Rested and ready
Week off helped Vikings regroup from poor finish
Updated: Monday January 08, 2001 8:53 PM
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The Minnesota Vikings, bound for the NFC championship game, are finally beyond December.
The Vikings (12-5) will play for the NFC title against the New York Giants next Sunday with the confidence of the 11-2 team they once were, following their 34-16 victory Saturday against the New Orleans Saints.
The Vikings won the NFC Central and earned a first-round bye despite losing their final three games, all in December. They spent much time answering questions about what went wrong, but spent more time making things right again.
Head coach Dennis Green kept saying the Vikings needed only a fresh start going into the NFC playoffs to erase the effects of a winless December. He repeated the message until their own doubts were gone.
Daunte Culpepper's sprained right ankle was given time to heal. The offensive line figured out how to protect him from the Saints, who were held without a sack for only the second time this season.
The maligned defense installed a new blitz package and became more aggressive in pass coverage. The Vikings practiced in full gear for one of the few times since they moved indoors because of the cold.
"I told Dennis we needed to wear pads," receiver Cris Carter said, "because the guys were moving so well in practice we couldn't protect ourselves."
The first few plays of Saturday's game put those losses behind them. The Saints were punting after their third offensive play. The Vikings were celebrating Randy Moss' 53-yard touchdown reception after their third play.
Most important, the Vikings had a lead and a noisy Metrodome. They were able to maintain the balanced attack they had to abandon when they fell behind early in losses to St. Louis and Indianapolis in December. They regained the home-field advantage that was missing in a loss to Green Bay.
"I really didn't know how we were going to respond," Moss said. "I was cautious myself as to how we were going to play. I really didn't know.
"But with all the energy we had around the locker room all week long, in my mind, I thought we were going to come out and dominate."
The Vikings have one more bad memory to erase.
More than half their current 53-man roster was on the field for their 30-27 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the 1998 NFC championship game. Now, they get a chance at redemption.
"Obviously, we wasted our opportunity in 1998," running back Robert Smith said. "The most important thing for us will be to go out there and play our best game next week and not just go through the motions. I think we did that a little bit in the last three games of the year."
"Things like that happen in the NFL," Smith said. "It's tough to win, especially when two of the three are on the road and our opponents are fighting for their playoff lives."