The Minnesota Vikings remember all too well what happened to them a year ago in the final seconds of their last regular season game. They were knocked out of playoff contention when Nathan Poole caught a 28-yard touchdown pass that gave the Arizona Cardinals an 18-17 victory.
On Sunday, Minnesota faces the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field and finds itself in a similarly precarious position. If the Vikings win, they'll be in the postseason for the first time in Mike Tice's three-year tenure as coach. They could still earn a wild-card spot if Carolina or St. Louis loses.
Vikings linebackers E.J. Henderson, left, a former Maryland star, Chris Claiborne and Keith Newman are part of a defense that is ranked 29th overall.
(Ann Heisenfelt -- AP)
"Back in, jog in, walk in, run in, do a cartwheel in, who cares?" Tice said earlier this week. "Just get in because there are only six teams from each conference in. . . . We can say underachiever, overachiever, lofty goals coming out of training camp, this, that, injuries, distractions. The main thing is there are a lot of teams that would like to be where we are right now."
The Vikings started the season with lofty expectations, shoring up their defense by acquiring cornerback Antoine Winfield from Buffalo in free agency, promoting former Maryland star E.J. Henderson to starting middle linebacker and drafting Southern California defensive end Kenechi Udeze in the first round. They also added a new defensive coordinator, Ted Cotrell, formerly with the New York Jets.
But they have also suffered a number of debilitating injuries, losing starting tight end Jim Kleinsasser and right tackle Mike Rosenthal for the season in the first two weeks. Then it got worse. Eight of 22 starters have missed three games or more, including running back Michael Bennett (five games), Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss (four) and Pro Bowl center Matt Birk (four).
They got off to a 5-1 start but, just as they did after a 6-0 start a year ago, went into a swoon. They have lost six of their last nine games, including a 34-31 defeat at home against the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Eve. It was the second time the Vikings have lost to the Packers by the same score in precisely the same manner -- a Ryan Longwell field goal on the last play of the game. Four of the Vikings' losses have been by five points or less.
"It takes your insides out," Tice said after the Green Bay loss. "When you've worked as hard as we've worked and gone through all the stuff we've gone through, it rips out part of your insides that doesn't grow back."
The Vikings got an emotional lift Monday when owner Red McCombs announced that he was exercising the $1 million option on Tice's contract that would have expired Jan. 1. That was an extremely popular move in the locker room, and was announced early in the week, McCombs said, because he did not want it to be a distraction before the final critical game.
"We made it harder on ourselves," quarterback Daunte Culpepper said after last week's loss to the Packers. "We just have to be of the mind frame to go into any situation, to go into anybody's home field, and win a game."
If they do, Culpepper, as always, will be a major factor. He enters the final week of the season with the highest quarterback rating in the NFC at 112.2, and has had a career year, with 37 touchdown passes and 4,418 passing yards, both franchise records. At 6 feet 4 and 264 pounds, he is also a threat to run when all else fails, gaining 382 yards and averaging 4.4 yards a carry.
Culpepper said his records won't mean much unless the Vikings make the playoffs. "Every day I go to the [training] facility and I know it's going to be tough," he said. "But I love it. I love this game and I think our passion and love for the game is going to be what pushes us through the playoffs."
Despite his hamstring and back problems, Moss has caught 12 touchdown passes, though the Packers held him to only two receptions for 30 yards. At times, Moss looked as if he was merely going through the motions on his patterns, but Tice said afterward that Moss's back wasn't bothering him and that the Packers were constantly double-covering him to make sure he would not beat them deep.
Bennett gained a season-high 92 yards on 17 carries against the Packers and also scored on a 38-yard reception, indicating afterward he is fully recovered from knee injuries that bothered him earlier in the year. "I feel like I'm back to 100 percent," he said.
"He's looking good," Birk said. "Mike's got that speed and he can be explosive when the lanes are there. When he gets in the open field, it makes it tough on safeties and d-backs to tackle him because the angles aren't there."
The Vikings are ranked third overall offensively in the NFL, 15th rushing and second passing. Putting up yards and points has not been all that difficult, but the defense has struggled all season and is ranked 29th overall in the league, 23rd against the run and 30th against the pass.
Never was that deficiency more obvious than in Friday's game against the Packers, when Green Bay scored 10 points in the last 3 1/2 minutes with drives of 80 and 76 yards to rally from a seven-point deficit. Brett Favre threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns on a day the Vikings gave up 452 total yards.
Still, Vikings defenders should have a far easier time against the Redskins' offense Sunday, especially with a postseason berth on the line.
"We have a good enough team to win the whole thing," Culpepper insisted this week. "When everyone believes that on this team, that's when we're going to do it."