Tice, Vikes still have something to prove

MINNEAPOLIS -- Brad Johnson stood in the huddle two weeks ago against Detroit and couldn't pass up a chance to have a little fun at his opponent's expense.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Brad Johnson stood in the huddle two weeks ago against Detroit and couldn't pass up a chance to have a little fun at his opponent's expense.

"He was talking about how one of the defensive linemen was stinking so bad it was making his nose hairs stand up," running back Michael Bennett recalled with a smile.

Six weeks ago, the joke was on the Minnesota Vikings.

After a 38-13 loss at Carolina in which star quarterback Daunte Culpepper suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Vikings were 2-5 and seemed better candidates for the Reggie Bush sweepstakes than the playoffs.

They were a mess on and off the field, from coach Mike Tice's ticket scalping to Onterrio Smith's Whizzinator to the now infamous boat party on Lake Minnetonka making them a target of police and late night talk show hosts.


"Earlier, it was so bad ... it was like, 'Aw, here we go again,"' defensive tackle Pat Williams said. "Now we don't really care. We just go out there and expect to win."

Tice admitted he was close to losing his team. When asked for a percentage of his players who believed in the system when they were 2-5, Tice said, "Close to zero. In fact, probably about the same rating I had for next year of keeping my job or not. It was below 10 percent, I guess."

Somehow, they stayed together.

The Vikings (8-5) have won six in a row since, riding a big-play defense and an efficient, mistake-free offense back into the NFC North title race.

They are one game behind Chicago in the NFC North and right in the thick of the wild-card race.

So are they legitimate contenders in the wide-open NFC, or is the emperor not wearing any clothes?

Minnesota's winning streak is exceeded only by Seattle's nine straight in the NFC, and the defense is allowing a paltry 15.5 points a game with 17 interceptions in that span.

Johnson has added stability to the offense, which has avoided the "silly and stupid mistakes that have taken place before," he said after Sunday's victory over the Rams.


That has helped Tice go from the chopping block to one of the unlikeliest coach of the year candidates in recent memory, though new owner Zygi Wilf still hasn't said whether Tice will be back next year.

Along the way, the confidence and unity of what once was a fractured group has steadily improved.

"Maybe you start out, after all the things that went on, you have half the team believing," Tice said. "You win a game and maybe you have 60 percent of the guys believing. Win another game and you have 75 percent of the guys believing. Win another game and now you have 90 percent of the guys believing. ... Right now I think we have a pretty full locker room of guys believing."

One peek inside the locker room supports that theory.

Six weeks ago it was a cold and tense atmosphere. The primary interactions between the players consisted of mean-spirited jokes and sharp jabs at each other.

Success has been the perfect elixir.

Now the laughter stems from good-natured humor, such as last week when some of the veterans froze rookie Erasmus James' clothes while he was in meetings.

"Everybody was just straight honest with each other," Williams said. "Everybody's eyes opened. ... We just started to pull together."


They also hit a soft spot in the schedule. After getting beat up by Chicago, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Carolina, five of their six straight victories have come against teams with losing records: Detroit twice, Cleveland, Green Bay and St. Louis. And they certainly haven't been overwhelming wins.

The streak started with an improbable victory in New York over the Giants in which the Vikings failed to score an offensive touchdown. Instead, they got three returns (interceptions, punt, kickoff) for scores and a last-second field goal.

They needed an interception in the closing moments on the goal line to hold off the Lions 21-16, and managed just 259 yards of offense and scored only 10 points off five -- five! -- interceptions of Rams quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in a 27-13 win Sunday.

"We have to figure out how to blow teams out when we have them on the ropes," safety Darren Sharper said.

Especially when facing lackluster quarterbacks Fitzpatrick, Joey Harrington, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye and a fading Brett Favre.

Now comes a real test. The Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) come to town with a ferocious defense and an offense that doesn't give away games.

The Vikings know the doubters are out there.

"Every position has to play good -- offense, defense, special teams -- and basically like prove everybody wrong and get over this hump," Williams said. "If we beat Pittsburgh, we're over the hump, so we're out to prove everybody wrong.


"Finally like getting over the hill. Like we're finally there. And everybody's jelling together, so they're going to prove that to everybody on the outside looking on."

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