Bound for Glory

No contest: MVP front-runner Randall Cunningham and Co. punched Jacksonville's ticket big-time
Craig Lassig

In the middle of the fourth quarter, as the Minnesota Vikings were applying the final artful touches to last Sunday's 50-10 embarrassment of the AFC Central Division champion Jacksonville Jaguars, the fans at the Metrodome broke out in an ecstatic chant. The simple, two-word mantra, emanating from the north end zone, rose from a murmur to a sonic boom in a matter of moments. "SOO-PER BOWL! SOO-PER BOWL! SOO-PER BOWL!" There was no cue from the Jumbotron, no prompting from the public-address announcer to "show your Purple Pride."

The outburst--tribal and lusty and, in the context of the typical arena-style electronic manipulations of fan celebration, rare in its unforced spontaneity--was born of a collective realization that the Vikings are, at long last, the Team to Beat. At 14-1, they need only score a paltry 12 points next Saturday to break the NFL's single-season scoring record. More important, they need only win three more games--two of which will be played at the Dome--to rid the franchise of that nagging "can't win the big one" legacy.

History was in the air all night. Before the game, Vikings of the past appeared on the field to pay tribute to Fred Zamberletti, the team's trainer for the past 38 years. Then the legends returned to their seats and suites, where they, along with the second-largest crowd ever to attend a Vikings home game, watched some history in the making.

The action on the field was punctuated by a torrent of announcements celebrating the establishment of new team and league records. Wide receiver Cris Carter snagged his 100th career touchdown reception, surpassing former Packer Don Hutson for second place on the all-time NFL TD-reception list. On a sweetly executed 43-yard flea flicker, rookie wide receiver Randy Moss racked up his 10th TD catch of 40 yards or more, tying a league mark that has stood unchallenged since Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch posted it in 1951. Gary Anderson added to his record-setting streak of consecutive field goals (37 and counting). Cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock contributed to a fourth-quarter scoring spree (17 points in 48 seconds) with a 30-yard interception return for a TD, his third of the season: another franchise record.

The Vikes, who went undefeated at the Dome for the first time since 1989, locked up home-field advantage for as long as they remain in the playoffs. Quarterback Brad Johnson and running back Robert Smith both returned to the lineup on Sunday after missing time owing to injuries; both played well, a fact easily overlooked in a game that exhausted superlatives. (Speaking of overlooked facts: In the past four games, the Vikings have racked up 182 points--more than the Philadelphia Eagles have scored all season.)

In the weekend's other NFC action, rival playoff contenders revealed encouraging signs of vulnerability. The 49ers, who possess the only offense capable of keeping pace with the Viking scoring machine, went flat, losing to a banged-up New England Patriots team that was without quarterback Drew Bledsoe. The Cowboys also stumbled, managing just 13 points in a slim victory over the lackluster Eagles. The Falcons, at 13-2 the most evident obstacle between the Vikings and a trip to Miami, struggled to squeak out a 24-17 victory over the lowly Lions. Less likely potential playoff foes (the Packers and the Cardinals, or perhaps the Giants or the Buccaneers) are just that: less likely to mount a challenge against the Vikings at home, where the defense has surrendered an average of just 10 points per game.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, suffered the sort of defeat from which teams seldom rebound. Yes, they were playing with a third-string rookie quarterback. But that doesn't explain 50-10. Not in December. As the Jacksonville players glumly showered and dressed after the game, few had much to say beyond the usual platitudes (the Vikes are a great big-play team, a well-oiled machine; the Jags need to "regroup and focus on the playoffs"). Cornerback Deon Figures did find the words to put the loss into perspective. "I don't want to feel like this ever again," he said.

In that case, he'd better hope the Jaguars don't make it to the Super Bowl.

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