Vikes Can Learn From Elite 8

The Vikings players, coaches and front office personnel -- like the rest of the football fans around the country -- will spend the next two days watching the divisional playoffs and the teams that are still alive. Something can be learned from the experience -- even though they're not involved in the game. How did the teams still playing get there? That may be the blueprint the Vikings need.

The next two days are arguably the best two days of the NFL season. The eight teams that have earned the right to still be playing while 75 percent of the league watches are prepared to step up and show why they have that right.

As one of the 24 on the outside looking in, the Vikings can take a long look at what got the teams that are still competing for the Lombardi Trophy to the point they're at. For just the second time since the NFL went to 12 playoff teams, all four home teams won in the wild card round. Of those teams that remain, the dream of a championship awaits.

A look at those teams speaks volumes. Starting in the AFC, the Chargers have the league MVP in LaDainian Tomlinson and a Pro Bowl QB in Phillip Rivers – a franchise QB the Chargers were willing to trade the top pick in the 2005 draft to obtain. The other team coming off the bye is Baltimore, which has quarterback Steve McNair, which former Vikings assistant Brian Billick signed in the offseason to cure his career-long head coaching struggle at quarterback. The Ravens went from mediocre to 13-3 in one year – by no small measure by signing a veteran QB that could bring some punch to a listless offense.

It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the two underdogs in the AFC this weekend are the Patriots and the Colts. The Pats have won three Super Bowls and, while underachieving in the postseason, Tony Dungy, Peyton Manning et al have compiled the closest thing to a regular-season dynasty as there is in the modern era of football. The Patriots embody the 40-for-60 mantra of the 1969 Vikings that made their first of four Super Bowl appearances, and Manning is the embodiment of why QBs are picked on the first round of draft day.

In the NFC, the Vikings need no reminding of the Bears' largesse. The Saints are a surprise, but earned their way to a bye week by killing the playoff hopes of the Falcons, Panthers and Cowboys with decisive wins. The Seahawks have been far from dominant, but, as the reigning conference champion, until they're knocked off the hill, they still wear the crown. The Eagles, which used to call Brad Childress one of the family, have won six straight games and have momentum on their side – thanks to signing a veteran quarterback in the event of an injury to Donovan McNabb.

The Vikings can learn a lesson from all of the remaining teams still in the hunt for a title. They have taken different paths, but they share common ground. Most have veteran quarterbacks that have carried them. All have had to go outside of the organization to add key component parts to get where they are today. All have been losers as recently as last year and none are more than three years out of being in the same position the Vikings are now. There's reason for hope – hopefully the Vikings' decision-makers will watch this weekend's game and find out what they have that the current Vikings roster doesn't.

* The buzz around Wisconsin about whether Brett Favre is returning in 2007 took another interesting twist when the headline story concerned Favre relinquishing his membership to an area country club. The news was taken hard by Packer Nation, who theorized the revelation as a sign that Favre is retiring. The notion was refuted by Packer brass that cited that Favre didn't play golf as much since Ryan Longwell left the team. If that is all is took to get Favre to retire, the Vikings should have signed Longwell two years ago.
* The Colts-Ravens game will likely be viewed by the national press as a matchup of the team that currently plays in Baltimore against the team that broke the hearts of fans when the Bekin's Van Lines trucks pulled out of town under the cloak of darkness. But somewhere, recently unemployed head coach Dennis Green will have to smile, as former coordinators Dungy and Billick meet in the postseason for the first time.
* Former Vikings practice squad wide receiver Ryan Hoag was signed by the Redskins. Hoag gained notoriety by being "Mr. Irrelevant" – the last player selected in the 2003 draft by the Raiders. He spent part of last season on Washington's practice squad.
* For playoff fans who believe in karma, the teams to watch are the Chargers and Eagles. San Diego has won 10 games in a row, while Philly has won six straight. The next-highest winning streak is a tie of four wins each – by the playoff-rested Ravens and the idle Packers.
* The NFL has latched on to the groundswell of support for the New Orleans Saints – the most recent "America's Team" candidate. On the league website, fans are encouraged to "Be A Saint" – a prompt to do good things. A portion of the proceeds from the sales of shirts and a commemorative coin will go the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Hopefully some of that money will go to those victims whose homes and neighborhoods will never be replaced. While the tourist areas of the city have been repaired, there are many areas of the city that, all this time later, still look like Katrina hit last week. The Saints are the feel-good story of 2006-07, but if casual fans want to make a difference, find a charity you can trust and contribute directly to those who need the money most. Then you will truly "Be A Saint."

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