Moon over Chicago
More than anything else, it was quarterback Warren Moon's demeanor that convinced tackle Chris Hinton that the Vikes were going to pull out a victory in overtime against the Bears last Thursday night. A split second after watching Bear kicker Kevin Butler's 40-yard overtime field goal attempt sail wide left, the 38-year-old veteran quarterback turned to Hinton on the Viking bench and calmly said, "Let's go win it." Two plays and 51 seconds later, Moon connected with Cris Carter on a 65-yard touchdown pass, and the Vikings beat the Bears 33-27.
"Warren's not a big rah-rah guy," Hinton says. "But whenever the game's on the line, he makes you feel as if you're going to win."
The victory was Minnesota's second in four overtime games this season, and it gave hope as well as new life to the Vikings, who had come into the game riding a three-game losing streak that had turned ugly the week before with a loss to Tampa Bay. The Vikings' once solid playoff hopes suddenly looked pretty iffy. But with Thursday's win, Minnesota tied Chicago for first in the NFC Central with an 8-5 record, and if the two teams finish with identical marks, the Vikings will win the division on the tiebreaker because they have beaten the Bears twice in head-to-head competition.
Which is not to say that Minnesota is now a lock to make the playoffs. The Vikings' vaunted defense, which was ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season, had slipped to No. 7 through Sunday's games. In the last month teams have nullified the pass rush of tackles John Randle and Henry Thomas by putting two blockers on each of them and by having their quarterbacks take three-step drops and throw short passes to backs and tight ends. Randle and Thomas had chalked up 14� sacks before the tailspin, but they were sackless during the three straight losses, and the defense forced just two turnovers in those games.
Defensive coordinator Tony Dungy made a minor adjustment before the Chicago game, going to more man-to-man coverage instead of the usual zone, and the move paid off. The defense forced three turnovers—a 54-yard interception returned for a touchdown by rookie cornerback Dewayne Washington, a fumble recovery by linebacker Ashley Sheppard that set up a 41-yard Fuad Reveiz field goal and a fourth-quarter fumble recovery by Jack Del Rio that led to another touchdown.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Dungy cautions. "At halftime I told the defense that I saw a glimmer of life in the way we were playing. But we had a chance to slam the door in the second half, and we didn't. We won because they missed a field goal, and we can't always count on that."
During the losing streak the Minnesota offense came under attack too. Offensive coordinator Brian Billick was blasted by the local media for his tendency to rely too heavily on the passing game while ignoring the Vikings' stable of running backs. Even Moon, who averaged a wearying 49 passes per game in November, openly criticized Billick's play-calling.
Surprisingly, Billick admits his mistake. "I'll be the first to say that I haven't stayed with the run as much as I should, especially in the second half of games," he said the day after the Bear game. "I don't want to keep putting Warren in such a vulnerable position. He's 38 years old and it's the end of the season, so he's already taken a pounding." Still, the night before, Billick had Moon throw the ball 48 times against the Bears.
When Moon agreed to be traded to Minnesota last April, it was because he wanted to preserve his body—and prolong his career—in a more balanced offense than Houston's run-and-shoot. Ironically, he's passing more this season than almost ever before, having already thrown 545 passes. (In his 10-year NFL career, Moon has thrown more often only twice, in 1990 and '91, when he had 584 and 655 attempts, respectively, for the Oilers.)