Players Ponder Pro Bowl Possibilities

None of the Vikings players are lobbying hard for themselves to make the Pro Bowl, but in true teammate fashion some are lobbying for others in the locker room. This year, the Vikings have a few legitimate candidates on defense, a few on special teams and maybe one on offense. See what the players have to say about the possibilities.

Forgive the Vikings for getting defensive when you mention the 2006 Pro Bowl.

With a defensive unit that continues to get better, thanks to the emergence of at least a few of the league's top players at their respective positions, the Vikings have strung together a five-game winning streak that has begun to open eyes around the league. If their play in November and so far this month is any indication, the Vikings could be well represented in February in Honolulu.

And for a change, that starts on defense. While the Vikings offense has been the source of most Minnesota Pro Bowlers in recent years — center Matt Birk, receiver Randy Moss, running back Michael Bennett, quarterback Daunte Culpepper — it appears the revamped defense will be the talent supplier this year.

Pro Bowl voting ends Tuesday. The Vikings will cast their votes early next week.

Safety Darren Sharper appears on track for his third Pro Bowl appearance. As a Green Bay Packer, Sharper played in Hawaii in 2000 and 2002. Sharper's seven interceptions are tied with Denver's Champ Bailey and Chicago's Nathan Vasher for second best in the NFL. Cincinnati's Deltha O'Neal leads the league with eight. Bailey, Vasher and O'Neal are all cornerbacks, making Sharper virtually a lock for the Pro Bowl if he stays on pace.

"I'm more worried about championships right now. That's why I came over here, to win a championship," Sharper said. "Once you've been in the Pro Bowl a couple of times, you look forward to winning championships. It's good to get the recognition, but right now I'm really looking forward to a Super Bowl, not a Pro Bowl."

Sharper might not be the only member of the Vikings secondary who will be bound for Honolulu. Far from a lock, though, is cornerback Antoine Winfield, who is one of the best open-field tacklers in the game.

"I think the most under-rated player — not in our locker room, but around the league — is Antoine Winfield," linebacker Keith Newman said. "The guy comes and does the things he does. He's versatile. He plays outside on first and second downs, he plays the slot on third downs. He's very active in the run on nickel and dime situations. I would definitely say Antoine Winfield is a Pro Bowl corner."

While Vikings coaches say they aren't surprised at his production in his first season in Minnesota, defensive tackle Pat Williams has been a dominating factor in many games. He is third on the team with 52 tackles and has been a force in stopping the interior running game of opposing defenses.

"Pat Williams has dominated up front all season," Newman said.

Safety Corey Chavous thinks a handful of his teammates on defense are worthy, but he doesn't know how many will actually get recognized.

"In addition to Antoine Winfield and Darren Sharper and Pat Williams, we've also had really good play from Keith Newman, Sam CowartLance Johnstone doesn't play every down, but he deserves to go, too."

Johnstone was listed as an AFC alternate to the Pro Bowl twice, but never made the trip to Honolulu. When he learned Wednesday that Chavous was on the other end of the locker room lobbying for Johnstone's Pro Bowl cause, Johnstone started laughing.

"I'm not even on the ballot, so I don't expect to go," he said. "I like Corey … Tell him the check's in the mail, but it might not clear."

In mid-October, when the Vikings started 2-5 and had given up 37 points to Cincinnati, 30 to Atlanta, 28 to Chicago and 38 to Carolina, it seemed unfathomable for the team's defense to send more than a token player to the Pro Bowl. But now that the Vikings have won five in a row and have given up just 16 points per game during that streak, the bouquets — not the brickbats — are being showered down on Winter Park.

"It helps a lot," said Chavous of the winning streak. "But Darren Sharper's been getting it done all year. Antoine has had back-to-back very productive years, and Pat Williams should've already been in the Pro Bowl before. Then you got guys like Lance Johnstone, who doesn't even take all the snaps, but he's been one of the most productive players that we have. Then you have leaders like Sam Cowart and Keith Newman. There's a lot of praise to go around if you start making plays."

Chavous sounds as if he should go stadium to stadium, locker room to locker room to lobby for his teammates to opposing teams, who ultimately will decide by casting their ballots.

Talent plays a major role in the voting. So, too, does reputation. But while some players take all of 2 minutes to fill out their ballot, many players do their homework and want to make an educated vote.

"Overall, guys take the voting seriously," Sharper said. "They want to make sure the proper guys go. A lot of guys look forward to the recognition and people around the league really respect the voting."

The Vikings offense doesn't appear to have many logical candidates for the Pro Bowl. No receiver is among the league leaders for receptions or touchdowns. Because of the committee approach at running back, there has been no player to emerge there, either. Quarterback Brad Johnson is winning, but his statistics aren't jaw dropping, or even among the NFC's best.

The offensive line's problems this year is well known. But tackle Bryant McKinnie's season might not be. McKinnie, coaches and teammates say, is having his best season as a professional.

"It would mean a lot to me," McKinnie said. "Last year, I started to develop and I carried it over to this season. It would mean a lot, but I don't want to get my hopes up because there are a lot of politics involved."

If there were a position where reputation plays a determining factor, the offensive line would be it. Eagles tackle Tra Thomas and Cowboys tackle Flozell Adams, who have represented the NFC in recent years at the Pro Bowl, are both hurt.

Seattle's Walter Jones and St. Louis' Orlando Thomas will merit serious consideration. McKinnie hopes he receives due process as well.

"I'm the youngest one, everyone else is established veterans," McKinnie said. "It's hard for offensive lineman to get in because you don't have any stats. And, of course, it matters how the media and fans vote."

The Vikings could receive consideration for a few special-teams Pro Bowl spots. With an 11.8-yard average and one touchdown, Mewelde Moore is the top-ranked punt returner in the NFC.

"If somebody thinks my performance is honorable and should be acknowledged in the Pro Bowl, I'd appreciate that," Moore said.

Koren Robinson, who enters Sunday's game as the second-ranked kickoff returner in the NFC, could join Moore in Honolulu. Robinson averages 27.9 yards per return and has scored one touchdown, and come close to breaking loose for a few more.

Despite his sore knee, punter Chris Kluwe is still a candidate for the Pro Bowl. Kluwe is averaging 45.3 yard per punt, second best in the NFC.

The Pro Bowl is Sunday, Feb. 12.

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