They Might Be Giants
So, in losing five of their last six games, the Vikings not only backed into the playoffs, they could barely find reverse. So everyone says Dennis Green will be coaching somewhere else next season. So the Vikes are down to a second-string quarterback and a fourth-string center who's really a guard. So virtually every sports reporter in the Western Hemisphere has given up on the team. All things considered, you have to figure this is the year the Vikes win a playoff game under Coach Green.
No, seriously. They can win at New York. Take the 41/2 points and bet your children's education fund on it. And to put the last six weeks in perspective, rarely has a five-game losing streak proved so relatively harmless. Aside from whatever existential crises it prompted among players and fans, all the skid did was cost the Vikes a home playoff game in the first round (which probably would've been blacked out anyway). In light of the Packers' blitzkrieg finish, there's no way the Vikings were ever going to surpass them and earn a bye this weekend. So, instead of winning, say, 11 or 12 games and hosting the Lions or Buccaneers, the team has to go to New York, a better matchup for the Vikes anyway, home or away.
The fact is the NFC East Champion Giants have gone from last to first by fattening up on some of the worst. They went 7-0-1 against their divisional foes, whose combined record is 24-38-2. They beat only two teams that finished over .500: the Lions, back when Detroit was doing its annual early-season impersonation of a lousy team, and the 8-7-1 Redskins, which hardly counts. Besides the Lions, Coach Jim Fassel's club played only two other playoff teams, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, who waxed the New Yorkers by a combined score of 60-21. After beating the Colts Sunday, everyone associated with the Vikings repeated the politically correct adage that it doesn't matter who we play in the playoffs, but you can't tell me there weren't a lot of high-fives circulating in private when it turned out the team would face the Giants instead of Tony Dungy's Buccaneers.
Yes, the Giants do have two deserving All-Pro starters in outside linebacker Jessie Armstead, whose all-purpose havoc-wreaking conjures memories of L.T. in the Big Apple, and defensive end Michael Strahan, who finished with 14 sacks. In fact, all the while the Giants were assembling a 9-2-1 record over their last 12 games, reporters kept pointing out how the team wins with defense. But that's a claim that requires some explanation when you consider that only three teams in the NFC gave up more yards (one of them being, uh, the Vikings) and only one team allowed more passing yards (the, uh, Vikings).
More specifically, the Giants win with a workmanlike offense that avoids mistakes (19 give-aways, the fewest in the NFL) and a risk-taking defense that has uncannily forced turnovers at the right times. The team finished an astonishing plus 25 in net take-aways, easily the best ratio in the league. Defensive coordinator John Fox operates on a simple philosophy: Keep quarterbacks disoriented and turnovers will follow. Thus he blitzes from every position, allows defensive linemen to independently change their schemes based on what they see at the line of scrimmage, and moves his free safety all over the field before the snap. This freelancing style has worked, in no small part because cornerbacks Jason Sehorn and Phillippi Sparks hold their own in man-to-man coverages. The results: 54 sacks, 24 more than last season, and 27 interceptions, most in the NFL.
So how do the Vikings counteract this? By once and for all letting their premier breakaway back and their All-Pro offensive linemen carry the team when it matters most. Run Robert Smith behind tackle Todd Steussie and guard Randall McDaniel early and often, and occasionally send him around potential Pro Bowl tackle Korey Stringer, too. Let Jake Reed repeatedly pancake cornerbacks while they worry about just staying with the bigger and just-as-fast receiver. If the Vikes miss on a couple of third-down conversions via the ground, they should stick with it anyway. Stick with it until the Giants' linebackers and defensive backs are banged up, frustrated, and generally willing to sell their souls to the run on play action. Then Cris Carter and Reed will get their catches and their yards.
Granted, a run-to-victory strategy against the Giants isn't obvious, since the team ranked second against the run in the NFC. Give their interior linemen, Keith Hamilton and ex-Viking Robert Harris, plenty of credit for that. But also consider the competition. When a playoff team with a running game showed up at the Meadowlands a few weeks ago, i.e., the Buccaneers, it dominated time of possession, wore down the Giants, and sent rookie tailback Warrick Dunn home with a 120-yard game. Tampa Bay never trailed, winning 20-8. That kind of game plan suits the Vikings' personnel even better than the Bucs'. If running at Harris and Hamilton makes the Vikes nervous, fine, keep Smith primarily going around the tackles or ends, plays that during the last two games generated an outlandish 11 yards per carry. Might as well try to win with the most reliable weapon they've got.
Here's the best feature: no turnovers. Smith hasn't fumbled in his last 352 carries, and when the Giants have to put together long drives for the bulk of their points, they lose. (They're next-to-last in the conference in third-down efficiency.) Accordingly, quarterback Randall Cunningham should resist the temptation to look to Carter for all the big plays. After the Colts game, Cunningham said, "During the week I told [the team], 'I'm not worried about my completion percentage.' I said, 'I'm going to force the ball in there a few times, because when we get the ball to [Carter], we put points on the board.'" Actually, forcing the ball to Carter sounds more like a recipe for the sure-handed Giants secondary putting points on the board. The Vikes should give Smith at least 10 more opportunities to carry the ball than they ordinarily might, and thus allow the Giants 10 fewer chances to do what they do best: snatch errant throws.
So the good news is that the Vikings should be able to move the ball and score points. The bad news is that they may need to score quite a few, even with the Giants bringing in the third worst offense in the NFC. For it would be a mistake to count on the Vikes' defense dominating anybody. Inserting four rookies into the starting lineup looks like a good move, if only because it moved John Randle to the outside, which has revitalized his pass rush, and it got Jeff Brady off the field, who, due to injuries or otherwise, couldn't make a play in his last few starts.
Nevertheless, while Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh was in the game last week, the visitors reminded everyone that even an average NFL offensive unit can consistently move the ball on the Vikings. Therefore, the team might as well take a page from the Giants' defense by sending waves of blitzers at inexperienced quarterback Danny Kanell. If there's no way the Vikings' linebackers and secondary can deal with the resulting man-to-man coverages such tactics demand--against one of the weakest playoff offenses they could ever hope to draw--well, now's as good a time as any to find that out.
Finally, the Vikings might have one other element going for them this weekend: For lack of a better word, call it resolve. After the Lions debacle, most of the players weren't talking to reporters, a fact that some commented on caustically in the stories that followed. Fair enough. But I for one didn't read the team's reticence as a conscious dis of the media, but rather as an instinctive response born out of rank embarrassment, just like most of us wouldn't feel like chatting it up if a moment earlier we'd backed into one of our own cars in the driveway. Considering the circumstances of that particular loss, it seemed a safe bet that, win or lose, intensity wouldn't be a problem for the rest of the season. Sure enough, the team's overall performance and locker-room disposition both improved last Sunday.
As for Saturday, there's nothing more dangerous than a disregarded NFL team with talent, especially when it's facing an untested opponent with a little less. If the Vikings' defense shows some opportunism and the offense doesn't let the Giants do their usual ball-hawking, Dennis Green gets his first playoff win. And all of a sudden there's one less handy reason to fire him.
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