NOTEBOOK: Playoff Atmosphere Returns to Dome

The Vikings may need to win their remaining three games to get into the playoffs, and with two of the remaining three games against playoff contenders, a whole new level of excitement returns to the Metrodome. Plus, see what the Vikings think of Pittsburgh's running game, and find out the impressive increase expected in the salary cap.

The Vikings are in the thick of the playoff hunt, but they just might need to extend their six-game winning streak to a nine-game winning streak and finish 11-5 to get into the playoffs unless they get some help from their wild-card or division competition.

Help on the wild-end hasn't been easy to find. The Vikings are currently in eighth place in the six-team playoff format and need some assistance. Atlanta, which is also 8-5, has the first tiebreaker advantage over the Vikings having beat Minnesota earlier in the season. The same is true with the 9-4 Tampa Bay Bucs and 9-4 Carolina Panthers. The 8-5 Dallas Cowboys and Vikings haven't played this season, but the Cowboys currently have a one-game lead on Minnesota in the next tie-breaker – conference record.

"My personal opinion, it's going to be tough to get in with 10-6," Vikings tight end Jermaine Wiggins said. "We realize that we're still a long way off and that every game is important."

The good news is that the Vikings still have a shot at guaranteeing entrance in the playoffs with a division title. The Chicago Bears finally lost last week, bringing the Vikings within a game of Chicago and hoping that the Bears sully their conference record with losses to Atlanta and the Packers before the Bears travel to Minnesota on New Year's Day.

But all that is looking ahead, and the Vikings would rather focus on themselves.

"We can't worry about what other teams are doing. It doesn't help," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "We obviously have won six in a row and we have to do our part to have a chance. We need some help along the way obviously, but I think the great thing about us is that we work hard in practice, we have a lot of fun and it has carried over to games. When you work hard, good things happen. We are not making the silly and stupid mistakes that have taken place before."

They had better avoid those mistakes today when they meet the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that ended Chicago's winning streak. The Steelers, like the Vikings, are 8-5, in second place in their division and scratching to get into the playoffs.

So far, Minnesota has beaten only one team with a winning record – the 9-4 New York Giants – and a win against the Steelers would help their playoff position and help gain the respect they hope to earn nationally and locally.

"I told the team this (week) that this is the game where if you want to earn some respect and be mentioned as a playoff team, this is the game you do it, quite frankly," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "The other games are nice, it got us back in it, but a game like this is a game where now all of a sudden they start talking, meaning you guys (media) start talking of us as a playoff team. Yeah. Absolutely. It is what it is. This is a playoff atmosphere game. I told the rookies, ‘This will be your first venture into playoff atmosphere because of where each team is at.' Both teams are going to leave every ounce of everything they have on the field on Sunday."

But Johnson, who quarterbacked Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl championship, is careful not to build up the Steelers too high.

"It's a different challenge," he said. "The black and gold, everyone thinks that Mean Joe Greene is playing, but they have lost five games also. They have lost three out of four. They beat a good team last week, a game that we needed a little help with," he said. "But they are in the playoff hunt, we are in the playoff hunt, and it's going to be a great challenge and a playoff atmosphere."


So what will it take to stop the Steelers?

As always, the Vikings are focusing on stopping the run first and trying to make the quarterback – this week, that is Ben Roethlisberger – beat them.

Jerome Bettis was getting most of the attention in the media this week after rushing for 101 yards against the Bears, but Vikings nose tackle Pat Williams had something to say about Bettis.

"I ran through the Bus plenty of times in Buffalo so he ain't really no problem. … They're going to have to beat us throwing," Williams said.

In fact, Bettis might not be the Vikings' biggest worry today. He's not even Pittsburgh's starter. That tag belongs to Willie Parker.

"He will stretch that ball and get outside like an Edgerrin James-type runner," Tice said of Parker. "You know, stretch it, stretch it along the line of scrimmage, and the next thing you know he is outside of everything. So it poses some challenges to have two different types of backs because you have to prepare for two different types plays really. They are a very good tandem."

The fact that this game will be played in the sterile environment of the Metrodome suggests that Bettis won't be the factor he was in the snow and mud last week.

Despite saying early last week that he was enamored with big backs, Tice said he does buy the theory that big backs are better playing outside on natural grass rather than the artificial turf that comes with domed stadiums.

"When you get a big back that is not necessarily fast and he plays at the same speed on turf or on grass, and when you get bad elements like last week, the fast guys aren't as fast, the quick guys aren't as quick and he is still the same speed. So yeah, I do buy into that," Tice said.


Defensive tackle Kevin Williams is expected back in the starting lineup this week after missing the past two games with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee.

"Last week we had a rookie (C.J. Mosley) playing and this week we get Kevin back, so I can start playing more free like I used to," Pat Williams said. "I know Kevin has got my back because I worked with Kevin a lot."

Other teams are going to be in trouble now because we're getting a lot of players back. Our backups were starting, so everybody is good now."


How much has your salary increased in the last 13 year? The guess is probably not as much as the NFL's salary cap.

This from the league office: "The NFL is the only league in sports history to average more than $100 million per team in player costs. That figure was reached this year when the salary cap increased to $85.5 million per team in addition to $16.5 million per club in player benefits. Next year, clubs were recently told, the cap figure will rise by at least $6.5 million. The 2006 cap is expected to range between $92-95 million per team, with benefits projected to be in excess of $17 million per club. The league's original salary cap in 1993 was $34.6 million per team. A jump to $92 million in 2006 would be a 166 percent increase in the cap in 13 years."

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