Perhaps no other team in the NFL had more reasons to give up on its season than the Minnesota Vikings. They had become a national punch line after allegations of improper and possibly criminal sexual conduct arose from a boat cruise last month reportedly attended by close to 20 Vikings players. They lost five of their first seven games in a season in which their bolstered defense was supposed to compensate for the offseason exit of wide receiver Randy Moss. Standout quarterback Daunte Culpepper suffered a season-ending knee injury.
But the Vikings didn't surrender on their season, and suddenly they again have hopes of being a playoff contender in the NFC. They won their second straight game here Sunday, getting a 48-yard field goal by kicker Paul Edinger with 10 seconds remaining to upset the New York Giants, 24-21.
"Everybody is still believing," Vikings Coach Mike Tice said. "Just because the media says we're out, and all the soothsayers and all the people that think they know about our football team -- really, the only one that knows about our football team is me. I really don't get myself caught up in my sister calling me and telling me so-and-so said this about you, so-and-so said this about your team. They really don't know me and they don't know our football team.
"Obviously our football team hasn't given up. Obviously our football team didn't quit, and obviously our football team believes in something. Regardless of what everybody says, it doesn't matter to me. It really doesn't. It matters to me that the guys believe in each other and they stuck together, and I'm proud of them. They deserve it. They deserve this win. It's a big win for them."
Tice was limping around following the game after suffering a knee injury on the sideline when a Giants player was blocked into him on a punt play. He said he suffered a sprained or torn medial collateral ligament, but he wasn't complaining. He directed his club to fast starts but sluggish finishes the previous two seasons, and now he can hope for a reversal.
"It's a long season," Tice said. "We came in [Sunday], and we'd only played the first half. I know for some of us it felt like we'd played the whole season and another training camp, but that was in fact not the truth. . . . We've started 6-0 and 5-1 before, and it hasn't really gotten us very much. It got us one playoff win in those two years. We didn't start out real well. We've had some injuries. We've had some off-field issues we're dealing with. But this team is starting to grow up. New leaders have emerged."
One of those leaders is Brad Johnson, the former Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who returned to the Vikings in the offseason to back up the usually durable Culpepper. That seemingly was a formula for picking up some no-stress paychecks without having to leave the sideline. But Culpepper's injury put Johnson into the lineup, and the Vikings have won his two starts.
The offense certainly wasn't the reason the club won Sunday, mustering only 137 yards. But the Vikings became the first NFL team ever to score on interception, kickoff and punt returns in the same game, and the offense finally crafted one decent drive after the Giants tied with the game with just less than 11/2 minutes to play. That set up Edinger's field goal, and left the Vikings celebrating. First-year owner Zygmunt Wilf, a long-time Giants season-ticket holder, watched the game from the Vikings' sideline and enthusiastically congratulated his players and coaches in the postgame locker room.
"I'm happy for Zygi," Tice said. "It meant a lot to him to win. I didn't lose any games to Texas teams for Red [McCombs, the team's former owner who lives in San Antonio], and I don't plan on losing any games against New Jersey teams, New York teams, for Zygi."
The health of Giants co-owner Robert Tisch is said to be deteriorating. Tisch was diagnosed last year as having inoperable brain cancer.
"We have been hoping beyond hope that things would get better," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said Sunday. "[But] I received word coming off the [practice] field Friday night that it was not the case, that he was in fact very, very ill."
Coughlin, Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi and two of the team's players, tailback Tiki Barber and defensive end Michael Strahan, visited Tisch on Saturday. Tisch's sons Steve and Jonathan, executives in the club's front office, addressed the team Saturday.
"I wanted to express to the players, the coaches and really the whole staff what being involved with the New York Giants has meant to my father," Steve Tisch said in a written statement released by the team. "I think the qualities of the whole Giants family are the qualities that he loved about being involved with the team -- the team being so much a part of New York, the character, the commitment, the talent and how athletic and special these [players] are. And for the 14 years he's had the privilege of owning this team, it's been the greatest gift for him, professionally and personally."
Tisch, a former United States postmaster general, purchased 50 percent of the franchise from the Mara family in 1991. The Giants' other co-owner, Wellington Mara, died last month.
E. Manning Struggles
The Giants were exasperated with their five-turnover performance Sunday. "I can say with great confidence this team [the Vikings] is not better than us, and we gave it to them," Barber said.
Said Coughlin: "It's just beyond belief that we would play that poorly."
Any talk of a Manning-vs.-Manning Super Bowl can be put to rest for at least a week. Older brother Peyton helped the Indianapolis Colts improve their record to 9-0 with a victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday, but younger brother Eli threw four interceptions for the Giants. He accepted blame for the defeat afterward.
"We just had too many mistakes," Eli Manning said. "We had some penalties, some drops. The turnovers are all on me. I don't have a reason. We just have to get back to work and get back to playing better football. . . . We didn't make any big plays. We didn't step up when we had to."
The Giants squandered a chance to take a two-game lead on the Washington Redskins in the NFC East. Their record dropped to 6-3, keep them a game ahead of the 5-4 Redskins. The Dallas Cowboys, who are 5-3 entering tonight's game at Philadelphia, can tie the Giants for first place with a win over the Eagles. . . .
Edinger kicked a 56-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Green Bay Packers last month. But he'd misfired from 40 and 32 yards Sunday before kicking the game-winner.
"I need him to get to hit the ones between the game-winning ones," Tice said.
The NFC North has been ridiculed all season, but all four of its teams won Sunday. The division is only the third-worst in the league, according to the combined records of the clubs. The four NFC North teams have 16 wins, one more than the NFC West clubs and two more than the AFC East membership.
By that standard, the NFC South is the league's best division. Its teams have combined for 21 victories, one more than the NFC East and AFC West.
Chicago rookie tailback Cedric Benson is scheduled to undergo an MRI exam today after injuring his right knee Sunday. Benson, the fourth overall selection in the NFL draft in April, ran for 50 yards Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers in his first pro start. He's rushed for 237 yards this season, mostly as Thomas Jones's backup. . . .
Pittsburgh quarterback Charlie Batch, making his second straight start in place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger, broke his hand late in the first half of the Steelers' victory Sunday night over the Cleveland Browns.
Tommy Maddox took over in the second half but again was shaky. Maddox inherited the starting job the first time that Roethlisberger got hurt this season, but lost a game to Jacksonville with an interception. The Steelers hope to have Roethlisberger, who's coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, back in the lineup this week, but might be forced to start Maddox at Baltimore next weekend if Roethlisberger doesn't heal in time.