St. Paul's F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life. So even if he were alive today, he probably wouldn't admit to painting his face purple, donning fake braids and screaming "Fire Childress!" in the Metrodome a couple of months ago.

Childress, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and the Vikings aren't just conducting a second act in life; they're already deep into the second act of this season.

They play Washington tonight in the Metrodome with a chance to greatly enhance their odds of making the playoffs and consummate the greatest public transformation in the NFL since Esera Tuaolo went from playing defensive tackle to singing show tunes. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Childress arrived in Minnesota as a sour-pussed, anal-retentive stickler for things that don't matter. That didn't work out too well; he finished 6-10 his first season.

He started his second season as a more genial anal-retentive stickler. That didn't work out too well; he started 2-5.

Just when the season looked lost and Childress appeared to be bound for the Les Steckel Memorial Unemployment Line, we witnessed two strange, unexpected and possibly intertwined occurrences.

Childress, the kind of guy who uses a level to cross his T's and a slide rule to dot his I's, loosened up, kept his cool and showed a sense of humor. At least, that's what it looked like from the outside.

For that reason -- or maybe for a dozen other, unrelated reasons -- the Vikings started winning.

Jackson, unfairly asked to run a veteran team while learning how to play in double-decked stadiums, learned the two phases of life for a fledgling NFL quarterback: When you're hurt or sitting on the bench, fans want you to play. When you play, fans want you hurt or on the bench.

Over the past five weeks, though, Jackson has proved Childress right -- he can win with this team simply by running the offense and taking the open throws presented by defenses committed to stopping Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor.

Jackson is 8-2 as a starter, and the Vikings' winning streak started when he returned to the lineup Nov. 18. He hasn't been great, but he's been better than most of the quarterbacks he's played against -- including Eli Manning, Trent Dilfer and Kyle Orton.

Maybe Jackson is like Orton in '05 or Rex Grossman in '06 -- a quarterback whose team wins despite his mistakes -- but Jackson has at least progressed to the point where we're dissecting his role in victories instead of his culpability in losses. That is progress.

Since that embarrassing loss in Green Bay, the Vikings have reminded us why sport remains the most dramatic entertainment option and least predictable enterprise known to man.

If, after watching the Vikings get outcoached and outplayed at Lambeau while players laughed on the sideline, you predicted a five-game winning streak, a looser Childress and an ascending Jackson, you and Dwight Smith probably enjoy the same method of mood enhancement.

For most of the nation, tonight will seem like just your average late-season NFL prime-time game, but we know that there are enough story lines in play to fill an Altman film.

There is the Redskins' reaction to, and recovery from, the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor. There is the attempt of living legend Joe Gibbs, who won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and three different featured running backs, to re-establish his once-unquestioned mastery in The Age of Belichick.

We have The Return of The Smoot, and we have what the 24-hour news channels would call a developing story -- the apparent transformation of Childress, Jackson and the Vikings, who have become the chic national pick to make a playoff run.

When you live out a second act in the NFL, you get to do so in prime time.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •