The Minnesota Vikings avoided the dubious pleasure of backing into the NFL playoffs. They instead plunged in headlong, like a New Year's Eve reveler grasping at curtains and handrails for support.
They beat the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants 20-19 Sunday at the Metrodome on Ryan Longwell's last-second 50-yard field goal, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and for first time under owner Zygi Wilf or coach Brad Childress.
"I'm just savoring this moment right now," Wilf said after the game in the locker room, wearing beads of sweat and a gray NFC North Champions cap. "I'm just going to enjoy it."
The Vikings won dramatically but not efficiently, honoring franchise history by turning even a milestone victory into a cautionary example of clock mismanagement in the final 30 seconds. "Could we make it any more nerve-racking?" defensive end Jared Allen asked.
NFL seasons become tests of will and soft tissue. The 2008 Vikings inspired optimism with the most aggressive spending spree in franchise history, acquiring Allen, receiver Bernard Berrian and safety Madieu Williams.
But they lost their first two games, benched their starting quarterback, rallied behind a backup who thought about retiring last winter, lost their most imposing linebacker to a season-ending injury, watched their star defensive tackles survive a legal fight over the league's attempt to suspend them for taking diuretics and saw Childress' popularity descend to Madoff levels before winning their first division title since 2000.
"I'm proud to take these guys into this tournament that only 12 teams are in," Childress said. "Nothing says you can't do some damage."
Facing a proud team resting several key starters in the second half, the Vikings blew a 10-point first-half lead and trailed 19-10 with 11:22 remaining in the game. Because the Chicago Bears were losing in Houston, the Vikings would not require a victory to advance to the playoffs, but the sellout crowd seemed unaware of the score of that game, and even the Vikings who knew said they didn't care.
"I still felt like we needed to win the game," said quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.
Jackson threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian with 9:35 remaining, and after the Giants missed a field goal, the Vikings got the ball back with 3:17 remaining, trailing 19-17.
Then they produced a 30-yard drive that featured enough interruptions and subplots to qualify as a sitcom. Childress feared leaving the Giants time for their own last-minute drive, so instead of running a no-huddle offense, he moved methodically. With 36 seconds remaining and the ball on the Giants 30, Adrian Peterson, who would win the NFL rushing title, took a handoff and unadvisedly tried to veer to the outside, losing 2 yards.
Time passed. And passed. And passed. That play ended with 29 seconds remaining. The Vikings held one timeout. Childress seemed to freeze as special teams coach Paul Ferraro and running backs coach Eric Bienemy gestured angrily at one another, and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier put his hand on Childress' back, as if to urge him to action.
Jackson gazed at the sideline for the next play, and Childress finally called his last timeout with nine seconds remaining, erasing any realistic chance of running a productive play.
Childress sent Longwell onto the field. The Giants called a timeout to "ice" Longwell. Childress sent his offense back onto the field, and Jackson threw incomplete to the sideline in a half-hearted attempt to gain a few more yards.
Childress sent Longwell back onto the field. The Giants called another timeout. Finally, Longwell ended the unintended intermission and the suspense with the field goal.
"You might find this hard to believe, but I was actually lying on my back when it went through," center Matt Birk said. "A couple of guys ran me over, and I turned and I saw Longwell put his arms up."
The same fans who screamed at Childress during the game's last minute stayed to cheer as the Vikings surrounded Longwell. "We heard the 'Fire Childress' chants," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We've got our coach's back."
This weekend, Childress will face his former employers, the Philadelphia Eagles, in the first playoff game at the Metrodome since 2000.
Late Sunday afternoon in a relieved locker room, large men pounded one another on the back and embraced, and Birk, tired and grinning, offered a unique answer to the oldest question in sports.
"It feels good," he said. "Winning releases a lot of endorphins in the brain, I guess."
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • email@example.com