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MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Peter King
August 30, 1999
The season starts in Atlanta, but whether they return there for the Super Bowl will depend on how they rebound from that shocking NFC title-game loss
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August 30, 1999

Minnesota Vikings

The season starts in Atlanta, but whether they return there for the Super Bowl will depend on how they rebound from that shocking NFC title-game loss

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GETTING BETTER WITH AGE

Randall Cunningham led a revival of 35-and-older quarterbacks last year, completing 60.9% of his passes for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns. His passer rating was a league-leading 106.0. Here are the 1998 regular-season passing statistics for NFL quarterbacks grouped by their end-of-season age.

No.of QBs

W-L

Pct.

TDs

Int.

Rating

Rate of sacks

25 and under

20

45-78

.366

23

140

70.1

One every 12.6 dropbacks

26 through 34

42

118-125

.486

309

265

76.5

One every 13.1 ddopbacks

35 and older

15

77-37

.675

219

102

89.9

One every 17.9 dropbacks

Last January, Vikings defensive tackle John Randle flipped on the Super Bowl pregame show, but after a few minutes he felt so awful that he had to turn off the TV. A couple of hours later he managed to watch one play of the game, but then the same sick feeling came back. He shut off the set for good, unable to look as the Broncos dismantled the Falcons, who had rallied to tie Minnesota late in last year's NFC Championship Game and won on an overtime field goal.

Now it's August, and Randle is in training camp in Mankato, Minn. The wounds still are fresh. "I watched one play, and all I thought was, What if? What if we were there? We should have been there," Randle says quietly. "I remember going to the Pro Bowl, which is usually a pretty good time, and just feeling sick. God, we should have won that game. We'll be old men looking back in 2040 at the Super Bowl highlights, watching Atlanta play Denver, and we'll be thinking, We should have been there. Damn. I mean...." With that, Randle becomes speechless. That may have happened once before, though no one can recall when.

At the Vikings' first training camp meeting, coach Dennis Green said he had no interest in reliving the past and wouldn't allow his players to. But it's clear that the 30-27 loss to the Falcons still weighs on some Vikings. This much is clear: Minnesota is thrilled that its season starts in Atlanta on Sept. 12. Most players view that game as an exorcism. Even Green says, "What we want is ahead of us. Let's start the season strong in Atlanta and end it strong in Atlanta, because that's where the Super Bowl is this year."

"I think there's excitement for another shot," says running back Robert Smith, "but you've got to understand why ending the season the way we did was tough. We lost to Tampa Bay in the regular season and played seven days later. We lost to Atlanta in the playoffs, and the wait's about eight months. I said this before the championship game: If we let this slip through our fingers, it will be a mistake we'll look back on with regret not for a week or a month but for the rest of our lives. And it's true. Now we have to look ahead. And we definitely have the talent to return."

But does a heartbreaking defeat, a loss when everyone has you written into the Super Bowl, carry over to the next season? The Vikings insist it doesn't. Nevertheless, the way Minnesota lost that game was dispiriting. Quarterback Randall Cunningham had been peerless all season, but he misfired on five of his last six passes against the Falcons. Gary Anderson, who had set an NFL record by making all 35 of his field goal attempts during the regular season and had made all four of his kicks in the playoffs, missed a 38-yarder that would have given the Vikings a 10-point lead with 2:11 left. And Green, an aggressive play-caller all year as Minnesota set an NFL record for points scored (556), sat on the ball on third-and-three from the Minnesota 27 with 30 seconds left in a tie game. So what kind of thoughts will creep into the Vikings' minds if they need clutch fourth-quarter play to get to the Super Bowl this season? Says Cunningham, "I've prepared my mind to be stronger this year." Time will tell.

Mental hangover or not, it's hard to imagine the Vikings, the team with the most talent in the NFC, not making another Super Bowl run. Minnesota will miss cornerback Corey Fuller, who left for a fat free-agent deal in Cleveland, and not because he's a great cover guy. He's not. Fuller lent a swagger to the secondary that quiet replacement Ramos McDonald, a third-round draft pick in 1998, doesn't have. In the grand scheme of things, though, the loss of Fuller isn't a major one.

The biggest hurdle may well be one the Vikings have no control over: Coming off a surprising 15-1 season in which it was picked by most to finish no better than third in the NFC Central, Minnesota is now the hunted, and opponents will tirelessly try to find ways to counter what it does well. The Cowboys were in this position six years ago, the Packers two years ago; the Broncos and Vikings are experiencing it now. "When our new defensive coordinator, Emmitt Thomas, watched how we defended against the Vikings' deep pass last year, he was disgusted," says Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler. "We'll roll our coverage to Randy Moss's side, or we'll blitz Randall, but make no mistake about it: We will not sit back. We will attack them."

Now we'll see if the Vikings are up to the challenge physically and, more important, mentally.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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