The Minnesota Vikings hope George O’Leary isn’t too busy to help them win a division title.
With their defensive coordinator on his way out, the Vikings are happy at least to have O’Leary for now as they have a chance to wrap up the NFC North in a matchup with the Chicago Bears.
A win Sunday and a loss by second-place Green Bay (7-6) in San Diego would give Minnesota its first division crown since 2000 and its first playoff berth in three seasons under coach Mike Tice.
Tice was responsible for bringing O’Leary to the Vikings before last season, having played for the ex-Georgia Tech coach at Central Islip High School on Long Island in the mid-1970s.
O’Leary, forced to resign after a three-day stint as Notre Dame coach two years ago due to lies found on his resume, got a new job during the weekend as he was hired to be Central Florida’s head coach. He will continue his job with the Vikings through the end of this season.
“I will finish my commitment to the Vikings, which is I think what you should do. We have a shot at the playoffs,” O’Leary said. “I will do everything possible to make sure we get there, but (UCF) is my job right now and I will work on this job, too. There are 24 hours in a day and I guess I’ll be using most of them.”
O’Leary has instilled a more agressive approach on defense, helping Minnesota lead the league with 25 interceptions and rank second in the NFC with a plus-10 turnover ratio. The Vikings forced just 23 turnovers in his first season as they went 6-10, finishing with a turnover margin of minus-18.
Minnesota has a respectable 28 sacks this season after totaling just 27 in 2002 to rank 29th in the league.
“Certainly, he deserves it,” Vikings defensive tackle Billy Lyon said. “He’ll make a great head coach. They’ve got a good school now, but I’d be willing to say within five years he’ll have them up there.
“It was one of those things that was going to come anyway.”
Minnesota’s playoff hopes were in doubt after losing four straight following a 6-0 start, but the team may be back on track with wins in two of its last three games.
“We just have to take this momentum into next week,” said Culpepper, who did not commit a turnover for the first time in five games. “There’s no doubt in my mind it will carry over.”
Michael Bennett had a breakout game against the Seahawks in just his sixth game of the season. The third-year running back rushed for a season-high 103 yards on 25 attempts, but he has an injured ankle and was downgraded to questionable on the injury report Friday.
Bennett, who ran for 1,296 yards last season, missed this year’s first seven games recovering from foot surgery.
If Bennett sits out, Moe Williams will be the starter and rookie Onterrio Smith will see more time against a Chicago defense which surrendered 202 rushing yards to Minnesota in a 24-13 loss in Week 2.
The Bears had their playoff hopes squashed last week, blowing an early 14-point lead in a 34-21 loss at Green Bay. Now they can only hope to win out to finish at .500, which still might not be enough to save coach Dick Jauron’s job.
“We know where we are and we also know our season is not over,” Jauron said.
“We have three games left. We are going to do everything that we can to win these three games while we look at personnel, possibly, that we haven’t seen enough up to this point.”
The most notable of those personnel changes could be at quarterback, with rookie Rex Grossman expected to make his first NFL start. The first-round pick from the University of Florida has not played a single down since the preseason, with inconsistent veterans Kordell Stewart and Chris Chandler having held the job.
“We just don’t know Rex right now. From what I’ve seen, I think he’d give us a chance (to win),” tight end Desmond Clark said. “He’s going to take his knots because he’s a rookie, but if he is in there, I wouldn’t put it past him that he could go in and have a good game.”