Improbable as it might have seemed only two weeks ago, the Vikings begin a four-game stretch Monday night that could put them right into the thick of the race for the NFC North title.
Only in the parity-happy NFL.
The Vikings, who were blown out 38-13 at Carolina on Oct. 30 and lost quarterback Daunte Culpepper to a season-ending knee injury in the defeat, have won two in a row with Brad Johnson at quarterback and are within one victory of pulling even at 5-5.
For that to happen, the Vikings will have to beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in their only Monday night appearance of the season. The Vikings rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit on Oct. 23 to earn a 23-20 victory over Green Bay on a last-second field goal by Paul Edinger.
A season sweep of the Packers (2-7) would not only put the Vikings at .500, but also give them a 3-1 record in the division. After Monday, the Vikings will host Cleveland (3-6), travel to Detroit (4-5) and host St. Louis (4-5).
Chicago (6-3) and Pittsburgh (7-2) are the only teams remaining on the Vikings' schedule with winning records. The Bears are two games ahead of the Vikings and Lions in the division, so Minnesota would need help to catch Chicago.
Of course, before anyone gets too excited about this, keep in mind the Vikings will need a far better offensive performance than they got in last Sunday's improbable 24-21 victory over the host New York Giants.
The Vikings became the first team in NFL history to return an interception, a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in one game. The offense accounted for no touchdowns and only 137 yards, including 12 net rushing yards. That was the second-worst single-game rushing performance in team history.
Johnson threw for only 144 yards, but he did not throw an interception and made no critical mistakes before leading the Vikings on an eight-play, game-winning drive that began with 1:15 left in the fourth quarter and ended with Edinger's 48-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining.
The victory, no matter how unusual, left coach Mike Tice with ammunition to attempt to convince his team that things just might be turning for a team that has had its problems on and off the field.
"We're right back in it," Tice said. "With a big game coming up against Green Bay on Monday night, this puts us right back in it. I know the players know that. Certainly I know that because I told the players that."
And the players seem to be buying into Tice's message.
"The last couple of years we started off so fast and then sort of tapered off," receiver Nate Burleson said. "Hopefully the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs of the beginning of the season, will make us stronger individuals, a stronger team, a stronger unit. That will give us enough strength to kind of persevere through the rest of the season. It's always tough to win late, and if we can do that, we'll have a better chance of reaching our goals."
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