The Vikings are fighting for their playoff lives. Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller is fighting for his job.
After Boller produced the most efficient quarterback performance in Ravens history, coach Brian Billick offered his third-year starter a little praise and another big challenge.
"Kyle stepped up, it was his time to do it," Billick said. "Now the challenge is to follow up."
The final two games will likely determine whether Boller returns next season as the undisputed starter. Billick said last week that Boller's poor performance wouldn't weigh any more than previous games in the evaluation, and he reiterated that point after Boller's stronger effort.
"It's another game, another set of data to draw from," Billick said. "This one obviously very positive; that's why it's important he follows it up with another one."
Yet history shows that for every step forward Boller has taken in the past, he usually takes one backward.
The past two times he surpassed a passer rating of 100, he has failed to complete half of his throws in the next game, turning the ball over twice on each occasion.
The Vikings have the 22nd-ranked pass defense in the NFL, but have made 23 interceptions, the second most in the league.
"I hope (Monday's game) boosts his confidence," defensive end Terrell Suggs said, "and lets him know that you are here for a reason, you can play, go out there and play and have fun."
One of the reasons why the Ravens believe Boller might respond differently to success this time is because of how he has reacted to recent adversity.
Boller, who entered Monday's game with the second-worst passer rating (63.0) among current NFL starters, was coming off perhaps the worst game of his career.
In a 12-10 loss at Denver, he was intercepted in the end zone because he threw into double coverage and was picked off at the Broncos' 6-yard line because he stared down his receiver.
Eight days later against Green Bay, he threw two touchdowns in the red zone by making better decisions. He exploited a mismatch on a 2-yard pass to tight end Todd Heap, who was being covered man-to-man by a safety. He then tossed a jump ball 13 yards to receiver Randy Hymes, who had a five-inch height advantage on cornerback Ahmad Carroll.
"I think he showed a lot of mental discipline to overcome that (Denver) game," Billick said. "He's got a strong sense of conviction to hold onto the good things he did in Denver but be very cognizant of what he didn't do well and to not let that repeat itself."
Billick seemed to have run out of answers with Boller last week. In trying to calm Boller down during games, Billick suggested "alternative" methods to help him, which could include a sports psychologist.
Before Monday night's game, Boller received his best counseling from Heap, one of his closest friends on the team. They talked about how there was no pressure in a battle of last-place teams, and Heap said they agreed to "go have fun and see what we could do."
There was a noticeable difference in Boller's demeanor in the huddle.
"When he's making throws the way he was and all of us guys were making plays for him, of course he's going to have a totally different attitude and a totally different mind-set toward every play," said Heap, who tied a career high with nine catches Monday. "I think he was confident."
Unlike last week in Denver, where he stood alone on the sidelines to contemplate his mistakes, Boller was in the thick of every joyous moment Monday night. He sprinted downfield to join the touchdown celebrations in the end zone and joked endlessly with teammates.
"There may have been speculation about people saying this or saying that, but my teammates have been behind me through everything," Boller said. "I can't tell you how much that kept me going, guys pushing me and keeping my confidence up."
Tackle Jonathan Ogden will be the team's only representative after being selected for the ninth straight season. Tight end Todd Heap and safety Ed Reed are alternates.
"It's kind of like having a good dessert but also having a crappy meal," said Ogden, referring to the disappointing 5-9 season. "You know you'll feel better but the steak was bad. Hopefully, next year we'll get a little bit of both."
It could be time for the secondary to spend some time after practice with the ball-catching machine.
"We did a good job of knocking down some interceptions," Billick said. "They had some fun with it. Hopefully they can go to the next step."
Billick was so impressed by Lewis' key block on an 11-yard touchdown run by Mark Clayton that he joked about a position change.
"When he came running off, I told him he was a hell of a good-looking fullback to me," Billick said. "It actually scared the hell out of him."
At tight end, the Ravens' top two backups - Daniel Wilcox and Darnell Dinkins - are dealing with injuries. Wilcox is expected to play while Dinkins is considered a game-time decision.
BY THE NUMBERS: 6 - Season-high touchdowns scored last week by the Ravens, who were the second-lowest scoring team in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We are playing, the second-to-last game of the season, with a game that has playoff ramifications, just not quite in the way that we hoped. We'll tap into that. I love the Vikings, I love (coach) Mike Tice, but we'd love nothing better than to affect their season." - Coach Brian Billick on the motivation of the 5-9 Ravens.