Before the Vikings took the field to face Carolina a week ago, they knew they had clinched the division title because the Packers had lost. Minnesota also knew it could improve its chances for the No. 1 seed in the NFC because the Saints had lost that week as well.

It turned out that incentive didn't do a thing for the Vikings. They played their worst game of the season and lost to the Panthers.

When the take the field Monday night to face the Bears, they face a similar situation because the Saints lost again Sunday.

That means that if the Vikings beat the Bears and the Giants next Sunday and the Saints lose to the red-hot Panthers in Charlotte next week, the Vikings will have home-field advantage through the NFC title game. Carolina whipped the Giants 41-9 on Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.

Linebacker Chad Greenway knows how important it is for the Vikings to not only win the next two games but to play well. They need to tackle better on defense and run better on offense, two weaknesses the Vikings have displayed lately.

"You lose two games the way we have the last two out of three weeks, we've came back in here trying to rally," Greenway said. "We're trying to get the mojo going the right direction here towards the end of the season. We want to be playing our best football, so that means these last two games really finishing strong and then in the playoffs playing our best football. So, we really need to pull it together here."

One of the best linebackers in the NFL, the former Iowa star knows the Vikings have to find a way to defend quick-rhythm passes better.

"Whether you're zone or man coverage it really depends on taking those short passes away," he said. "Also, it's just about the pass rush getting home and the defensive backs and us linebackers just squeezing our coverage."

Greenway said the way the Panthers attacked the Vikings is nothing new, but the team didn't play well defensively.

"To be honest with you, it's always more about what we're doing on our defensive side of the ball than what teams are doing to us," he said. "They just made more plays than we did. They had receivers down the field making big plays and big catches, and we had defensive players in the right spots, You've just got to make the plays, and that speaks for everybody, not just for one player. So, you know just a group of 11 guys working together. We know we have the talent; we just have to continue to work hard together and hopefully we'll improve."

No doubt the loss of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who is out for the season because of a broken leg, hasn't help the pass defense.

''E.J. is one of our greatest team leaders and to lose him was very detrimental to our team," Greenway said. "But guys who have backed him up have stepped in and done a great job for him."

Vikings a dome team

The Vikings have a reputation of being a dome team, with all three losses this year being outdoors, and the history of the franchise reveals that they haven't played well in Chicago.

"Well, they'll obviously got an advantage: A) because they're playing at home, and B) because they play outside more than they do," Greenway said. "You can see the record and our track record as a dome team; we haven't played that well outdoors.

"I think we just have to embrace the cold and the snow and the wind, embrace it and go out there and let our game plan take over. Defensive players must go out there and fly around and make as many plays as you can. You know it's not going to be pleasant, but they're playing in the same temperatures that we are."

The Bears are 5-9 and the Vikings beat them 36-10 in the Metrodome, but Greenway expects a tough game.

"I do know that they'll be ready to play, and they'll thrive on being the underdog as they usually do," Greenway said. "They definitely have enough talent to beat you up, and they definitely have the weapons on offense to score a lot of points. [Jay] Cutler hasn't really shown his true self for the whole season but he's shown glimpses of how good he can be. [Matt] Forte, you know hasn't really gotten on track like he was last year either, so we just don't want to let them get on track against us."

The incentive is there. The Vikings will have a lot better chance of winning playoff games in the Metrodome than on the road.

Jottings

Weather permitting, the Gophers baseball team will play the first game at Target Field against Louisiana Tech on March 27. ... Nobody ever thought the Twins would sell 20,000 season-ticket packages but they are very close to that figure and likely will reach it before the season starts. ... Single-game tickets won't go on sale until March.

Iowa State has sold 8,000 tickets for the Insight Bowl compared with only 1,000 by the Gophers athletic department. However, it's cheaper for those who winter in Arizona to buy tickets there, so maybe the Gophers will have a good fan base at the game.

One real plus for the Gophers is that linebacker Nate Triplett is 100 percent healthy. Early in the season he was doing a great job, but in the past four or five games he was pretty beat up.

The Wild, which isn't selling as many tickets as did inprevious years, still is drawing well and ranks fourth in the NHL in attendance.

It's amazing how well former Gophers and other NHL stars who resided in the area are helping the top teams in the NHL. Minnesotans Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner are the top two scorers for the New Jersey Devils, who are tied for first place with Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division. Parise has 15 goals and 25 assists in 36 games while Langenbrunner has eight goals and 21 assists in 36 games.

Former Gophers defenseman Paul Martin will be sidelined another month after having a setback in his recovery from a broken left forearm. ... Former Gopher Alex Goligoski has been one of the top scoring defensemen for the Penguins, with six goals and 12 assists in 29 games. ... Former Gopher Thomas Vanek is one of the top scorers for the Buffalo Sabers, who are in first place in the Northeast Division. Vanek has three goals and two assists in his past seven games, giving him 11 goals and 12 assists in 33 games.

Blake Wheeler is the seventh-leading scorer for the second-place Boston Bruins with seven goals and 11 assists in 37 games.

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