What We Learned
Three things we learned after the Vikings-Giants game
Updated: Monday January 15, 2001 8:21 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In what may have been the NFL equivalent of a perfect game, the New York Giants left Minnesota beaten, dazed and confused in Sunday's NFC title game, burying the Vikings 41-0 beneath a blizzard of first-half points. Here are three observations from the game:
1. A frustrated Randy Moss didn't say it directly, but in so many words he put his finger on what a lot of people are starting to think: Minnesota will never win a Super Bowl until it starts devoting as much attention and resources to its defense as it does its star-studded offense.
Moss went so far in the losing locker room to predict there would be a Super Bowl in his future, but perhaps not with the Vikings.
"It's going to be hard for us to win a Super Bowl in Minnesota," Moss said in his usual blunt style. "I don't want to really say Minnesota is never going to win the Super Bowl, but it's going to be hard for them to get it. ... I can't really say I'm going to be a Minnesota Viking in a couple years."
If that sounded strangely like the opening salvo in Moss's upcoming contract extension talks, it was in all likelihood no accident. Moss also added that he hoped fellow receiver Cris Carter returns to the team next year, and doesn't retire, as long as he doesn't do so with Super Bowl expectations.
Last week's 34-16 divisional-round victory against New Orleans put a one-week Band-Aid on the Vikings' defensive problems, but in the final analysis, the same old weakness raised its head to end Minnesota's season.
Last season, the Vikings were eliminated by St. Louis in the divisional round, giving up 49 points in a game that the Rams led 49-17 at one point. The year before? Minnesota's magical 1998 season was cruelly ended by Atlanta, which won 30-27 in overtime. This time, the Giants' 41-0 carpet bombing of the Vikings' defense should remove any doubt about where Minnesota must improve. Making Kerry Collins look like Joe Montana is proof enough.
Not that we shouldn't have seen some of the carnage coming. Who can forget the Vikings' regular season-ending, three-game slide, in which their defense surrendered more than 30 points and 400 yards of total offense per game? It was Minnesota's worst three-game stretch of defense since 1984.
Vikings head coach Dennis Green has tilted toward his offense since the day he arrived in Minnesota in 1992, stock-piling an eye-popping array of talent on that side of the ball. That's where all the money is on the Vikings' roster, and with Moss and running back Robert Smith the team's top two offseason signing priorities, that's where it will stay.
But until Minnesota can field a secondary that's made up of more than Pro Bowl strong safety Robert Griffith, a converted receiver in cornerback Robert Tate, and two greenhorns like rookie free safety Tyrone Carter and cornerback Wasswa Serwanga, the Vikings may be doomed to repeat their recent season-ending humiliations.
And unless Sunday's loss changes the Vikings' free-agent game plan, look for Minnesota to lose two defensive starters in March: outside linebacker Dwayne Rudd and defensive Tony Williams. As Moss so honestly assessed, the Vikings indeed could be headed in the wrong direction.
2. Even Green's defenders are going to find it impossible to put a positive spin on this one. Try as they will. The Vikings didn't just fail in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, they failed miserably. Minnesota looked unprepared, uninspired, and unbelievably inept.
They were outclassed from sorry start to flame-out finish against the less-talented Giants, a team that, unlike the Vikings, knows how to take care of business in an NFC title game.
In his nine years in Minnesota, Green has proven himself one of the league's best regular-season coaches. But he has yet to prove himself in the category that separates the good coaches from the great ones: winning in the playoffs.
With his latest loss, Green's postseason record slips to an unimpressive 4-8. Twice in the past three years, Green's Vikings have gone into the NFC title game wearing the role of favorite. And twice they have come away losers. Both have been excruciating in their own way: For the closeness of the overtime loss to visiting Atlanta after the 1998 season, and for the embarrassingly lame performance against the Giants.
Even more revealing, in the eight playoff games that have eliminated one of Green's Vikings teams, Minnesota has been favored four times. Three of those games came in the Metrodome. Sunday was the fourth.
Minnesota has now turned in playoff records of 1-1 in each of the past four years, without once ever managing two consecutive strong showings. The Vikings are the only NFL team to make it to the league's final eight every year since 1997, but the franchise hasn't returned to the Super Bowl since 1977, when its eight-year glory era closed with a fourth Super Bowl loss.
Why does Green's teams turn so beatable in the playoffs? If there's a pattern to Green's coaching it is this: He is instinctively comfortable in the underdog role, and does his best work when he has been dismissed or counted out. A self-described battler who used football to fight his way out of an inner-city upbringing in Harrisburg, Pa., Green intuitively knows how to fight from behind.
But put him in the role of favorite, with expectations pressing down on he and his team, Green is nowhere near as sure of himself or his methods. He is robbed of his most reliable coaching prop: Convincing his players that they are being disrespected. The "Us against Them" routine just doesn't fly as well when Green and his team are in the favorite's role.
The bigger the game, the more on the line, Green seems to tense up and lose some of the imagination that he so frequently displays during the regular season. He is superb at getting his team through the long regular season and into position to compete for the Super Bowl title. As his NFL-best eight playoff trips in nine years attest.
But once in the playoffs, Green's coaching touch seems to evaporate. As do his team's Super Bowl chances. Each and every season.
3. Like his Super Bowl counterpart, Baltimore's Marvin Lewis, Giants defensive coordinator John Fox may be one of the league's next "hot" assistants to parlay his strong 2000 showing into an NFL head coaching job.
And while we're at it, keep an eye peeled for Giants offensive coordinator Sean Payton, whose go-for-the-jugular game plan was the impetus behind New York's blowout victory against Minnesota.
If you had to choose between Fox and Payton as to which New York coordinator had the better game, just flip a coin and move on. Both of them polished their resumes in resounding fashion against Minnesota.
All Fox's unit did was the near impossible: A shutout against the Vikings' potent offense, which will send five players to the Pro Bowl next month. The Giants handed Minnesota its worst loss in 16 years, its first shutout since 1991, and its most lopsided playoff loss ever.
Minnesota, which had its 25-game streak of at least 300 yards of offense per game snapped in the regular-season finale, finished with just nine first downs and 114 total yards. Moss was held to just two catches for 18 yards, with Carter contributing just three for 24 yards, none in the first half. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper threw for just 78 yards, was picked off three times and sacked four.
Fox worked his magic by mixing up the defensive looks and blitzes that Minnesota had to deal with, and the confused Vikings never really began to handle the pass pressure created by Fox's front seven. Defensive left end Michael Strahan abused Vikings right tackle Korey Stringer all day long, and Giants linebacker Michael Barrow (a team-high seven tackles) was a force coming from all directions.
"I think we matched up with them better than people gave us credit for because we have big corners," Fox said. "I think our front seven, and our front four in particular, could put a good consistent rush on even with a mobile quarterback."
If anything, the performance turned in by Payton's unit was even more surprising. The Giants' 41-point victory was the largest in an NFC/NFL title game since 1957, when Detroit lambasted Cleveland 59-14. Quarterback Kerry Collins set a host of team playoff records.
"We kept the pedal to the metal," Payton said. "We were determined to come out and just go for it. We didn't want to let up."