[size=18px]Down-and-up Vikings make streaking fashionable[/size]

Mike Tice's team has a pattern of winning and losing in bunches. To make the playoffs, the Vikings must continue riding high.

Kevin Seifert, Star Tribune
Last update: November 28, 2005 at 10:04 PM

In sports, they call it a roller coaster: A team climbs toward the top, creeping ever so slowly to the pinnacle before gravity drives it, headfirst and screaming, back the ground. If the team is lucky, momentum helps it ascend quicker the next time as it moves wildly through the season.

These days, the Vikings are on the uptick of a 3½-year ride that has characterized the tenure of coach Mike Tice. Their current winning streak, which grew to four games after Sunday's 24-12 victory over Cleveland, marks the third significant run since Tice took over on a permanent basis for the 2002 season.

The Vikings opened that season 3-10. They won their final three games and then the first six of 2003, then finished 2003 on a 3-7 slide. They won five of their first six games in 2004 before again finishing 3-7, and this season they opened 2-5.

To summarize: 3-10, followed by 9-0, 3-7, 5-1, 5-12 and 4-0. Nearly two-thirds of Tice's career victories have come during those three upswings. When asked Monday about the trend, Tice provided a 685-word answer before ultimately smiling and saying: "I know what you wanted me to say, but I'm not going to say it."

No, Tice wasn't willing to connect his volatile personality with the team's streaky performance. He did, however, acknowledge the Vikings are entering a critical stage of this season that demands an extension of their winning run.

Sunday's game at Detroit provides an opportunity to enhance the Vikings' standing with the second tiebreaker in the NFL playoff system. If they defeat Chicago on Jan. 1 and finish with the same record as the Bears, the Vikings could win the NFC North based on a better division record if they defeat the Lions and the Bears lose one other division game.

"This is such an important game for us based on the fact that we have only two division games left," Tice said. "This one is way important. You don't like to look ahead but as a head coach you have to a little bit, and this game has vital importance for what we have left on our schedule."

A continued winning streak would mark the first time Tice's Vikings have put together a meaningful run at the end of a season. Their 3-7 finishes in 2003 and 2004 developed from "fatigue and immaturity," Tice said Monday, and the Vikings hope they have corrected both issues this season.

Defensive back Ralph Brown, who signed with the Vikings in September 2004, said last season's team "might have gotten a little burned out" after a physical training camp and a steady dose of full-contact practices.

"We didn't know how that would take a toll on our bodies," Brown said. "This year, I think coach Tice cut back, and he's keeping us fresh. Now, we're winning at the right time."

If the Vikings still are feeling spry and confident as December approaches, part of the credit goes to enhanced depth along both lines and in the defensive secondary. After experimenting with offensive line starters, the Vikings have settled on a group that includes only one Opening Day starter: left tackle Bryant McKinnie. On defense, they have developed rookies Erasmus James, C.J. Mosley and Dovonte Edwards to play significant roles.

Tice said of his four preseason predictions -- "I know offense, we have a lot of depth, this is not going to be our [offensive] line that is going to be out there in the end, and it is going to take us a while to get our defense together," he reiterated Monday -- three have proved accurate.

"Except for the fact that it doesn't look like I know offense -- but I promise you I do -- I have been right on," Tice said.

At the same time, a new group of veterans -- including linebacker Keith Newman, cornerback Antoine Winfield and quarterback Brad Johnson -- have stepped up to guide the team through this current streak.

"In the past," right guard Adam Goldberg said, "we've had young teams. I think young teams in general are streaky. They play high for the high games, and then the low games, when they should just take care of business, they let a game like that slide like we have sometimes in the past. But this is a veteran-run team. Although you have a lot of young guys playing critical roles for us, I think the veteran leadership on this team is good."