The Minnesota Vikings believe they've been involved in high-pressure, playoff-caliber games since they lost four of their first six contests this season. "Our backs were to the wall and everything was on the line every week," quarterback Jeff George said today. "I think that set the standard for how we're playing now."
Right now, the Vikings are the hottest team in the NFC, having won their last four games. The latest came this afternoon in a first-round playoff game against the outmanned Dallas Cowboys, eliminated in the opening week of the postseason for the second straight year, this time by a 27-10 margin by a Minnesota team that had no turnovers and 175 yards rushing.
As a result, the Vikings will travel to St. Louis to face the Rams on Sunday. They will face the high-powered top seed in the NFC playing in an indoor stadium that may be just as loud as the ear-shattering Metrodome, but Vikings Coach Dennis Green believes his team has been building the proper momentum and confidence over the last month for another Super Bowl run.
"We're hoping the momentum we were able to get today will affect St. Louis, which had the day off," he said with just a touch of bravado.
The Cowboys spent so much defensive scheming and energy trying to bottle up Minnesota's outstanding wide receivers, they had no answer for veteran running back Robert Smith. He gained a team playoff record 140 yards on 28 carries, and caught three passes for 58 more, including the first six of 27 straight points that sent Dallas to another offseason of turmoil.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who just last week said he thought his team was eminently capable of reaching the Super Bowl, declined to comment when asked if he was considering a head coaching change. Chan Gailey has taken the Cowboys to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, but none of the previous three head coaches in team history ever lost their first two playoff games.
"I really want to reserve any comment until late in the week," Jones said. "We're all too disappointed. We had much higher expectations. There's nothing embarrassing about being beaten by Minnesota here, but there is a frustration that's very legitimate for our organization. . . . We can't operate this way. We have to give ourselves a better shot. Squarely, it stands on my shoulders. This is where the buck stops. We fell short."
The Vikings were able to move short or long with virtual impunity today, once George and his coaches started figuring out the Dallas defense. The Cowboys almost always doubled Cris Carter and Randy Moss but were not able to get enough bodies to smack down Smith or his hard-charging linemen until they had ripped off countless big gains.
"I knew we'd be able to run the ball," said Smith, now healthy from an Oct. 19 hernia operation that forced him to miss three games and held him back until the last six weeks of the season. "They have a small, quickish front. . . . With our offensive line so much bigger and stronger than their front seven, you can wear them down physically and mentally. They get tired of us attacking them downhill."
The Cowboys were hardly tired at the start, with Emmitt Smith busting a 65-yard run on his team's first series before a touchdown-saving tackle by cornerback Kenny Wright. That shoestring stop proved vital when the Vikings stood firm on first and goal at the 3 and forced a field goal.
The Cowboys opened a 10-3 lead with their only touchdown drive of the day, a seven-play, 79-yard effort that ended with Emmitt Smith going five yards untouched on a cutback run. But Eddie Murray's extra point with five minutes left in the first quarter would mark the last time Dallas scored this season.
Robert Smith got the Vikings even with a 26-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass and run on third and 25 from the Dallas 26. It was a play the Vikings had worked on all week, but in practice, Smith said George never dumped off the ball to him. Today he did, and with a move at the 10 to elude safety George Teague, Smith steamed into the end zone for a touchdown that would mark a stretch of 24 straight Minnesota points.
Smith helped set up his team's next touchdown with a 14-yard gain on third down that started at the Vikings 28. George dropped back into a shotgun formation, then launched a pass down the right side toward Moss, who caught the ball in the end zone for a 17-10 lead with 28 seconds left in the half.
"I think we've gotten Dallas on that play three out of three times," Moss said. "I came off the ball, saw the guy turn and I just had to go up when the ball was in the air. I just had to go up and get it."
Meantime, the Cowboys continued to self-destruct. There were dropped passes, an offensive interference call on Rocket Ismail that negated a key first down, and Emmitt Smith gaining only 19 of his 99 rushing yards in the second half. The final indignity was wide receiver Jason Tucker's fumble at the Minnesota 10 as he struggled for extra yards early in the final quarter, with his team trailing by 17.
Essentially, it was season over for an 8-9 Dallas team that lost eight of its nine games on the road.
"The last few years we've underachieved," Dallas cornerback Deion Sanders said, adding that he's not sure if he'll be back next year. "There are some situations we have to address . . . We had five guys in the Pro Bowl, and another two or three should have been there, and we're out in the first round? That's not good enough."