Last week, the Minnesota Vikings quieted critics who thought coach Mike Tice was losing control of his team on and off the field.
This week, they hope to put together consecutive wins and stay in the NFC Central race as they visit the Carolina Panthers.
The Vikings played a dismal first half before rallying to defeat the Green Bay Packers 23-20 on a franchise-record and career-best 56-yard field goal by Paul Edinger as time expired last Sunday. Minnesota, which had its secondary picked apart in the first half by Brett Favre while falling behind 17-0, regrouped and possibly saved its season with an inspired 30 minutes.
“I don’t see a cloud,” said receiver Nate Burleson, who had three catches after missing three games due to a knee injury. “The sun always comes out after a storm, and I think the sun’s out right now.”
The win, temporarily at least, put aside the questions regarding the off-field escapades of the team. Many of the players are being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct on a cruise boat. Tice admitted the team had been bothered by the relentless inquiries on the subject heading into its 28-3 loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 6, but Sunday’s win left Minnesota one game out of first place in the weak NFC North.
“They didn’t let anything rattle them,” Tice said. “The body language was very good.”
Right now, Tice will do just about anything to sustain the momentum. He canceled “Victory Monday” and held practice, saying, “I don’t think right now we deserve a ‘Victory Monday.’ So we’re going to go to work.”
The Vikings especially need the work when it comes to road games. In losses at Cincinnati, Atlanta and Chicago, the Vikings committed 12 turnovers, 32 penalties and were outscored 95-21. Daunte Culpepper has thrown nine of his 12 interceptions on the road and the team has averaged just 73.3 rushing yards.
“We’ve got to find a way to win on the road,” Tice said. “And that’s the bottom line. Otherwise, that victory (Sunday) means really nothing.”
Carolina is coming off a bye week and enters this game trying to run its winning streak to four. The Panthers have won those three games by a combined eight points, including a 21-20 victory at Detroit on Oct. 16. Despite the winning record, the Panthers know they are a work in progress.
“We can play better, that’s the positive thing,” Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “We haven’t played lights-out football so far. We can get better and make a strong push the second half of the season, hopefully.”
Delhomme’s inability to spread the offense has been one of the problems. Steve Smith has 39 catches for 596 yards and a league-high seven touchdowns, but fellow wideouts Ricky Proehl and Keary Colbert have combined for only 19 catches for 259 yards.
Another problem has been the running game, which is last in the NFL at 3.1 yards per carry. Stephen Davis is 29th in the league with 318 yards, and the Panthers are 24th in the NFL with 89.5 yards per game.
“We still haven’t really had a dominating running game yet, and that’s frustrating for us,” said tackle Jordan Gross. “The biggest thing we’re trying to do is just identify the problem areas, improve on those, and keep doing what has been successful.”
Delhomme, though, only concerns himself with the wins and knows these tough victories will provide needed intangibles later in the season as the Panthers try to gain a playoff berth.
“At the end of the year, no one is going to remember how we won the games. All they see is the number in the win column,” he said. “And a lot of teams have won ugly early in the season and used to that to learn how to be great at the end of the season.”