Vikings Determined to Make Amends

The Vikings' horrible November 2006 started with one of the uglier offensive games in franchise history, a 9-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. This week, with the Vikings making a playoff push, players remember the carnage and use it as motivation heading back to the Bay Area.

Last year, Viking Update and other media outlets were calling the Vikings' four-game stretch that was going to begin with the 49ers a "November to Remember." All of the Vikings' November opponents – San Francisco, Green Bay, Miami and Arizona – were struggling mightily. While the Vikings were coming off a stinging defeat against the New England Patriots, where Tom Brady had almost 300 passing yards by halftime, they were facing what everyone viewed as the easiest part of the schedule.

The media types were quick to point out that, while the Vikings were 4-3 at the time they headed to the Bay Area, a brighter day was coming. There was every possibility the Vikings could win the next four games, get themselves to 8-3 and be one of the chest-thumpers in the NFC.

Instead, the Vikings lost the next three games and fell out of playoff contention. It all began in San Francisco, where the Vikings make their return this Sunday with fans, players and coaches again looking at a potential four-game run to set themselves up for a playoff surge.

The same feeling filled Winter Park that week in November last year, but those hopes got dashed in one of the ugliest games ever played. The 49ers managed just eight first downs. They ran 26 times for just 42 yards. They had only 91 yards passing and were outgained 238-136. San Francisco held the ball for just 25:15 of the game.

The worst of it? The 49ers won the game 9-3, thanks to three Vikings turnovers and an offense that couldn't move the ball with any consistency. While the Vikings defense did its best to confuse young QB Alex Smith and frustrate young RB Frank Gore (who had just 41 yards on 19 carries), the Vikings didn't score after getting a Ryan Longwell field goal on their opening drive of the game.

The frustration was palpable, as the defenses completely smothered and dominated the opposing offense.

"It was terrible," defensive tackle Pat Williams said. "It was one of the worst games I've been involved in at any level. The guys on the defense were asking (offensive players), ‘Can you guys please score some points?' It was very frustrating. But this year we're focused and we're looking at taking care of what we have to do. I don't expect to have only three points this time."

But the Vikings didn't expect to have that kind of production against the Niners last year either. It's one thing to lose to a team in a nail-biter that is a quality team that can make big plays. But the 49ers were NFC bottom feeders that, while showing the promise for the future, looked like a college team at the time. As the Niners built a 6-3 halftime lead and nothing was clicking at all for the Vikings offense, that frustration kept growing.

"When you lose a close game like that – a low-scoring game – it always hurts," linebacker Ben Leber said. "We were frustrated about it, but this is a new year and another game. We're a different team now than we were then. We're executing very well and dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. When you do that, good things happen."

As the game moved to the third quarter, there was promise. But two drives were killed by turnovers – a fumble and an interception by Brad Johnson. The clock kept ticking down and the score remained 6-3 into the fourth quarter.

While the Vikings' defensive players were exhorting their offensive teammates to get something going, the offense was just as frustrated. As dominating as the Vikings defense was when it came to stopping the San Francisco attack, the 49ers were returning the favor on every possession.

"It was a tough game for us offensively," center Matt Birk said. "We didn't do a heck of a lot and that was a credit to them. They run a good scheme and have some good players on defense. We didn't play well, but they deserve a lot of credit."

While it was difficult for many in the media to credit a 49ers team that was 2-5 and had lost its previous two games by a combined score of 89-29 and had allowed 34 or more points in five of its first seven games, it became a hard-to-swallow pill that proved to be a turning point in the Vikings' season. The loss dropped them to .500 and they never were at or above .500 from that point on.

Wide receiver Bobby Wade is one of the players on the Vikings 2007 roster that wasn't part of that debacle by the bay last year, but he said that there things that can be learned from that – both about the opponent and about the Vikings themselves.

"It's a big part in understanding their ability and their plan because they've still got a lot of the same players," Wade said. "But we've got to focus on the things that we're doing well this year, not really much matter about what happened last year because obviously we feel we have a new team and have different pieces where we want them at now. We've just got to play our kind of football."

The frustration in that game brought to a head the problems with the Vikings. The offense was inconsistent and couldn't put up points with any regularity. The defense was on a record-setting pace for stopping the run, but teams used the Patriots game as a blueprint to attack the Vikings through the air and completely abandon the run. Frustration grew. Tempers flared. Blame started getting thrown around. By the time December 2006 rolled around, the Vikings were a beaten team that was looking for excuses and pushing some blame at others.

A year later, there is no such playing of the blame game. While the offense sputtered early and the pass defense has been ranked at or near the bottom of the league for much of the season, the Vikings stuck together and have seen the results. As it stands now, if the Vikings win out, they not only can't be kept out of the playoffs, they would have a decent chance of catching the Giants for the top wild card spot. Nobody would have thought that in what had the makings of a November to forget after a crushing loss to the Packers. But frustration didn't set in. Tempers didn't flare. The blame game was nowhere to be seen.

"There isn't any finger-pointing here this year," Williams said. "The offense has struggled at times and the defense has struggled at times, but we don't point fingers. We stay together as a team. This is a family around here."

And, while the Niners again look like a team ripe to take a beating – losers of nine of their last 10 games – after what happened last year, there is no way that the Vikes are going to take them lightly this time around.

"For the guys that were here last year, we want to go out there and avenge the disappointment from last year," Leber said. "We want to prove that team that we're better than what we showed them last year. We felt we were the better team. Any time that is the situation, it's harder to take."

The Vikings' November to Remember showed up a year later than most predicted, but their collapse in 2006 began on the road in San Francisco. The 2007 Vikings are determined to exorcise those demons and start a new chapter in Vikings history – one that may well end in the playoffs if they take care of the teams they should beat, which, by looking at the schedule, would be all of them.

"Our goal is to go 4-0 in the fourth quarter of the season," Leber said. "We've been playing a one-game season for the last three weeks and that isn't going to change now. Our season is San Francisco on Sunday and we're going show them that last year's Vikings aren't this year's Vikings."

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