In preparation for today's NFC championship game, the Minnesota Vikings have gone from frigid Minneapolis to balmy Tampa to chilly Washington, which figures, because they've been hot and cold all season.

Coach Jerry Burns gives his standard "I don't know" answer whenever asked to explain this most recent phenomenon -- the Vikings as an NFL powerhouse. Playoff routs over New Orleans and San Francisco defy their 8-7 regular season record, considering they'd lost three of their last four regular season games and made the playoffs only when the St. Louis Cardinals lost in Dallas.

Actually, they were 8-4 coming into the playoffs if you substract the three strike games they lost, and most of the Vikings do. But by winning, they're adding to the replacement players' pocketbooks. Keith Bishop was a third-string quarterback on the strike team, never played and has earned $9,000 in the last two weeks.

Bishop, who recently was laid off of his teaching job, said: "I might wind up making more in those three weeks of not playing {during the strike} than I would have teaching a whole year of high school."

If the Vikings win today, Bishop is guaranteed $18,000, so he'll definitely be rooting for Wade Wilson, Anthony Carter, Gary Zimmerman, Keith Millard, Issiac Holt and so on.

If there's a reason the Vikings are here, it probably has a lot to do with guys like Wilson, Carter, Zimmerman, Millard and Holt, not to mention general manager Mike Lynn and -- unwittingly -- former coach Les Steckel.

On offense, the Vikings' quarterback job has become a bicycle built for two, though ex-Pro Bowler Tommy Kramer must give Wilson the handlebars this week. Wilson says he doesn't know if he plays well in big games because he says he's never played in any. For sure, he has a stronger arm than Kramer does, which means Carter -- a swift wide receiver -- can go as deep as he wants.

In a rather bumpy season, Carter has smoothed out the Vikings' ride, catching 16 passes in the two playoff games and setting NFL playoff records for most punt return yardage in a game (against New Orleans) and most receiving yardage in a game (against San Francisco).

Carter came to Minnesota in a roundabout way. In 1985, the Vikings had the fourth pick in the first round of the NFL draft. Lynn wanted to pick wide receiver Eddie Brown, but his cohorts talked him into selecting defensive end Chris Doleman instead.

"If we'd selected Eddie Brown, we never would've gone after Carter," Lynn said.

At the time, Carter was with the U.S. Football League's Michigan Panthers, but his NFL rights belonged to the Miami Dolphins. Lynn said he called Dolphins Coach Don Shula and asked about obtaining Carter. Shula told Lynn he definitely wanted a linebacker and a No. 2 pick in return. Lynn said he could have his pick and any linebacker on his team, but he had to decide right then. Shula took 20 minutes and picked linebacker Robin Sendlein.

Lynn, who officially took over the reins of the team in mid-1984, helped turn it around with the indirect help of Steckel. Steckel, who became the Vikings' coach when Bud Grant retired in '83, made training camp a boot camp and alienated his players. So Grant came back for the '85 season, after which the Vikings hired Burns.

Burns was the ingredient Lynn needed: an experienced coach who knew what he wanted. Lynn said that before the 1986 draft, he asked what Burns wanted most and Burns answered: "An offensive left tackle with two to three years experience."

Lynn said, "Jerry, I asked what you want in the draft."

Burns: "I told you, darnit. I want an offensive left tackle with two to three years experience."

So, Lynn went out and acquired the rights to Zimmerman, a standout tackle for two years with the USFL's Los Angeles Express. Steckel's Vikings had gone 3-13, but where Lynn made up ground was with the other league, though it bothered some other NFL owners when Lynn ended up paying some USFL teams to get players out of contracts.

"When you get a {linebacker David} Howard, a Zimmerman and a Carter and a Millard, that's like having two or three No. 1's in one year," Lynn said. "So, instead of taking three to five years {to rebuild}, you're taking two years . . . It {rebuilding} is a process anybody can do in three to five years, but our process was quickened because of that window of opportunity -- the USFL.

"We took a hell of a risk, though. This thing could've gone the other way, too. It could've been a disaster. Their league was still functioning. We could've been standing there losing players. It was high risk, high reward."

The reward is what you see now, a team that is a game away from the Super Bowl. Millard, who had played with the USFL's Jacksonville Bulls before signing with Minnesota in 1985, has become a consistent defensive tackle. His job today is to clog the middle and stop the Washington runners.

Left cornerback Holt must do his share to stop the Redskins' receivers. Holt had problems earlier this season, but Burns said he's been one of the differences in the playoffs, last week helping to shut down San Francisco's Jerry Rice.

Still, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week interviewed a psychologist named Greg Cylkowski who said: "Ike Holt scares the daylights out of me. He can make the big play, but he gets sucked into things. His shirt's hanging out. He doesn't have good attention to detail. He might make eight interceptions a year, but he'll make mistakes. I'd be picking on him . . . "

Actually, if the Vikings have a weak link, it's their choices on coin flips. The Redskins have won their last two meetings with the Vikings in overtime, winning the flip and going straight in for a score. Both times, the coin came up heads, so Doleman said, "We better get it right if there's a next time."