Minnesota Vikings quarterback Jeff George knows there are skeptics out there who still wonder when, not if, he will self-destruct, throw another tantrum, publicly criticize a teammate or argue with his head coach, just as he has done at one time or another during his previous NFL stops in Indianapolis, Atlanta and Oakland.

He doesn't care.

"Who knows what the future holds," George said after leading the Vikings into the NFC semifinals with a 27-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, his first playoff triumph as a starting quarterback. "But this is nice. I don't talk about my past. I don't care about it. All I care about is what direction this team is going in. We got the first playoff win, and this feels nice."

The second playoff win may not come quite as easily for George and the Vikings. They'll go on the road Sunday to face the St. Louis Rams, the top seed in the conference with a 13-3 record and an offense that may be just as explosive as the Vikings', and a defense that has been forcing fumbles and interceptions in great big bunches all season.

If George and his teammates are shaking in their cleats, they're certainly not doing so in public.

"I'm just having a lot of fun," George said. "I really can't tell you how much fun it is. I say all the time that a smile goes a long way, and that's something I haven't been able to do in the last few years. Just being out there on the field, being around a great group of guys, being around a great supporting cast, there's a lot of smiling going on.

"That stuff is contagious. Whether it took me eight or nine years to figure it out, I think I've finally figured it out."

The enduring snapshot of George, 32, up until this magical season was an ugly sideline shouting match, captured by network cameras, with then-Atlanta Falcons coach June Jones in October 1996. Known in the Falcons' locker room as "Mr. Me," George was cut by the team the next week. He eventually hooked up with the Oakland Raiders, long known as a haven for bad boys, malcontents and the occasional head case over the years.

George did not endear himself to Oakland management last year because of the way he discussed the status of his groin injury, which kept him out most of last season, on his local radio show before sharing the same information with coaches and management. The Raiders, who didn't make the playoffs, also decided to let him go elsewhere.

His record as a starter, 37-70, spoke volumes, and there was not much, if any, interest in signing George in the offseason. Still, Vikings Coach Dennis Green has a reputation for bringing in players perceived as problems or even underachievers elsewhere.

Needing a backup for Randall Cunningham after trading Brad Johnson to Washington, he decided to sign George, who is playing for the league minimum $400,000 with incentives that likely will earn him about $1.5 million this year.

He has been a model citizen with the Vikings, perhaps realizing he may be running out of last chances.

George sat quietly through the first part of the season backing up Cunningham, last year's league most valuable player. But Cunningham struggled as the Vikings lost three of their first five games. George replaced him in the sixth game and while the Vikings lost that day to Detroit to fall to 2-4, he moved his team up and down the field with far more proficiency than the man he replaced.

Even Cunningham said at the time George deserved to be playing ahead of him. With strong-armed George at the controls of one of the league's most potent offenses, Minnesota won its next five games and eight of its last 10 in the regular season before Sunday's victory over Dallas, giving George a 1-1 playoff record.

George threw for 212 yards and three touchdowns against the Cowboys, only the third Minnesota quarterback to throw that many scoring passes in a playoff game. He's now 9-2 since taking over as starter, and could be a hot commodity when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this spring.

George has never played on a team with this many weapons, especially wide receivers Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jake Reed. And with running back Robert Smith now healthy after hernia surgery on Oct. 19, the Vikings can beat up teams on the ground or in the air, as the Cowboys learned against Minnesota's almost perfectly balanced attack.

"We've had lots of players who've had different identities and reputations at other places," Carter said. "And we've always accepted them. . . . I knew Jeff was going to do well. He has the talent, he has an understanding of this system and he has the maturity to play well. I'd have been surprised if he didn't play well.

"A lot of it is Coach Green. Right from the start, he tells people what their role is going to be, and what he expects. Our locker room is friendly and open. Guys can be themselves. Denny believes that no one is bigger than the team. He's always telling us, 'Embrace the role I give you.' "