NFC North: Giants-Vikings
Let's get caught up on the Detroit Lions' coaching search, which will continue into the weekend.
The Lions are scheduled to interview Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz on Saturday in Nashville, according to John Niyo of the Detroit News. Schwartz will be the second confirmed interview; the Lions met with New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has withdrawn from consideration, according to the National Football Post. And the Lions have added Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to their list of candidates.
Other candidates under consideration include Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Washington secondary coach Jerry Gray and Miami assistant head coach Todd Bowles. UPDATE (4 p.m. ET: Gray interviewed Friday in Detroit, according to the Washington Post.
Interviews with assistants whose teams play this weekend -- including Ryan and Frazier -- could occur as soon as Monday.
Continuing a weekend tour around the NFC North:
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times suggests the Bears could hire former Lions coach Rod Marinelli as a defensive assistant while retaining defensive coordinator Bob Babich.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune disagrees with fans who want the Bears to fire coach Lovie Smith.
- There is no indication if Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy has made a decision on the future of defensive coordinator Bob Sanders, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- We're expecting Minnesota to sell out Sunday's wild-card playoff game against Philadelphia. But if there is a blackout, Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune has tracked down the preliminary programming schedule on the Twin Cities' local FOX affiliate. Law & Order, anyone?
- No surprise that the Vikings will not have defensive end Ray Edwards (knee) for Sunday's game. The big question is whether nose tackle Pat Williams can play, writes Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Early indications are that he will try to suit up.
|Ryan Longwell's field goal gave Minnesota a 20-19 win over New York.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
MINNEAPOLIS -- Multiple layers of emotion converged at the 35-yard line Sunday afternoon.
"Best feeling I've ever had," said owner Zygi Wilf, still catching his breath after a celebratory sprint onto the field.
Then came this realization: Longwell's kick had clinched Minnesota's first division title since 2000. The Vikings will take on Philadelphia next weekend in the first playoff game at the Metrodome in eight years.
"That's the reason I came here," safety Darren Sharper said, "and it's the reason a lot of guys in this locker room came here. To win the NFC North and have a chance to win the Super Bowl."
And at the core was this: The kick sent the Vikings into the postseason with a boost that could carry them for weeks.
As it turned out, because of the Bears' 31-24 loss to the Texans, the Vikings would have won the NFC North even if Longwell's kick had failed -- but they would have taken a two-game losing streak into the NFL's postseason tournament. From this vantage point, you can't underestimate the institutional importance of clinching with a victory for an organization that has choked in big games for most of this decade.
"When you win like that, you get a confidence that you just can't get otherwise," defensive end Jared Allen said. "If we lost, you just carry a disappointment into the playoffs with you. So we won and we feel like we earned it. We didn't have to worry or care about what anyone else did. I think this game is going to build character and give us something to reflect back on.
"We know now that we're a good football team," Allen added. "And we know that when the game is on the line and the season is on the line, we can forge ahead and win the game. The playoffs are about who is playing good at the right time. Now, we can say we've won five of our last six games. If we go into the playoffs with another loss, we go in with a mindset that we're struggling."
And for much of Sunday, it appeared the Vikings were on course to deal with just that. Behind backup quarterback David Carr, the Giants scored 10 unanswered points to take a 19-10 lead with 11:22 left. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson had scuttled one drive by throwing an interception in the end zone, and tension was mounting as everyone -- including more than a few Vikings players -- kept track of Chicago's game. (Several players, including Sharper, admitted that non-field personnel gave them regular updates of the Bears' progress during the fourth quarter.
The Bears trailed by 14 points as the Vikings moved into position for Longwell's field goal, but the Vikings managed to create far more drama than the Bears could provide.
Coach Brad Childress pulled Longwell off the field to run more time off the clock with nine seconds remaining, effectively forcing Longwell to sit through three timeouts before finally delivering the kick. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time this season an NFL kicker had brought his team from behind with a 50-plus yard walk-off field goal.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Ryan Longwell just clinched the NFC North title for Minnesota.
Longwell's 50-yard field goal on the final play bailed the Vikings out of a botched two-minute drill, lifting the Vikings to their first division championship since 2000.
The Vikings will be the No. 3 seed and play next weekend at the Metrodome. Their opponent will be the winner of Sunday afternoon's game between Dallas and Philadelphia. At this moment, the Chicago Bears' wild-card hopes are still alive.
A capacity crowd at the Metrodome was nervous until Longwell's kick sailed through the uprights. Owner Zygi Wilf led the charge onto the field afterwards, celebrating the team's first playoff berth since he purchased the team in 2005.
I'll be back with more once we return from the locker room.
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're coming down the stretch in the NFC North.
Minnesota just pulled within two points of New York and trail 19-17 midway through the fourth quarter.
Chicago is trailing Houston 24-17 with 6:31 left in its game at Reliant Stadium.
We're going to focus on the final minutes here at the Metrodome but will be back with you shortly after the final gun.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Tarvaris Jackson just made his worst two mistakes since stepping back into Minnesota's starting lineup, scuttling a Vikings scoring opportunity and setting up one for the New York Giants.
Jackson stared down receiver Bernard Berrian in the end zone, allowing safety James Butler to step in front of Jackson's pass and return it 47 yards. A late hit penalty on Jackson moved the ball another 15 yards, and the Giants are in position to add to their lead.
Jackson doesn't appear to be handling the big-game pressure too well, which is not a surprise considering his youth and inexperience. He'll now have to lead the Vikings to a fourth-quarter comeback victory in order to ensure the NFC North title.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Things are getting tight here at the Metrodome. At about the same time Chicago closed the gap to four points in Houston, the Vikings fell behind, 16-10, to the New York Giants in the third quarter.
Backup quarterback David Carr threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon to give the Giants their first lead of the game. The Giants have starting quarterback Eli Manning and right tackle Kareem McKenzie on the bench to start the second half. (Already, tailback Brandon Jackson and tight end Kevin Boss were put on the inactive list).
It was the third time Hixon has been open for a potential touchdown pass, but Manning missed him twice.
It'll now be on the Vikings' offense to wake up from an afternoon's worth of doldrums. Any questions about whether the Giants will roll over in the second half have been answered.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Some random halftime notes from the Metrodome, where the Vikings just got booed off the field despite holding a 10-9 lead:
- More than a few fans were upset with the way the Vikings handled the final minute of the second half. Coach Brad Childress elected to go for it on fourth down from the New York Giants' 39-yard line. When quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was stopped for a 4-yard loss, the Giants went into 2-minute mode and ended the half with a 42-yard field goal from John Carney.
- Every now and then, fans will jump out of their seats at odd moments and start cheering. Those are the people who are keeping track on their cell phones of Chicago's game at Houston, where the Texans lead 14-10 at halftime. A Bears loss will give the Vikings a playoff berth regardless of the outcome here.
- The Vikings' offense has been pretty stagnant with the exception of Adrian Peterson's 67-yard touchdown run. That play represents almost half of the Vikings' total output in the first half.
- Jackson has been favoring his right hand for much of the first half and at one point had athletic trainer Eric Sugarman working on it. Jackson has misfired on a number of passes and has completed seven of 14 overall.
- ESPN's Bob Holtzman reported before the game that David Carr likely will take over for Giants quarterback Eli Manning in the second half. We're guessing Manning won't be the only starter making his way to the bench in the second half.
MINNEAPOLIS -- This is why you have Adrian Peterson. Minnesota's tailback managed 11 yards -- and one fumble -- on his first eight carries Sunday, but just took a third-down run 67 yards for a touchdown here at the Metrodome.
Peterson shook off the fumble and an undisclosed injury that forced him to limp off the field in the first quarter. He broke through the right side of the Vikings' line for his longest run of the season, despite a noticeable hitch in his gait, to give his team a 10-0 lead.
Peterson fumbled on a third-and-1 play at the New York Giants' 42-yard line, but tight end Jim Kleinsasser won the battle for the ball at the bottom of the pile. Peterson then limped out of the game, and backup Chester Taylor has helped the Vikings into scoring position.
Peterson remains on the sideline as the second quarter begins.
Early on Sunday, Chicago isn't looking to make things easy. The Bears are leading Houston, 10-0.
More wireless/broadband issues here in the Metrodome press box. We'll do our best to bring you as many updates as we can.
MINNEAPOLIS -- One more quick pregame note from the Metrodome.
The Vikings have decided not to show the score of Chicago's game at Houston on the out-of-town scoreboard. Coach Brad Childress said several times last week that he wasn't concerned about the issue one way or the other, but obviously someone in the organization doesn't want players fixating on the score at Reliant Stadium.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Last Sunday, we shared with you how tight the Metrodome felt prior to Minnesota's game against Atlanta. Then, the Vikings promptly went out and fumbled seven times -- losing four -- in a 24-17 loss to the Falcons.
This Sunday, I didn't really pick up a vibe one way or the other. Fans seem pensive but not really nervous, while coaches and players don't seem to be approaching this game any differently than any other regular season affair.
Take those observations for what they're worth. Kickoff is approaching both here and in Houston. We'll keep you updated throughout.
We'll get you the highlights of the Vikings' inactive list as soon as it comes.
Meanwhile, Minnesota receiver Bernard Berrian (ankle) is active and will start.
MINNEAPOLIS -- ESPN's John Clayton just reported that New York tailback Brandon Jacobs (knee) is unlikely to play Sunday against Minnesota. Jacobs is here at the Metrodome but probably will be among the Giants' game day inactives, Clayton reports.
We'll get you the entire list of inactives, in addition to all lineup changes, at about 11:45 a.m. ET.
Continuing our silly introduction of rock-inspired music selections, I've got Robert Tepper's "No Easy Way Out" running through my head Sunday morning. (Surely you saw Rocky IV).
For Chicago, there is no easy way out on the final Sunday of the regular season. To win the NFC North, the Bears need to beat a tough team in Houston and hope Minnesota loses at home to what likely will be a watered-down New York Giants team. If not, the Bears know they can clinch a wild-card spot only if they win Sunday, combined with losses by Tampa Bay and Dallas.
The Vikings, on the other hand, do have an easy way out. They could still win the division if they lose to the Giants, as long as the Bears lose to Houston. And wouldn't that be some way to end another year of bizarre occurrences in the Black and Blue.
I'll be at the Metrodome in a few hours and will keep my best to keep you up to date on the happenings in Houston as well. Figures to be a wild day, and thanks in advance for spending part of it with us.
For now, let's take a spin around the division:
- Today we'll find out if the Vikings are winners, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. "The Vikings' failure to beat the Giants today not only would be a disappointment for a franchise whose simplest path to the playoffs would be a victory, it also could saddle Brad Childress' team with the reputation of not being able to get over the hump."
- Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has no problem if the Vikings back in to the playoffs: "Through the back door, through the front door, down the chimney or up through the sewer pipe, does anyone really care how the Vikings get into the playoffs?"
- Bears coach Lovie Smith is better in this type of situation than Childress, writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
- Smith's trust in defensive coordinator Bob Babich will be tested in Houston, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Nick Hut of the Northwest Herald wonders how Bears left tackle John St. Clair will fare against Texans defensive end Mario Williams.
- Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings surpassed Donald Driver as the Packers' top receiving threat this season, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Packers running back Ryan Grant has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark but doesn't consider it an accomplishment, writes Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal. "No. No. No. No," Grant said.
- Interesting angle: Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press asks Steve Sabol of NFL Films how he will come up with a highlight video of the Lions' 2008 season.
- Retired executive Ron Wolf will not join the Lions this winter, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
Let's get this out of the way from the start: No team in NFL history has won three consecutive overtime games. So after overtime victories against New Orleans and Green Bay, the Bears will be pushing their luck if they head into sudden death Sunday at Reliant Stadium.
The Bears have won three consecutive games, the longest streak in the NFC. But they shouldn't expect an easy game in Houston. The Texans' connection between quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson poses significant matchup problems for the Bears, who have lost safety Mike Brown for the season and might have to start rookie Craig Steltz at the position.
The Bears' offense has performed well in spurts over the past few weeks, especially when it has used tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen. But it is not equipped to match the Texans in a score-fest. The Bears' defense must keep this game manageable, especially early.
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy swears the only time he has mentioned 0-15 -- or 0-16, for that matter -- was during a team meeting to discuss media topics for the week. It goes without saying the Packers want to steer clear of history Sunday at Lambeau Field.
So if history is any indication, the Packers will win Sunday and Detroit will finish the season 0-16. The Lions haven't won in Wisconsin since 1991, and there's no reason to believe they'll start now. Their last game, a 42-7 loss to New Orleans, suggests they have all but packed it in for the season. Green Bay, despite losses in its last five games, should have its way with the Lions' defense all afternoon.
About the only thing Detroit can hope for is to stay within reach for most of the game and hope the Packers find another way to lose a close game in the fourth quarter. But it'll take a fluke, the kind of luck Detroit hasn't seen all season.
Here's a little-remembered fact: In two career games against him, Minnesota safety Darren Sharper has intercepted New York quarterback Eli Manning four times and returned two for touchdowns. Amid all the talk about the Giants resting their starters, it seemed as if the Vikings would be better off with Manning playing the entire game.
"I have enjoyed playing against him," Sharper said. "But I've had my good times against him. I know he'll come and try to go against that and have good times against me. We'll see how much he plays."
That's one of many subplots the Vikings find themselves facing on the final weekend of the regular season. A victory, or a Chicago loss, gives them the division title. But the way things have been going lately, the Vikings are hardly expecting any luck to come their way. Which means you won't see much of Manning on Sunday.
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