Sunday Morning Massacre

Mike Tice, Michael Bennett and Matt Birk all echo the importance of the Vikings' strong finish … Plus news, notes and quotes on Tice the playoff analyst, a former Vikings coordinator, a former Vikings player among the Hall of Fame candidates and a current Viking named second-team All-Pro.

No one in the Vikings' organization would admit to being pleased with the team's 6-10 mark this season, but the record became a bit more palatable because of a strong finish that included a three-game winning streak.

After going 2-6 in the first half of the season, the Vikings became a much more competitive team over the final eight games. Their biggest losses during that stretch were a pair of seven-point setbacks to the Giants and Patriots. There also was a 30-24 overtime loss to Atlanta and a 26-22 loss at Green Bay.

The Vikings held the lead in three of those four losses. The only game in which they didn't was against New England when the Patriots took a 21-0 lead but had to hang on for a 24-17 victory.

In the final three games, the Vikings did big-time damage to the postseason hopes of New Orleans and Miami before finishing with a victory at Detroit.

But the most important thing about those victories might have been the fact the Vikings showed the ability to win tight games, something many young teams struggle to do.

"I think we learned our lesson, and those last three games we were able to close out some games that were close," said running back Michael Bennett, who had 1,296 yards on 255 carries to finish third in the NFC in rushing behind Deuce McAllister and Tiki Barber. "It's a great way to end your season. You hate to say it's over, but it's over. We've got to look forward to next year."

Center Matt Birk echoed Bennett's feelings.

"It's kind of sad and kind of … even though we finished strong it's disappointing because now you sit back and think what could have been," Birk said. "You see all these teams getting into the playoffs and we know we're on the same level as a lot of those teams.

"It's also a lesson we've learned, and we feel good about ourselves this offseason and make sure when we start the year next year that we learn it's tough to come out of a hole from the start. So we have to start winning games right away next year."

Bennett, who appears to be developing into one of the NFL's elite running backs, gave Tice and his staff credit for holding things together when the team was playing its worst.

"They really kept us together as a family," he said. "We were able to grow on each other and learn a lot of things growing through the season with each other. I think it really means a lot to us all that we were able to stay together and stay as a close-knit group."

Head coach Mike Tice, for one, is confident his team won't be saying its good-byes after Week 17 next season.

"We're going to the playoffs next year, I'll tell you that right now," he said. "That's why I said we're not as far off as we might seem. We'll all get better. I will certainly be better next year and the coaches will be better, the coaches that came from college will be better.

"(Running backs coach) Dean Dalton, who did a great job this year, will be a better coach, and he did a great job this year. I think the line coach (Steve Loney), now that he's got a taste of stunts and blitzes in the NFL, will be better. And in his first year we were able to lead the league in rushing and set the team record so that's a pretty good start.

"Next year our goal is to get into the playoffs, without a doubt, absolutely. We're not going to set our goal to win more than we lose, we're going to set our goal to be in the playoffs."

Zimmerman candidate for Hall
Former Vikings offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman is among 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joins running back Marcus Allen as the only first-time candidates among the finalists.

Zimmerman started his professional football career with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League before joining the Vikings in 1986. He was traded to the Broncos in 1993 after a fallout with Vikings management.

During his time with the Vikings, Zimmerman was named to the Pro Bowl four times. He ended up being named to eight Pro Bowl teams and earning first- or second-team All-Pro honors eight times.

Zimmerman retired from the NFL after the Broncos beat the Packers in 1998 in Super Bowl XXXII.

The Class of 2003 will be announced Jan. 25, the day before the Super Bowl. At least four and no more than seven new members will be enshrined Aug. 3 in Canton, Ohio.

The Hall of Fame has a 39-member board of selectors who decided on the 14 modern-era finalists from a group of 74 players, coaches and contributors. The initial group included former Vikings running backs Chuck Foreman, Roger Craig and Herschel Walker, as well as former Vikings quarterback Jim McMahon.

Tice the analyst
The Falcons' 27-7 rout of the Packers in the first round of the NFL playoffs came as a surprise to most everyone. But Tice probably was not too surprised to see the Falcons win.

Interviewed by the Boston Globe's Will McDonough for his thoughts on the Packers-Falcons game, Tice said: "If Atlanta comes in and doesn't get Lambeaued, then they have a real chance. But that Lambeau-weather mindset gets to teams. All that stuff about them never losing a game up there in cold weather or the playoffs. Atlanta has to get past that and go after them. I think they have a good shot at winning."

Tice was right on the money, a fact that made him quite happy considering the result was a Packers loss. "It was a great weekend. My son won his basketball tournament and Green Bay lost. It doesn't get any better than that," Tice said on ESPN Radio, where he is making regular contributions during the postseason.

Fazio retires
Foge Fazio, who served as a Vikings assistant from 1995 to '99 and was Green's defensive coordinator for four of those seasons, retired two days after the Browns were unable to hold a 17-point second-half lead against the Steelers and lost their first-round playoff game.

Fazio, 63, spent the past two seasons with the Browns after serving as the linebackers coach for Washington in 2000.

The loss against the Steelers was not the first time the Browns blew a big second-half lead this season. It also happened against Kansas City and Indianapolis. In Fazio's first season, the Browns defense had 33 interceptions but that number dropped to 17 in 2002.

"This is a decision I have been contemplating for awhile," Fazio said, "and I think it is best to do it right now."

Fazio began coaching football as an assistant at Ambridge High (Pa.) in 1961. He was head coach of the Pitt Panthers from 1982 to '85, guiding the team to two bowl games.

Notes
* Vikings defensive tackle Chris Hovan was named to the NFL's second-team All-Pro squad. He was the only Viking to be honored. La'Roi Glover of Dallas was the other tackle. Receiver Randy Moss, who was named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad, could not beat out first-teamers Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison and second-teamers Hines Ward, Eric Moulds and Jerry Rice. Birk, who also deserved consideration, could not beat out the Raiders' Barret Robbins (first team) and the Jets' Kevin Mawae (second team).

* Pro Football Weekly gave Tice a C-plus grade for the job he did this season. PFW said Tice "is growing on the job and was a much better coach in December than he was in September." In the NFC North, the Packers' Mike Sherman received an A, while the Bears' Dick Jauron had a C-plus and the Lions' Marty Mornhinweg had a C-minus.

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