Mirror images turn it around Colts, Vikings struggle, but make playoff push after important changes

December 20, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The coach was under fire, the 40-year-old quarterback was breaking down, and the offensive line was getting manhandled.

In the wake of an embarrassing 42-23 loss at Seattle on Nov. 10, with the season collapsing around him, embattled Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green made a series of calculated lineup changes.

Brad Johnson, an undistinguished reserve in four previous NFL seasons, replaced ailing Warren Moon at quarterback. New signee Leroy Hoard, cut by two teams this season, was inserted at running back. And 348-pound David Dixon and 274-pound Hunter Goodwin moved into the offensive line to give it some much-needed bulk.

This unlikely combination of heroes not only pulled the Vikings out of a four-game losing streak, but will usher them into the NFC wild-card round next week, either at Dallas or San Francisco.

"This year has been a roller-coaster for this team," Johnson said. "We started out 4-0, then hit a slump and couldn't get out of it. We kind of had to run the table to give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs."

The Vikings took the path less traveled this season, turning a 5-5 struggle into a 9-6 celebration. Going into Sunday's game at Green Bay, they have won four of the past five to secure a playoff berth.

Curiously, it was a similar path traveled by the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC. Like the Vikings, the Colts started 4-0, stumbled to 5-5 and 6-6, then won the final three.

Unlike the Vikings, the Colts haven't clinched a playoff spot yet. But they are a virtual lock. For the Colts not to make the playoffs, there must be these results:

The Colts must lose at Cincinnati,

Jacksonville must beat Atlanta,

Buffalo and Kansas City must play to a tie, an almost unfathomable result.

"We haven't clinched anything yet," said Bill Tobin, the Colts' director of football operations, who nevertheless admits he likes his team's position going into the final weekend of the regular season.

If they win Sunday, the Colts earn their first home playoff game since 1977, when the franchise was still in Baltimore. It would be a significant accomplishment for an injury-ravaged team that has had 18 starters miss a total of 69 starts. The Colts were reeling after a 27-13 pounding at New England that left them 6-6 and put quarterback Jim Harbaugh on the sideline with an injured left knee.

They persevered with reserve quarterback Paul Justin in wins over Buffalo and Philadelphia, and Harbaugh returned to help beat Kansas City.

"What happened is what didn't happen," Tobin said. "We didn't have finger-pointing.''

Instead, the Colts followed an adage espoused by the late Jim Finks.

"Jim Finks said if you keep sawing wood, pretty soon you will break through," Tobin said. "We were sawing wood."

When the Colts needed him most, running back Marshall Faulk (( re-established the running game. Hampered by an injured big toe most of the year, he ran for 101 yards against the Eagles and 71 against the Chiefs.

"It means an awful lot to have [Harbaugh and Faulk] back," said rookie Marvin Harrison.

Harrison's play down the stretch was critical, too. He has scored touchdowns in five of the past seven games and last Sunday became the first Colts receiver with three TD catches in a game since 1976, when Roger Carr did it. Harrison also has had back-to-back 100-yard receiving games.

Just like the Vikings, the Colts did some retooling in their offensive line. Former No. 1 bust Tony Mandarich reclaimed his career as the starting right tackle, and Jay Leeuwenburg filled a hole at right guard. Jason Matthews plugged another hole at left tackle.

"We came out with the attitude nobody could beat us," Harrison said. "Then we went into a slump with injuries that was devastating. [But] we weren't going to let the season go down the drain."

The Colts went down to the final week of the regular season last year before clinching a wild-card berth, then reached the AFC championship game.

Minnesota commenced its salvage operations after its loss in Seattle. The next week, Johnson passed for 275 yards and Hoard rushed for 108 to beat the Oakland Raiders in overtime, 19-16.

In Week 13, the Vikings took a 17-14 lead over the Denver Broncos into the final minute. But the Broncos won when a John Elway pass was touched by two Vikings defenders before landing in the hands of receiver Ed McCaffrey for the winning touchdown.

At 6-6, the Vikings then beat Arizona, Detroit and Tampa Bay to get into the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under Green and squelch speculation that former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz would coach the team next season.

Johnson, a former World League quarterback, came from nowhere to gain a stranglehold on the job and turn Moon into a backup. He is 5-2 as a starter this year and ranks third in the NFL's quarterback ratings at 92.1.

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