An early 2-5 record put the Vikings in a playoff hole from which they weren't able to completely recover. With a win against Chicago on Sunday, they would finish the season with a 9-7 record, 5-1 in the division and have gone 7-2 in their final nine games.
But with a new owner and Mike Tice's contract set to expire at the end of January, all those bouquets could wilt over the next few weeks. It has created an awkward situation at Winter Park this week.
"Awkward is an understatement," said Tice, the man under a microscope.
After spending Monday talking about the uncertain situation, Tice on Wednesday preferred to talk more about the game against Chicago on Sunday, which may or may not have any bearing on whether or not Tice is back at the helm again next year. For now, the focus goes to Chicago and ending the season on a winning, if not completely satisfying, note.
"We'll look at that (winning on Sunday) and then that will give us all a good taste in our mouths when we leave the building on Monday afternoon," Tice of the positives if the Vikings can beat the Bears.
Despite many of the players answering questions about the future of their coach, quarterback Brad Johnson said the situation is not a distraction for the team.
"No, at least not for me. That stuff will take care of itself in time. Obviously you would like things to stay status quo, but that's a decision that will be made through the Wilf family," Tice said. "Right now the main focus is to finish up strong here, get a win and hopefully win our last seven out of nine ballgames."
While Tice and Johnson are trying to be optimists, there is little doubt Tice's status affects the players, just as all the troubles of a rocky season have weighed on everyone at Winter Park.
"The season as a whole hasn't been quite what we hoped for. We had high expectations and the best record we can have is 9-7. … It's been a rough season, from the rough start to the (Daunte) Culpepper injury to the off-the-field incident we had to deal with," linebacker Keith Newman said. "We turned it around, struck together and put together six wins a row, but here we are again on another losing streak. It's been an interesting season. I wouldn't say frustrating, but it hasn't been as smooth as some of us would like around here."
Just two games ago, Tice's name was being bandied nationally as a Coach of the Year candidate. Considering the original national predictions that had the Vikings contending for a Super Bowl title, that might have been a stretch even if the Vikings had secured their playoff standing by winning the last two games.
Still, in the tight-knit world of NFL coaches, even legitimate Coach of the Year candidates stick up for coaches under fire.
"I think Mike Tice has done an excellent job with his ball club," said Bears head coach Lovie Smith, who has led his team to the NFC's No. 2 playoff spot. "(Tice) has been through a lot to bring the guys back the way he has done. He will get some votes for Coach of the Year also with what he has done."
Not likely. Instead, Tice might just be hoping to be a head coach again next year.
HERE'S TO YOU, MR. ROBINSON
Vikings receiver Koren Robinson was awarded the Korey Stringer Good Guy award, given to a Vikings player who is accessible, open and honest with the media through good times and bad.
"It's an honor because it doesn't have to do with the things that you do on the field. It has to do with your person, your character and how you live your life," Robinson said upon receiving the award. "I have heard stories about Korey. I didn't know Korey, but all the stories I have heard have been that he was a great guy and a great person. For me to receive an award that has his name on it is an honor and I am thankful. I guess I am doing something right. I am just going to continue living how I am living now. Give thanks to the lord above, keep praying, loving my family and keep working on myself to be a better person each and every day."
Robinson joined the Vikings after spending 28 days last summer in a treatment facility for alcohol abuse. Upon signing with the team, Robinson openly discussed his troubled past, his battle with alcohol and how it led to a four-game suspension with the Seattle Seahawks before they released him after his troubles continued.
"I decided to look at myself in the mirror and I came to a decision: ‘What's it going to be? Do you like this person? Do you want to change or whatever it may be?' A lot of stuff happened. I'm glad it happened because I am a better person for it," he said.
Robinson has spent the season thanking the Vikings for taking a chance on him upon his release from treatment and has continued to answer questions about his past without trying to run from it.
"I always have felt that I was and am a good person. Everyone has told me that," Robinson said. "I guess all these things – fame, money and success – sometimes will get you away from certain avenues that are working for you like your morals, values or whatever it may be. I feel like I shied away from it. But as far as me being a good person, and being able to talk to and smile, I feel like I was always like that. The difference is I am a little more open."
Robinson is averaging a conference-leading 26 yards per kickoff return, which was good enough to put him in the Pro Bowl.
BIG CHALLENGE AHEAD
Facing the Bears will be no easy task for the Vikings, who lost to them 28-3 in Chicago on Oct. 16. That started an eight-game winning streak for the Bears, who are now 11-4 and have the league's top-rated defense – eighth against the rush and third against the pass.
"They are an elite defense, probably the best, one of the top couple defenses in the league," Tice said. "They have an opportunity to set a team record as far as points scored. So we have that challenge ahead of us as far as not being the ones to allow them to set a record."
The Bears also look a little more capable of scoring points on offense since re-inserting Rex Grossman as their starting quarterback. With Kyle Orton as the starter, the Bears hadn't scored more than 20 points during their winning streak.
With Grossman as the starter last week in Green Bay, the Bears scored 24 points in a 24-17 win.