Lamenting close loss to Colts, Vikings look ahead to second half

Tuesday, November 9th 2004, 8:32 pm
By: News On 6

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) _ Once again, the Minnesota Vikings lead the NFC North at midseason.

Do they have enough to hold on this time? That's the burning question this week, with Randy Moss still hurting and a critical game at division rival Green Bay looming.

``It's a different type of team,'' coach Mike Tice said Tuesday. ``I think this team has more character.''

Nobody in the NFL accepts moral victories, but the Vikings (5-3) found multiple positives from their 31-28 defeat at Indianapolis on Monday night. It was their second straight loss, but the comeback from an early 14-0 deficit in a deafening dome against one of the league's best offenses suggested they're not going to wilt this month like last year's team that dropped four in a row following a 6-0 start and missed the playoffs.

``I'm proud of the way the team battled,'' Tice said.

Moss probably won't play on Sunday against the Packers (4-4), and there's one less day to prepare. But Minnesota was pleased by the way the offense functioned without its star receiver _ averaging 6.5 yards per play. Problem: The Vikings had only 45 plays.

Daunte Culpepper threw just one touchdown pass, but he went 16-for-19 _ completing all 10 of his second-half attempts. Onterrio Smith, returning from a four-game substance-abuse suspension, rushed 13 times for 80 yards and the tying touchdown with 2:54 remaining. Nate Burleson and Kelly Campbell, picking up part of the slack with Moss out, came up with big catches and huge returns on special teams.

Though Bryant McKinnie was beaten several times by the Dwight Freeney, the offensive line provided sufficient protection. Better clock management at the end of the first half could have allowed Culpepper a crack at the end zone _ perhaps yielding a touchdown instead of Morten Andersen's second field goal and enough points to ultimately hang on for a win.

On the other side of the ball, Peyton Manning was pretty much unstoppable. Edgerrin James chewed up chunks of time and yardage, and Manning found openings downfield.

At first glance, it looks like the Vikings' defense was predictably easy to move on. The secondary was serviceable, however, and the impact of the Colts' receiving trio of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley was limited. Cornerback Antoine Winfield played one of his best games.

The glaring weakness was at linebacker, where injuries to Chris Claiborne and Raonall Smith left Minnesota weak _ no pun intended _ at the weakside position. Struggling rookie Dontarrious Thomas was replaced by struggling second-year man Mike Nattiel, who was replaced by strong safety _ yes, strong safety _ Willie Offord. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson also played poorly in pass coverage.

The result was myriad openings in the middle of the field. Three of Manning's four touchdown passes went to tight ends.

On Tuesday, Tice praised the calls by defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and his staff. Most of the mistakes made were discipline-related _ players just not doing what they were coached to do.

``That's disappointing,'' Tice said. ``They have to understand there's a reason why we call certain things and there's a reason why they have to be executed to a 'T.' There's a reason why you have to understand the details of your assignment.''

Notes: Onterrio Smith will start at running back on Sunday. ``We're going to have roles for everybody,'' Tice said. ... The Vikings will probably elevate practice squad offensive lineman Anthony Herrera, a promising rookie from New Mexico, to the active roster this week to avoid him from being signed by another team. Center Billy Conaty could be cut to make room.