It's testament to the high standards set by the Minnesota Vikings this season that a 41-21 playoff victory could come off, well, a touch ho-hum. Yet as they coolly dispatched the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, one couldn't help but wonder if the Vikes' 15-1 regular-season mark had merely earned them a second playoff bye. The Vikings' pleasingly expert offensive-line play and speedy defense drained the contest of drama in short order. The Cards--probably the worst of the dozen NFL teams to qualify for the postseason despite their wild-card victory over the Dallas Cowboys--were left utterly overwhelmed. By the third quarter, smokers who'd gathered in a chilly Metrodome foyer broke into a robust (if somewhat incongruous) chorus: "Packers suck! Vikings rule!" The Cardinals, it seems, didn't even merit ungracious denunciation.
The Atlanta Falcons promise to put the Vikings to a far more rigorous and more entertaining test. Heading into next Sunday's NFC championship game--the first conference championship ever played at the Metrodome, or any dome for that matter--the two teams have just three losses between them. The last time a championship pairing featured such impressive records? You'd have to go all the way back to the 1972 campaign, when the undefeated Miami Dolphins beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3 in the regular season) in the AFC title game. Of course, those were the days of the 14-game season, so statistically, this year's Vikings vs. Falcons lacks true precedent.
Duly impressed by the Vikes' unblemished home record and offensive firepower, the oddsmakers have cast the Falcons as the 11-point underdog. But Atlanta matches up surprisingly well against the Vikings. With overall offensive and defensive rankings of seventh and eighth, respectively, the Birds have prospered largely thanks to their bruising running game--a running game not unlike that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose Warrick Dunn/Mike Alstott tandem gave the Vikes' defense fits in Minnesota's sole loss this season. Atlanta running back Jamal Anderson, a strong and savvy runner with preternatural balance, established a new league mark for rushing attempts this season (410). He also broke the 100-yard mark 11 times and scored 16 touchdowns.
In the second half of the regular season, the Falcons, who possess the league's longest current winning streak, routed three playoff teams--New England (41-10), San Francisco (31-19), and Miami (38-16). They haven't lost since a 28-3 drubbing administered by the New York Jets on October 25. And that game deserves an asterisk, as the Birds were forced to play 44-year-old journeyman quarterback Steve DeBerg in place of injured starter Chris Chandler. With Chandler, whose 100.9 rating earned him a Pro Bowl birth alongside Randall Cunningham, the Falcons have sparkled. Indeed, over the past one-and-a-half seasons, Atlanta has been among the hottest teams in the league: After a dreadful 1-7 start in 1997, the club has lost just four of its past 25 games. (Over the same period, the Vikes have dropped only six.)
To be sure, the Vikings head into the contest with plenty of momentum, but they have benefited from questionable opposition. Against the Cardinals, they dominated from the outset, chewing up nearly eight minutes of the first quarter on a 13-play, 80-yard drive. They scored on seven of nine possessions. They didn't punt until the fourth quarter. Offensive coordinator Brian Billick, whose inventive schemes have placed him in the running for the league's plethora of head-coaching vacancies, worked in some nifty wrinkles for the Cards and gave Falcons defensive coordinator Rich Brooks plenty of distractions for this week's preparations. In the first quarter, Billick twice placed utility back David Palmer in the shotgun, yielding a clutch third-down conversion on the team's first scoring drive.
More significant, Billick exploited the Cards' understandable focus on pass defense. Eschewing his club's typical mad-bomber attack, Billick let his running backs establish the tempo. As a result, Robert Smith (who appears fully recovered from a knee sprain) rumbled for 124 yards, a franchise playoff record. Smith averaged an ample 6.5 yards per carry, and the team amassed an impressive total of 188 yards on the ground. For his part, Randall Cunningham turned in a typically efficient performance (17 of 27, for 236 yards and three touchdowns).
After the game, head coach Dennis Green was hard-pressed to find much to critique. Oh, there was a bit of sloppy tackling. Maybe a few too many penalties. But Green also took pains to note an old football truth: "If you don't stop the run in the National Football League playoffs, you don't win. It's that simple."
Stopping Anderson, though, won't be that simple.
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