calm and played Viking football. We know now that if we go out and do that, nobody can stop us."

The Eagles already did, 27-16 on Monday Night Football two weeks ago. Granted Philadelphia is the best the NFC has to offer and it was playing at home on national television. But that game proved the Vikings aren't mature defensively and can be stopped offensively, especially outside the Metrodome.

And now it appears the Vikings will come out of the bye with a trip to Houston minus six players who were scheduled to begin the season as starters (and Irvin, the nickel back who blew out his Achilles' tendon during warm-ups before the season-opener against Dallas).

"Like I've said," Tice said, "this is not golf. You just have to move on."

Houston is beatable with a depleted roster, although the Vikings are horrible on the road, on grass and against lesser opponents. Anyone who disagrees should review last year's road losses to San Diego, Oakland, Chicago and Arizona.

The bye at least gives the Vikings a chance of getting Birk, Wiggins, Henderson and Claiborne back in time for the next game. But they're more likely to sit out until at least the following week at New Orleans.

That's right. The Vikings come out of the bye with consecutive road games. They return home to play back-to-back games against Tennessee and the Giants before hitting the road for back-to-back games at Indianapolis and Green Bay.

It's not an easy stretch for a depleted Super Bowl contender. If some of the current injuries don't heal quickly and new ones appear, it could be an impossible stretch, even for a Super Bowl contender.


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