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|Ryan Longwell's field goal gave Minnesota a 20-19 win over New York.|
MINNEAPOLIS -- Multiple layers of emotion converged at the 35-yard line Sunday afternoon.
There was the initial joy of a game-winning field goal, a 50-yard boot from Ryan Longwell that gave Minnesota a 20-19 victory over the New York Giants.
"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.
"That was about as hard as it gets," receiver Bobby Wade said. "But this was our time, and our game, and about us getting it together. Whether the Bears won or lost, this game was about us getting our confidence going into the offseason. We were able to do that, and it changes an awful lot. Being a winner by default, versus taking control and taking your opportunity, it inspires an awful lot of confidence in the team. Guys are really excited about this."
And so the celebration commenced. Wilf, who has pumped more than $50 million of personal cash into the franchise since paying $600 million in 2005, sprinted some 50 yards to reach Longwell. "All of the emotions of the season, and the seasons before, all the things that have happened, just kind of rushed out," Wilf said.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield, who was disenchanted with the organization's direction as recently as 18 months ago, couldn't stop smiling after the first division championship of his 10-year career. "It's such a great feeling," he said. "We've worked so hard to become a team."
And then there was Childress, who has spent three largely uncomfortable seasons building the Vikings into a playoff team. As is typical with his personality, Childress displayed little emotion but made clear his team will be better for what it endured Sunday.
"It's human nature to want things easy," Childress said. "[We knew] that we were going to have to grind for it and compete for it. You never want it easy. You want to be able to earn it and can say they earned it."