From "The Mercury News"

Posted on Sat, Dec. 10, 2005

[size=18px]Column: Tice fosters Vikings 'family'[/size]

TIM DAHLBERG
AP Sports Columnist


Mike Tice was talking to the media the other day, something he must find a lot easier to do now that his Minnesota Vikings have disembarked from the SS Sexcapade and are on a five-game winning streak.

The subject was hard times, and what a football team can do to overcome them. Tice, like most football coaches, prefers the circle-the-wagons, us-against-them approach to adversity.

"I have always preached that we are family," Tice said. "That is important because families go through hard times. There is nothing ever easy about being a family."

Not when your family is this dysfunctional, it isn't.

The Vikings are suddenly hot, something only guys who paint themselves purple and wear horned hats in public would have thought possible when the team stumbled to a 1-4 start. They play the fading St. Louis Rams on Sunday with a chance to move to 8-5 and in the thick of playoff contention.

But to say things haven't been choppy along the shores of Lake Minnetonka would be like claiming the prized lutefisk Minnesotans like to eat is gourmet fare.

These Vikings may be a family, but this isn't exactly Father Knows Best.

For the sake of those who might have forgotten, let's review what has happened in the Vikings' household over the past year in the frigid but normally family friendly environment of Minnesota:

_The head of the family got busted for scalping Super Bowl tickets, drawing a $100,000 fine and putting his job in jeopardy.

_The family's most talented runner was suspended for the season after being caught at the local airport with "The Original Whizzinator." Before Mom asks, the phallic device included in the kit is used to beat drug tests.

_And, yeah, some of the boys in the family got into a bit of trouble during a bye week when they decided to let off some steam on a cruise that would have made the Love Boat blush.

Good thing they got rid of that troublemaker Randy Moss. A guy like that could really ruin a family gathering.

Minnesota Nice, meet Minnesota Vice.

"It was bad," linebacker Sam Cowart said. "You turn on the TV and saw everything that was being said. It was bad."

The news was bad, but for the first part of the season the Vikings were even worse. A team that some picked to play in the Super Bowl started was going nowhere fast when it lost quarterback Daunte Culpepper in a blowout loss to Carolina and fell to 2-5.

The only consolation for the Vikings was that more attention was being paid to reports of sex and debauchery involving players on the boats than the lousy way the team was playing on the field.

Along the way, though, a funny thing happened. The Vikings started winning, and they haven't stopped since.

Amazingly enough, they've done it behind backup Brad Johnson, who was supposed to serve merely as a caretaker at quarterback while the Vikings played out the season amid dwindling crowds and dwindling interest in the Metrodome.

Johnson won't remind anyone of Peyton Manning, but he's been a steadying influence on an offense that couldn't stop coughing up the ball. While Culpepper threw 12 interceptions in seven games, Johnson has only thrown the ball twice to someone with a different uniform.

But it's on defense where the Vikings have really gotten better. In the five-game stretch, the Vikings have given up an average of only 16 points, making it a bit easier to win even with an offense that now plays without its star quarterback and star receiver from last year.

"We are playing smarter, but the main thing is the guys stuck together and they believed in what I was telling them, which is we are not a bad football team," Tice said.

It helps that the Vikings have been playing bad teams. Before anyone pencils Minnesota in as a Super Bowl pick, remember that two of the wins came against the pathetic Detroit Lions, and two others came against the Packers and Browns.

The only team of note the Vikings have beaten in the streak is the New York Giants, and they did that without scoring an offensive touchdown.

Still, wins are wins. The Vikings should get another one against the Rams, and could find themselves with a chance to win the NFC North in the final game of the regular season at home against Chicago.

That's pretty heady stuff for a team that only a few weeks ago seemed on the verge of packing it in.

And so far it makes for one happy family in Minneapolis.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected]