The early morning phone call awoke Jared Allen from a deep slumber, and given that it was game day, his initial instinct was that somebody must have died.
He was right: That somebody, it turned out, was the roof of the Metrodome. Allen, the Minnesota Vikings' star defensive end, learned that his home stadium's crown had spectacularly succumbed to the weight of heavy snowfall last December from Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes, a former Chiefs teammate.
Tynes was calling, oddly enough, from Kansas City, where the Giants were stranded because of the snowstorm on the morning of their scheduled game against the Vikings. As Allen processed the information, he rolled over in bed and started laughing.
"When our stadium collapsed," Allen recalls, "I was like, 'You have got to be kidding me. If this is not a metaphor for what's going on, I don't know what is.' It was that kind of season, and trust me, it was not fun."
Though the Vikings (3-12) have three fewer victories this season than during their regrettable 2010 campaign, Allen is a much happier man. For one thing, he and his wife, Amy, had their first child in late October. He conducted a recent phone interview with daughter Brinley sleeping on his lap and said, "I just count my blessings every day. You become a father, and you realize there are a lot bigger things in life than football. It makes all the little dumb things in life disappear."
Not coincidentally, Allen said, he's back to playing at the dominant level that, on Tuesday, earned him his fourth Pro Bowl selection in eight seasons. On Sunday, he has an outside shot at making NFL history.
With 18½ sacks going into Sunday's season finale against the Bears at the since-repaired Metrodome, Allen has a slim lead over Eagles defensive end Jason Babin (18) and Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (18) in the race for his second league sack title. A monster game could give him a shot at Michael Strahan's all-time record of 22½, set in 2001 amid some shady circumstances that involved one of Allen's future Vikings teammates.
For the record, Allen doesn't expect Bears quarterback Josh McCown to lay down for the cause, the way Brett Favre seemingly did for Strahan a decade ago. However, if it does go down that way, Allen says he'll celebrate the record without hesitation.
"Absolutely!" he says. "I don't care how I get 'em, as long as I get 'em. Sacks are tough to get. I've had quarterbacks [intentionally] ground the ball to avoid sacks, or run into someone else, or make terrible throws. I even had a guy [Dan Orlovsky] run out of the end zone to avoid a sack.
"Some of my best pass rushes in a game, people never even see, because the quarterback – bam – hits the receiver in rhythm. Those scrap sacks are paybacks. I need to text [Favre] or give him a call and ask, 'Hey, what kind of deal did you strike?' "
A year ago Allen and Favre didn't feel like joking. After coming within a play or two of the Super Bowl the previous season, the Vikings endured a tumultuous, surreal 2010 campaign that, among other atrocities, included: Favre's return after a summer of waffling; a trade for Randy Moss that netted miniscule production and one infamous rant against a local caterer before the wideout's abrupt release; the firing of coach Brad Childress after a 3-7 start; the end of Favre's record consecutive-starts streak at 297; and a whole lot of drama that wasn't reported.
[ Related: Jimmy Graham becomes big deal in Big Easy ]
Allen, who ended up with 11 sacks (a four-year low) and missed the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2006, admits he let the negativity adversely impact his game.
"Last year was so miserable," he says. "I let outside things affect how I played football. You say all this drama in the locker room doesn't get to you, but it does. You're a play away from the Super Bowl the year before, and the Brett thing gets drawn out. … now you've got guys choosing sides in the locker room, and so much uncertainty, and it becomes excuses for poor play.
"You don't ever want to go to work and deal with the same questions, same drama every day. As much as I pride myself on being mentally tough, that got to me."
Allen, who has bounced back from far tougher circumstances – he turned his life around after a series of alcohol-related incidents early in his career – returned from the lockout refreshed and with his attitude adjusted.
The results have been tremendous: 61 tackles, 36 quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and an interception. He has recorded at least half a sack in all but three games this season. Allen's combination of relentless motor and tremendous talent makes him one of the league's best players, and he has never been better.
"This is definitely, by far, my best year," Allen says. "For me, honestly, I go out there and I realize every day, every snap is a blessing from God. I realized that one way I can be a better football player and leader is to control my attitude. It's weird – it's like the lower I put football on my priority list, the more fun it's gonna be."
Here at 32 Questions Headquarters (or 32QHQ, for the cool kids), it has been a lot of fun watching Allen and many of the league's other passionate players whose teams won't be going to the postseason. Alas, beginning next Wednesday, we will bid farewell to 20 of those teams, as 32Q becomes 12Q, and so on and so on, until it's Super Bowl week and only two remain.
At that point, blessedly, rankings will be superfluous. In the meantime, for argument's sake, let's take a final, inquisitive trip around the entire NFL and see where the team you love stacks up:
Aaron Rodgers is coming off a 5-TD outing vs. the Bears.
1. Green Bay Packers: Once Mike McCarthy saw the highlight of Tony Romo's passing hand slamming into Jason Babin's helmet, how many seconds did it take him to lean toward not playing Aaron Rodgers against the Lions?
2. Baltimore Ravens: Can you believe they've lost five of their past six at Paul Brown Stadium – and why do I get the feeling Ray Lewis will remind his teammates that losing to the Bengals again Sunday would be intolerable?
3. San Francisco 49ers: Were those "Merry Christmas" shouts from Niners coaches in the CenturyLink Field press box after Saturday's victory in reference to former GM Scot McCloughan's laughing prediction in Friday Offerings, or did some of them merely have train sets waiting under the tree at home?
4. Pittsburgh Steelers: How many Pro Bowl selections will Mike Wallace before he has a shot at becoming the most famous Mike Wallace – and how little sympathy will his plight get from Saints defensive end Will Smith?
5. New England Patriots: How great would it be if, after the Pats re-sign him for the 473rd time, recently released safety Ross Ventrone were to go to the locker room with cramps in the first quarter of the AFC championship game, sneak out the back door and never return?
6. New Orleans Saints: After Drew Brees broke his single-season yardage record Monday night, did Dan Marino call up some of his former Dolphins receivers and yell at them for the drops they made in 1984?
[ Related: Saints run up score to get Drew Brees the record ]
8. Atlanta Falcons: If the Falcons are truly angry that Sean Payton allowed Brees to throw for the record late in Monday night's blowout, and there's a playoff rematch at the Superdome, will they consider a drastic response – such as mustering an actual pass rush?
[ Related: Falcons in no position to whine over record ]
9. Dallas Cowboys: Do the people who ripped Jerry Jones for coming down to the sideline and exhorting Jason Garrett to sit his injured players last Saturday realize that the owner was absolutely correct to do so?
Victor Cruz does his trademark Salsa dance after one of his eight TDs this season.
11. Oakland Raiders: Has Hue Jackson considered asking the surviving members of Run DMC to return to Oakland for a 20th anniversary player introduction before Sunday's game against the Chargers – and would that get Darren McFadden (aka Run DMC) to make a dramatic return to the lineup?
12. Houston Texans: When doctors operated on Wade Phillips' kidney and gall bladder, did they also cut the guts out of the Texans' defense?
13. Denver Broncos: If Kyle Orton knocks the Broncos out of the playoffs on Sunday, will the digital billboard on the corner of 58th and Logan soon read, "Chiefs QB to Broncos Fans: Tebow Got Played"?
[ Related: Tim Tebow a No. 1 author ]
14. Philadelphia Eagles: If Steve Spagnuolo returns as defensive coordinator, will Andy Reid switch incumbent Juan Castillo back to offensive line coach?
Jerome Simpson goes aerial against the Cards.
17. Cincinnati Bengals: After Jerome Simpson stuck his landing following that spectacular flip into the end zone last Saturday, was he dismayed that the Russian judge gave him only a 5.4?
19. Tennessee Titans: If Jared Cook doesn't break Frank Wycheck's franchise record for most yards in a season by a tight end Sunday, is there any doubt he'll do it in 2012?
20. San Diego Chargers: Realistically, why would Jon Gruden – the most sought-after free agent (coach or player) in the NFL – hitch his wagon to A.J. Smith?
[ Video: Coaches possibly heading into final game ]
21. Kansas City Chiefs: Yo, Scott Pioli – how's that Brian Waters Pro Bowl invitation treating you?
22. Carolina Panthers: Should I get an early start and proclaim the Panthers a trendy 2012 playoff pick, or should I wait until everyone else does it next July?
The Bears have dropped five straight since Jay Cutler got sidelined.
23. Chicago Bears: So, would all those people who talked up Peyton Manning as this year's MVP put Jay Cutler second on their ballots?
24. Miami Dolphins: Will Jason Taylor's last game with the Dolphins be an emotional occasion – and will the third time be the charm?
25. Washington Redskins: Has any coach ever been better than Mike Shanahan at turning no-name backs (like Evan Royster last Saturday into productive runners?
26. Buffalo Bills: If a certain return man wants to be known as "Fly Guy Futuristic Swag McKelvin," who am I to argue?
27. Cleveland Browns: Was the infuriating sequence at the end of last Saturday's first half against the Ravens a microcosm of this team's season – and, by the way, who was the fool who thought the Browns' season would last more than 16 games?
28. Minnesota Vikings: Is Leslie Frazier hoping that Christian Ponder can return from a concussion to play in Sunday's season finale so the team can improve its draft position (given that Joe Webb would give Minnesota a better chance of defeating the Bears)?
29. Jacksonville Jaguars: When it comes to prolific backs on lousy teams, is Maurice Jones-Drew the 21st century's answer to O.J. Simpson?
Raheem Morris' Bucs have lost nine straight.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: If Raheem Morris won't fire himself, will the Glazers give him a little help come Monday?
31. Indianapolis Colts: How compelling is Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz's case that the franchise should "start over" – and why do I suspect that owner Jim Irsay will indeed fire Bill Polian?
32. St. Louis Rams: Yo, Stan Kroenke – can you please hire a coach who can get the great Steven Jackson onto the big stage before it's too late?
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