Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Judd and I both picked the Vikings to win Sunday, but neither of us thought it would be so one-sided. The Vikings easily played their best game of the season in all three phases in steamrolling the Cowboys 34-3 at Mall of America Field at the Metrodome.
The Vikings advanced to next Sunday's NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome. We'll have plenty of analysis from their victory Sunday online and in the paper but here are some notes and quotes from the postgame:
-- Vikings coach Brad Childress was fairly blunt about how the Cowboys received a lot of national attention in the week leading up to the game.
-- Brett Favre became the first 40-year-old quarterback to win a playoff game in NFL history. Favre completed 15 of 24 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. In nine games at the Metrodome this season, Favre threw 25 touchdown passes and only 2 interceptions.
-- Sidney Rice played like a Pro Bowl receiver today. He caught six passes for 141 yards and tied an NFL postseason record with three touchdown catches. Rice had touchdown catches of 47 and 45 yards. On his 16-yard TD, he wasn't even supposed to got out for a pass. His job was to block LB DeMarcus Ware. Rice cutblocked Ware, got up and slipped into the pattern and Favre found him in the middle of the field. On Rice's performance, Favre said: "I said from Day 1 that Sidney is that type of player,” Favre said. “I hate to compare him or put him in categories because I think he’s in a category by himself. There’s faster guys, there’s taller guys, there’s quicker guys. But the thing about Sidney is -- and I’ve played with guys like him as far as work ethic -- he wants to be good.”
-- The story defensively for the Vikings was their pass rush. Led by Ray Edwards and Jared Allen, the Vikings made Dallas quarterback Tony Romo uncomfortable all game. Edwards had a career game with five tackles, three sacks, six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Edwards left the game in the third quarter with a right knee injury and early indications are that it's a sprain. As a team, the Vikings sacked Romo six times and had 10 hurries.
-- After carrying the ball only nine times in the Vikings’ regular-season finale, running back Adrian Peterson gained 63 yards on 26 carries (a 2.4) average and his longest run went for only 11 yards. The Cowboys had the NFL’s fourth-rated run defense in the regular season and Peterson was not the least bit fazed by his lack of success. "A lot of guys contributed today and we knew in the running game it was going to be famine, famine, feast," he said. "We just kept pounding those guys and we had some big plays by Sidney Rice and other receivers really contributed to the offense."
-- Safety Tyrell Johnson was credited with only two tackles, but he had perhaps his best performance of the season. The coaches were planning on rotating Johnson and rookie Jamarca Sanford like they did in the regular-season finale against the New York Giants. But they stayed with Johnson the entire game because they felt he had a "good rhythm," according to Childress.
Johnson had several big plays in the third quarter in particular. His hit prevented receiver Miles Austin from getting his feet down inbounds along the sideline on a third-down catch. Johnson later came up in run support and tackled Felix Jones for a 4-yard loss. "Tyrell stepped up knowing that Jamarca is pushing and trying to get playing time," Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "To see Tyrell respond the way he did was great for our football team."
-- The Vikings coverage teams easily had their best showing of the season. The Cowboys averaged only 15.4 yards on seven kickoff returns and did not have any punt return yards. "Our coverage units were unbelievably outstanding," Childress said.
-- Cornerback Antoine Winfield, who played exclusively on the inside in the nickel package in the regular-season finale because the Vikings wanted to get him some rest for his injured right foot, played in short-yardage base situations Sunday and also was used inside in the nickel. Frazier said it was all about making sure the Vikings continued to take care of Winfield’s foot. "He’s so, so key to us," Frazier said. "When I saw him moving the way he was in practice on Thursday, I told one of our coaches, I said, ‘You know what? We’re going to play lights out.’ I really felt that way, just seeing how he moved and I just know what he does for our defense. His presence. It’s much like if Jared [Allen] wasn’t out there or Kevin [Williams]."
-- Favre appeared to be upset with referee Walt Anderson after being thrown to the turf in the third quarter by Cowboys linebacker Bradie James. The play had been blown dead because wide receiver Percy Harvin had been called for a false start. Because of the noise, Favre dropped back and threw a pass that was caught down field by Rice but the play was dead. Favre was slammed to the ground as he let go. But he wasn’t upset about the hit, rather it was the call he wanted to debate with Anderson.
Just arrived at the Metrodome and workers are going through last-minute preparations before the gates open at 10 a.m. Saw several Cowboys fans waiting to get in. Here a few notes to start you off as we wait for the inactive list to be issued around 10:30 this morning. Don't expect any big surprises.
-- Peter King of Sports Illustrated tweeted this morning that the average margin of victory in the six playoff games entering today has been 17.2 points. The only really entertaining game for a fan just tuning in to watch was Arizona's 51-45 overtime victory over Green Bay last weekend. On Saturday, the Saints beat the Cardinals by 31 and the Colts beat the Ravens by 17. Hopefully, we see a far more competitive game today at the Metrodome. I sure don't expect a one-sided contest.
-- The plan remains for veteran corner Antoine Winfield to play both at the left corner and inside in the nickel today. It sounds like it's going to come down to matchups for Winfield. Winfield made it clear Friday that if he feels any pain in his injured right foot he won't hesitate to take himself out. No matter what happens, I expect to see a healthy dose of corner Benny Sapp. Sapp is a free agent after the season and his performance in place of Winfield in the second half of the season likely has helped him improve his stock.
-- We expect Tyrell Johnson to start at strong safety for the Vikings, but rookie Jamarca Sanford will see playing time. If nothing else, this sets up as a real training-camp battle next season with Sanford pushing Johnson for the job.
-- Chip put this on the blog Saturday but we have confirmed the report by CBS' Charley Casserly that Tony Dungy was in the running for the team president's job in Seattle until last Sunday. And Dungy would have hired Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier as his coach. Put all the pieces together and it now makes sense why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the Seahawks satisfied the Rooney Rule. Frazier's interview with Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke was so if Dungy took the job the interview process was complete. Here's another interesting nugget we've heard. Leiweke conducted the interview with Frazier for four-plus hours last Saturday and then remained in the Twin Cities until Sunday morning. Supposedly, Dungy turned the job down on Sunday. It was at that point, that Leiweke left for California so he could talk to Pete Carroll. In other words, Carroll was Plan B to Plan A, which was Dungy/Frazier.
The Vikings might make it to the NFC Championship Game -- they will have to beat Dallas on Sunday to do so -- but they won't be playing host to the game.
That became certain today when the Saints beat Arizona, 45-14, in an NFC divisional playoff game at the Superdome. New Orleans is the top seed in the conference and thus will play host to the title game at 5:40 p.m. a week from Sunday.
Now time to watch Baltimore and Indianapolis face off in an AFC matchup.
This much has become clear.
If the Vikings are going to be playing early next month in South Florida, they are going to have to put together outstanding defensive performances in back-to-back games. We mean the type of performances that would guarantee Leslie Frazier a head coaching job. The first will have to come Sunday when the Vikings play host to the Dallas Cowboys in an NFC divisional playoff game.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo promises to employ a quick passing game against a Vikings defense and tight end Jason Witten figures to be a primary target. But stopping the Cowboys might be a walk in the park compared to what it will be like facing quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints offense has looked very, very good today and they lead 35-14 over the Arizona Cardinals at halftime of their playoff game. Arizona has lost safety Antrel Rolle (head), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (left knee) and quarterback Kurt Warner (chest).
UPDATE: Warner has returned to the game with 12:45 left in the third quarter.
The Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin, one of the best NFL writers in the business, reported that the league has assigned Walt Anderson's officiating crew to work the Vikings-Cowboys divisional playoff game on Sunday.
This could prove to be bad news for both teams and especially the Vikings. As Gosselin points out, Anderson's crew was harder on home teams than any officiating crew this season. It called 113 penalties for 1,029 yards on the host teams.
Research of the Vikings' 16 games this season backs up Gosselin's point. The Anderson crew worked the Vikings' 27-10 victory over Detroit on Nov. 15 at Mall of America Field at the Metrodome. Minnesota was assessed a season-high 13 (accepted) penalties for 91 yards. The Lions took only four penalties for 40 yards.
The Vikings took 10 or more penalties in a game only three times this season. Ron Winter's crew called them for 11 penalties for 78 yards at Pittsburgh on Oct. 25 and Walt Coleman's crew called them for 10 penalties for 70 yards on Nov. 29 against Chicago. The Vikings averaged 6.3 penalties per game this season for 47.3 yards.
Anderson, who lives in Sugar Land, Texas, also was the referee for one Cowboys game this season. His crew was in charge for Dallas' 17-10 loss at Denver on Oct. 4. The Cowboys took seven penalties for 70 yards and the Broncos 10 penalties for 81 yards.
Gosselin's blog reveals that when it comes to throwing flags, Anderson's crew is simply in a class by itself. Of the NFL's 17 officiating teams, Anderson's was the only one to assess 200 penalties this season. The 1,794 penalty yards that Anderson walked off was 172 more than the officiating crew that ranked second.
In other words, get ready for a long game on Sunday.
Also, we will have more on this later, but four Vikings have been named to the Associated Press All-Pro team. Running back Adrian Peterson, left guard Steve Hutchinson, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and defensive end Jared Allen were named to the first team. The Vikings had no one selected to the second team. Hutchinson and Williams were picked for the fifth time.
UPDATE: Here is the complete All-Pro team
NFL All-Pro team
QB: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis. RB: Chris Johnson, Tennessee; Adrian Peterson, Vikings; FB: Leonard Weaver, Philadelphia. TE: Dallas Clark, Indianapolis. WR: Andre Johnson, Houston; Wes Welker, New England. T: Ryan Clady, Denver; Joe Thomas, Cleveland. G: Steve Hutchinson, Vikings; Jahri Evans, New Orleans. C: Nick Mangold, N.Y. Jets. K: Nate Kaeding, San Diego. KR: Joshua Cribbs, Cleveland.
DE: Jared Allen, Vikings; Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis. T: Jay Ratliff, Dallas; Kevin Williams, Vikings. OLB: Elvis Dumervil, Denver; DaMarcus Ware, Dallas. ILB: Patrick Willis, San Francisco; Ray Lewis, Baltimore. CB: Charles Woodson, Green Bay; Darelle Revis, N.Y. Jets. S: Darren Sharper, New Orleans; Adrian Wilson, Arizona. P: Shane Lechler, Oakland.
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