It's a little early for temperature taking in the NFL—heck, Mike Ditka hasn't even gone wacko yet-but the thermometers nevertheless were out on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, site of the NFC's Which of Us Still Has Egg on Our Face Bowl. Would it be the Atlanta Falcons, last seen surrendering the honor of the conference in a 34-19 Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos? Or would it be the Minnesota Vikings, last seen scratching their heads and trying to figure out why, with a 15-1 regular-season record and an offense that was the most potent in league history, they weren't the ones chasing around John Elway in Miami? "We have a lot to prove for a team that went to the Super Bowl," said Falcons coach Dan Reeves before the game. "To a certain extent, so do the Vikings."
Both clubs still do, because Minnesota's 17-14 victory in the season opener pleased almost no one. Certainly not Reeves, who was exasperated by Atlanta's mistakes; certainly not Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss, who had said before the game that Minnesota's offense has the potential to score 60 points against anyone; certainly not those fans hoping for a repeat of last January's NFC Championship Game, an overtime classic won by the Falcons 30-27. In Sunday's rematch the Falcons' possession-oriented offense couldn't keep its hands on the ball—Atlanta coughed up three fumbles, and clock-killing back Jamal Anderson was held to 50 yards on 16 carries—while the Vikings' high-wire act remained for the most part grounded. Their longest gain was a 34-yard ramble by alternate tailback Leroy Hoard that kept a time-consuming drive alive late in the fourth quarter.
All right, it was just the first game of the season, and perhaps it was an anomaly. After all, how many times will Minnesota's Gary Anderson and Atlanta's Morten Andersen each miss two makable field goals, the last a 39-yarder by Andersen that could have tied the game with 3:38 left? Perhaps the teams struggled because they're trying to add subtle but meaningful accessories to offensive wardrobes that fit them so nicely last year. The Falcons, those Dirty Birds who didn't air it out much last year, are trying to go downfield more; they did a decent job of it on Sunday, outpassing the Vikings 278 yards to 184. Meanwhile, Minnesota, though it has three hungry wide receivers clamoring for the ball, is trying to establish more of a ground game. The two-headed tailback attack of Hoard (50 yards) and Robert Smith (47) produced most of the Vikings' 115 rushing yards, while the Falcons ran for only 81.
Maybe neither of these teams has found itself yet because both began the season with such heavy burdens. Minnesota shoulders the burden of expectation, Atlanta the even weightier burden of doubt. The where-the-hell-did-they-come-from feeling that followed the Falcons all the way to their first Super Bowl still lingers. What's more, in its 33-year history Atlanta has never put together back-to-back winning seasons. Although, "barring an asteroid's hitting our stadium," Jamal Anderson doesn't see his team's experiencing a drop-off, the educated guess is that the Falcons won't approach their 14-2 record of 1998. It's more likely that the Vikings will again be the class of the NFC, albeit not the dominator they were last season.
Last season. Those words have already driven offensive-minded Minnesota to defensiveness. "Let people compare us to last year," said a steamed Ray Sherman, the Vikings' offensive coordinator, after his troops had failed to burn Atlanta. "Would you rather see us score 30 points and lose the ball game?" Understandably, last season falls most heavily upon Sherman. As Minnesota put up an NFL-record 556 points and rookie Moss caught 17 touchdown passes, offensive coordinator Brian Billick (now coach of the Baltimore Ravens) was called a genius so often that it wasn't clear whether he had succeeded in springing Moss deep or formulating the unified field theory that had stumped Einstein.
Sherman was put in a tough position: Should he change nothing about the fun-filled, bombs-away offense and hear that all he's doing is running Billick's game plan? Or dare he tinker with the precious system that he inherited? Sherman and coach Dennis Green agreed that tinkering was necessary, not least because the Falcons had taken away downfield passes in the NFC title game, and also because the Vikings' defense, weakened by free-agent defections, might on occasion need more rest than it got under Billick's sudden-strike strategy. "There are times when [defensive coordinator] Foge Fazio is going to come to me and say, 'My guys need a little blow,' and we've got to keep that offense on the field," Sherman says. "Scoring quick is great, but you've also got to guard against becoming a three-and-out team."
The pieces—Smith, Hoard, a terrific offensive line and an occasional cameo at blocking back by tight end Jim Kleinsasser—are in place to make Minnesota an excellent running club. But let's not get carried away (as the Vikings' running backs will certainly not). All of Minnesota's wide-open stuff was on display, if not in sync, on Sunday, and it's merely stating the obvious to say that the running game prospers largely because the Vikings' defense-stretching passing attack is so threatening. Minnesota used a three-wide-receiver set that generally put Moss and Jake Reed on the flanks and veteran Cris Carter in the slot. (How many teams can use a downfield force like Carter, who caught seven passes, including a two-yard slant for a touchdown, almost as a possession receiver?) On a few occasions Robert Tate gave the Vikings a four-wideout set, with Carter, Moss and Reed on the same side. You think that's not scary? Though Moss (only three catches for 24 yards) had a subpar game, he was largely responsible for both Vikings touchdowns because of long pass-interference penalties he drew. ("They're putting him in diapers with calls like that," said Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan, angered about having been flagged for the first.) Imagine if Shaquille O'Neal didn't have to shoot free throws after getting hammered on an alleyoop; this is the luxury that Minnesota has when Randall Cunningham airs it out to the speedy 6'4" Moss and waits for a spectacular reception or for flags to fly.
That type of offense is what opposing defenses came to expect and what fans came to love about last year's Vikings. Don't think for a minute that their playground style will disappear, but for a while at least, Minnesota will be a little more conservative, a little more run-conscious, a little more inclined to play what Hoard jokingly calls "normal football." If it doesn't work, well, you know what Moss says the Vikings are capable of.
"We got the win, and that's what we came here for," said Green. "The rest of what we want we'll get later."