Having lost seven of their past 10 games, nobody -- not Coach Mike Tice nor Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper -- disputes that the Minnesota Vikings backed into the playoffs. After yesterday's 21-18 loss to the Washington Redskins to close the regular season, however, the Vikings said they are only concerned with making the most of their chance.
The Vikings could have clinched their first playoff appearance since 2000 by beating Green Bay last week, instead of blowing a late lead at home and losing in overtime, or by beating the Redskins. Instead of securing their own fate, the Vikings retreated to their locker room at FedEx Field and could celebrate a postseason berth only after the Carolina Panthers had a potential game-tying field goal blocked on the final play of their 21-18 loss at home yesterday to the New Orleans Saints.
The Vikings and Daunte Culpepper stumble, but make the playoffs. "We did what it takes to get in," he said.
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
As Tice relayed the news to his players, some clapped and others smiled. Minnesota (8-8) will play at Green Bay in a first-round game. While less than optimal, it was a much better feeling than last season, when a similar 3-7 collapse -- punctuated by a game-losing touchdown against woeful Arizona on the final play of the season -- kept the Vikings from the playoffs. Had Carolina rallied to beat New Orleans yesterday, combined with a subsequent victory by St. Louis over the New York Jets, Minnesota also would have failed to make the playoffs this season.
"Backing in, whatever, it doesn't matter," said Culpepper, who had 299 yards passing and 24 yards rushing yesterday to set an NFL single-season record with 5,123 combined yards. "We did what it takes to get in. We started our season off 5-1. . . . People can say what they want to say about us getting in the playoffs, but now it's all about getting a win. I don't care how we got there."
With an offense led by Culpepper and wide receiver Randy Moss, the Vikings have the potential to be a dangerous team in the NFC playoffs, which lack a dominant favorite. Tice said at times this season his team looked like a powerhouse and other times "it looks like we shouldn't be in" the playoffs.
Minnesota's recent struggles also included losses to the New York Giants and Chicago Bears. The Vikings were 0-5 against teams that qualified for the postseason, including a pair of 34-31 losses to Green Bay on last-second field goals. However, several Vikings were excited for another opportunity to play their rivals.
"We know we match up well against them," Culpepper said.
The Vikings said their primary concerns are relocating an offensive rhythm and avoiding the costly mistakes that led to yesterday's defeat. Moss was penalized for a false start after moving before the snap on third and goal from the 1 in the second quarter and the Vikings were forced to settle for a field goal.
In the fourth quarter, a 62-yard touchdown pass from Culpepper to Moss was negated by a holding penalty. One series later, driving near midfield, wide receiver Nate Burleson was behind the defense at the Redskins 25-yard line for what almost certainly would have been a touchdown had he not dropped the ball when Culpepper hit him in stride.
"This team has been driving me crazy, to be honest with you," said Tice.