Sid Hartman: Vikings need strong game to chill out red-hot Dallas

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2010 - 11:59 PM

Linebacker Ben Leber said two weeks of preparation have helped get the team back to its early-season form.

Vikings linebacker Ben Leber celebrated the 44-7 defeat of the Giants in the regular-season finale two weeks ago.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Ben Leber's role at outside linebacker has become more important since E.J. Henderson's injury, and Leber said he believes the team has regained its early-season form in beating the Giants after losing to the Cardinals, Panthers and Bears. Leber said the team is ready for a top performance Sunday against the Cowboys.

The Vikings were 10-1 -- the only loss being to the Steelers -- before they went into the slump and lost three out of the next four games.

You want my opinion? The Vikings will have to play like they did when they were 10-1 if they are to beat the Cowboys and advance to the NFC title game. Anything less will result in the season coming to a close. The Cowboys completely dominated a pretty good Eagles team in two consecutive games.

"Those are the lumps you end up taking over the course of the year. It's a long season," said Leber, about the Vikings' roughest stretch. "We did a great job bouncing back and collecting ourselves.

"We played our style of football [against the Giants], and that's the sign of a good team. We executed very well, and we set out and did the things we wanted to do."

The final 12-4 record gave the Vikings a bye week. "Certainly, the week off helped," Leber said. "It let us get our bodies healthy, and get mentally fresh."

Leber was asked if replacing Henderson, maybe the best middle linebacker in the league, when the Vikings are in the nickel defense, has put more pressure on him than when he plays outside linebacker.

"I don't feel like it's too much," said Leber. "I got my feet wet last year with him going down during the season. I feel comfortable out there right now."

Leber said the Vikings had a great week of practice preparing for the Cowboys.

"The game plan is great and the guys are excited for the game," Leber said.

How big is this game?

"It's a big game. I can't put a number on it or say how big it is, but it's a big game," he said. "It's the playoffs, and everybody understands if you lose, you are out. Win, you have another chance and the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl."

Top defense

Vikings Pro Bowl tackle Steve Hutchinson is impressed with the Cowboys defense.

"They are a top-notch defense. I don't think anybody will argue that," Hutchinson said. "Their pass rush is second to none. They are a complete defense. The last four games, they have been able to really tee off. The Cowboys offense has been doing a good job putting up points. So, the defense hasn't really had to contend with the run. They have been able to showcase their pass rush the last couple of games."

Fellow tackle Bryant McKinnie, who had some problems this year, being removed from the Panthers game, was asked how he was going to handle DeMarcus Ware, the great Cowboys linebacker.

"I'll be blocking him from time to time," McKinnie said. "I have a little game plan I'm going to use against him, but I'm not going to discuss it."

How good is he? "He's a pretty good pass rusher," said McKinnie. "He's one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. He's a good player, but he's going to be facing a pretty good offensive line."

Crowd will help

Brett Favre said he expects the crowd to be a 12th man on Sunday. "As a member of the Packers, I learned that without a doubt the Metrodome was the toughest place to play from a noise standpoint," he said. "[Dallas quarterback] Tony Romo will have a new experience."

Vikings center John Sullivan said the last thing he ever expected in his career was being the center for Favre.

Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, who expects the club to break even financially this year, has been here since Thursday watching practice every day and conferring with the coaches. He says he isn't nervous about the outcome of today's game, but is confident the team will play its best of the year.

Dallas coach Wade Phillips hopes that ex-Gopher running back Marion Barber III is ready to play after being bothered by a sore knee, and can offer a different look from Felix Jones. "It is hard to focus on one running back and another coming in. Me, I don't play defense, but I figure it's hard," he said. "They have to adjust, to it so it helps a lot."

Statistics compiled by the Vikings show the team has the third-best home winning percentage all-time in the NFL. The Broncos lead with .724, followed by the Steelers at .687 and the Vikings at .661. ... Dallas linebacker Keith Brooking, who is given a lot of credit for the success of the Cowboys defense, was a member of the 1998 Falcons Super Bowl team that edged the Vikings in the NFC title game here.

Jottings

It appears that Gophers quarterback Adam Weber will have his fourth offensive coordinator next season, after Jedd Fisch was offered the quarterback coaching job with new Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and is expected to accept it. Lane Kiffin, the new football coach at Southern California, has shown some interest in Gophers offensive line coach Tim Davis, but it appears that he will remain here.

With the Pohlad family donating $3.5 million toward the building of a new Siebert Field on the Gophers campus and the administration agreeing to come up with $1.5 million -- the same around that it donated toward the rowing team building -- it appears that $6 million-plus is now available toward building the new ballpark.

Longtime Twins executive Jerry Bell will be recognized by the Minnesota Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America with the Herb Carneal Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 Diamond Awards on Jan. 28 at the Minneapolis Hilton Hotel. ... Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has named Twins owner Jim Pohlad to the MLB Advanced Media Board of Directors. ... Twins spring training tickets went on sale on Saturday. ... The Twins have once again purchased time regionally to debut a new "Twins Territory" ad during the Super Bowl telecast. ... The Twins' 50th Winter Caravan starts on Monday with visits to more than 50 communities. The Twins caravan is the largest team-run offseason caravan in all of sports. ... Look for the Twins to soon announce plans for a single-game ticket lottery for the team's opening series against the Boston Red Sox, April 12-15.

Former Vikings quarterback Brooks Bollinger was the top-ranked quarterback in the four-team United Football League. Bollinger played for Florida, which was coached by former Saints coach Jim Haslett.

Former NBA coach Eric Musselman, the son of former Gophers and Timberwolves coach Bill Musselman, was one of the broadcasters for an NBA D-League game televised on Versus on Saturday. Musselman is also doing Fox Sports Radio and West Coast Conference college games on Comcast.

The Gophers' wrestling program will receive all of the ticket sale proceeds to bolster its Scholarship Endowment Fund for its home meet against Purdue on Jan. 31. In light of the tough economic times, it shows the athletic department is looking out for the long-term viability of their program. It will be interesting to see if this promotion works and more people attend the meet as a result. The promotion could serve as a model.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com

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