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Vikings' defense keys turnaround

Looking for reasons to assign to the Minnesota Vikings' turnaround, a stretch in which the laughingstock franchise has turned the jokes on nearly everyone else on the schedule, winning five of six contests, including four straight? How has the dysfunctional "Love Boat" gang righted the ship, you wonder, battled back into fringe playoff contention and perhaps (gasp) provided first-year owner Zygi Wilf reason to reconsider the employment status of head coach Mike Tice at the end of the campaign?

Here are a few reasons why: A mature Brad Johnson, who is 4-0 since replacing the injured Daunte Culpepper as the starting quarterback, has managed very nicely an offense that is more fundamentally sound and not as reliant on the big play. Mewelde Moore, while still inconsistent, has added at least a hint of stability at the tailback position. Minnesota is getting timely plays on both sides of the ball. And it doesn't hurt that, during the four-game winning streak, the Vikings faced only one quality team, the New York Giants, and saw that emerging young club self-destruct on special teams.

But in scrutinizing how the Vikings have remarkably reversed course -- and now at 6-5 have drawn to within one game of an NFC wild-card berth with five games remaining -- one also has to look back at the New York Jets of 2002. And in so doing, in a rather convoluted fashion, you find that it's sort of déja vu all over again for Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who was also the boss of the Jets' defense in 2002.

While improving in virtually every crucial statistical category over the past month, the Minnesota defense has conjured up recollections of the Jets' defense led by Cottrell in 2002. Some readers might recall that, back in the spring, ESPN.com asked Cottrell what he had learned from the '02 Jets, a team that incorporated six new starters to begin that season and took five weeks to coalesce into a workable unit. Facing a similar extreme makeover with Minnesota this season, with at least five new starters projected on a unit that statistically ranked No. 28 last season, Cottrell said he wanted to give the defense more snaps together in training camp.

Nice plan, but judging from the early results, it didn't exactly work. In the first seven games this season, the Vikings surrendered averages of 27.6 points, 20.0 first downs, 361.6 yards and 3.3 touchdowns while notching only 1.3 takeaways. In just one of those first seven games did the Vikings hold an opponent under 20 points. In all but one of those contests, Minnesota surrendered 290 yards or more, and it allowed 340 yards or more five times (and 400-plus yards on two occasions). The Vikings had no takeaways in four of the seven games.

But look at the averages during Minnesota's four-game winning streak: 16.0 points allowed, 19.5 first downs, 298.0 yards, 1.8 touchdowns and 3.8 takeaways. In the last four games, the Vikings haven't permitted an opponent more than 21 points, and they've held three teams to 17 points or less. Minnesota didn't give up more than two touchdowns in any of those outings. The Vikings have had at least two takeaways every week during the streak and twice registered five.

The defensive improvement isn't quite as compelling as what Cottrell did with the Jets in 2002. That team permitted 32.4 points its first five games and then just 15.8 points in its final 11 contests. It surrendered 28 points to each of its first five foes and then held eight of its final 11 opponents to 17 points or less. It was 31st versus the run and 32nd in overall defense in the first five games, then surrendered the third-fewest yards on the ground the final 11 outings. The Jets' unit shut out Indianapolis and flustered Peyton Manning in a first-round playoff victory, limiting the Colts to 176 yards.

The statistical ranking of the 2005 Minnesota defense hasn't made such a quantum leap -- the Vikings were rated 27th in the league after seven games and entered this week 28th -- and the playoffs remain a long shot, even with the recent surge. But there seems little doubt that, even if it took several weeks longer than planned, the Minnesota defense has finally melded its new parts into a viable unit. And that's without some key players, such as cornerback Fred Smoot, out with a shoulder injury. Still, the likeable Cottrell started four players Sunday who weren't with the Vikings a year ago, and he has had to shuffle rookies such as lineman Erasmus James and C.J. Mosley into the mix to compensate for absences due to injuries.

Arguably, the veteran newcomer who has made the biggest impact on the recent defensive upgrade is free safety Darren Sharper. Released by Green Bay last spring, following an injury-plagued 2004 campaign in which he was rumored to have lost a step, the nine-year veteran has seven interceptions, including six in the last four games and two in Sunday's victory over the Cleveland Browns. Sharper is again making big, game-altering plays -- and his seven pickoffs are the most he's had since 2002 (and are tied for his second-highest season total in a career that includes four Pro Bowl invitations). If you're looking for comeback-player-of-the-year candidates, consider putting Sharper on the short list, because he deserves it.

If you're looking for comeback coaches, well, think about Cottrell, who's performed this kind of reversal before. And who might just help the once-beleaguered Tice keep his job, as unfathomable as that seemed only a month ago.

Kicked in the stomach
This has been a golden season for golden-toed kickers leaguewide, with the placement specialists converting field-goal attempts at a near-record pace through Week 11. But even before Arizona's Neil Rackers finally missed on Sunday afternoon -- sailing a 43-yard attempt slightly wide left in the swirling winds at Sun Devil Stadium, after having drilled 31 straight, tying for the third-longest steak in NFL history -- it was obvious something was amiss.

Just about the time the throng at our house was trying to settle their stomachs and prepare for pumpkin pie, Billy Cundiff of Dallas turned into a pumpkin, missing badly left on the 34-yard try that likely would have lifted the Cowboys over the Denver Broncos in a marvelously intense contest. Cundiff had hammered a 56-yarder the week before, just one day after re-signing with Dallas following a lengthy rehabilitation from a preseason quadriceps injury. His whiffing on the potential game-winner Thursday was a harbinger of things to come over the weekend.

Oh, sure, kickers still made 45 of 60 field-goal tries on Thursday and Sunday, but that is shy of the benchmark they had set heading into Thanksgiving weekend. There were some performances of note: Lawrence Tynes of Kansas City converting four field goals, all in the second quarter of a victory over New England. Philadelphia's David Akers helping end the Eagles' skid with four field goals. The surprising Rob Bironas of Tennessee booted four three-pointers.

But, ouch, did some of the misses sting. It was, for sure, a weekend in which noted kicker-hater Alex Karras would have thrown a brick through his big-screen television set. In addition to Cundiff's miss on Thursday evening, there was a spate of boo-boots. The normally reliable Matt Bryant, who had made 14 of 16 kicks for Tampa Bay coming into Sunday's game, missed a 29-yarder late in the fourth quarter that probably would have sent the game with the Bears into overtime. Chicago won 13-10.

John Hall of Washington, who had made all nine previous kicks this season, came up short on a 52-yarder against the Chargers, and the Redskins lost in overtime. (For any Joe Gibbs fans who love to chide us during our Tuesday chat sessions, uh, that's six losses in the last eight games now for your beloved Redskins.) Mike Nugent, the New York Jets' second-round draft choice and former Ohio State star, hit four in a row against New Orleans (he was just 8-for-12 going into Sunday). But then he came up short on a 53-yarder with 15 seconds left that would have given the desperate Jets a victory.

But the guy most likely to be kicking himself Monday morning -- because, Lord knows, he couldn't kick much of anything on Sunday afternoon -- is Jay Feely of the New York Giants. He entered the key NFC matchup at Seattle having made 21 of his previous 23 tries, and he converted his first two attempts at Qwest Field. Then Feely missed a 40-yarder at the end of regulation and 54- and 45-yard attempts in overtime. Josh Brown then booted a 36-yarder to win it for the Seahawks.

Johnson running with opportunity
Remember when Dick Vermeil wondered aloud if running back Larry Johnson, a guy he didn't really want to select in the first round of the 2003 draft, would ever get out of diapers? It's interesting now, just a couple years later, to listen to the Kansas City coach gush about the third-year tailback, isn't it?

"He has a passion to play the game," Vermeil said of Johnson after the Chiefs' 26-16 win over the Patriots. "He didn't want to come out."

Ironic, since Vermeil had precious little passion for Johnson earlier in his career, didn't want to put him into a game, and likely would have preferred that Chiefs president Carl Peterson complete one of many rumored Johnson trades. Then again, Vermeil, whose team is two games behind in the mighty AFC West and battling for its playoff life just to land a wild-card berth, desperately needs Johnson to keep producing, with Priest Holmes sidelined for the rest of the season.

Johnson has started seven games now in his career, counting Sunday's victory over New England (119 yards, one touchdown). In those seven starts, the former Penn State standout has 188 carries for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's added 24 receptions for 311 yards and one score. OK, so it's not exactly fair to project Johnson's seven starts over a full 16-game season, because to do so ignores the natural physical erosion that any back suffers in the course of an entire campaign as the starter. But just for the heck of it, here's what Johnson's seven starts would factor out to over a 16-game schedule: 430 carries (which would be an NFL record), 1,931 yards and 23 touchdowns, with 55 catches for 711 yards and two scores.

Not bad, huh, for a guy who only a couple years ago was in diapers. The career highs for Holmes are 327 rushes (in 2001), 1,615 yards ('02) and 27 touchdowns ('03). In 2003, Holmes registered career bests in catches (74) and yards (690), gaudy numbers Johnson might never approach. But if this is actually Vermeil's swan-song season, then he is exiting the league singing a far different tune about Johnson than the critical chorus he used to croon.

Holmes has said that he plans to return in 2006 from his current physical setbacks, and since he is one of the NFL's classiest performers, here's hoping he does. If he can't make it back, though, Johnson, who figures to ask to have his contract upgraded after this season, sure looks like a diaper dandy (sorry, Dickie V, for the verbal heist there). Clearly, the ascendant Johnson is an attractive and productive alternative. You don't think Johnson looked pretty good to Pats coach Bill Belichick? The Patriots, playing again without starting tailback Corey Dillon, managed a paltry 74 yards on the ground.


Fitzpatrick passes first test
People can question a lot of things about Mike Martz, the St. Louis Rams' coach-in-unanimated suspension, and his detractors usually do. But one thing Martz's critics might not want to doubt is his ability to assess quarterbacks. Early in training camp last July, Martz lauded the acumen of seventh-round draft choice Ryan Fitzpatrick, citing him for the expeditious manner in which he assimilated the bulky St. Louis playbook.

OK, so no big deal there, since Fitzpatrick -- the 250th prospect chosen overall and the last of the 14 quarterbacks chosen in the '05 lottery -- is a Harvard grad. But Martz didn't just stop there. He spoke glowingly of Fitzpatrick's physical skills, as well, and the coach then cut another young quarterback he liked, Jeff Smoker, to keep the Harvard kid around. On Sunday, it paid off for the Rams, even if Martz could only watch (and probably gloat a little) from in front of a television.

Fitzpatrick replaced an injured Jamie Martin (ankle) in the first quarter at Houston and completed 19 of 30 passes for 310 yards, with three TD passes, just one interception and an impressive 117.4 passer rating -- rallying the Rams to a 33-27 upset win over the hapless Texans. He also ran three times for 23 yards, showing considerable awareness and undeniable aplomb.

If Martin doesn't heal quickly, Fitzpatrick probably will get a start Sunday when the Rams, clinging to their playoff hopes like a drowning man latches onto a hunk of passing driftwood, host the wobbling Washington Redskins. Fitzpatrick, who led a similarly impressive comeback versus Dartmouth during his college career, doesn't get credit for a "win" on Sunday, because he wasn't the St. Louis starter. So to this point, the only rookie quarterback with a victory in 2005 is Kyle Orton of Chicago, who has eight of them. But Fitzpatrick, with his Sunday performance, has already done more his rookie year than most other quarterbacks chosen ahead of him in the draft. And he's restored some respect to Martz ... we said some because, let's face it, there are some who never will be convinced that Martz knows his craft.

If the Rams' new coach decides next summer he doesn't want a Harvard quarterback on his depth chart, we're betting that Martz will be happy to provide employment for the kid wherever he is coaching in 2006.

One more brief quarterback note: We've long touted Jacksonville backup David Garrard in this space, and now the four-year veteran has a chance to prove we've got at least an iota of sense in assessing quarterbacks. With Byron Leftwich out for at least a month and perhaps the rest of the season, sidelined by a broken left ankle, the Jaguars' playoff hopes may rest with Garrard. He's a kid who's easy to pull for, given his class and the fact he has overcome Crohn's disease to carve out a pro career. The Jacksonville schedule isn't especially daunting. But the team still needs Garrard to play well, and this opportunity is one he has relished for a few years now.

Ready for the Steelers
Since the Pittsburgh Steelers aren't likely to upend the undefeated Indianapolis Colts on Monday night, the Cincinnati Bengals probably will arrive at Heinz Field on Sunday with a one-game lead in the AFC North. The big showdown with the Steelers is a week off, but it sure seems that the Bengals, who have a habit of whiffing in such statement games, started dreaming of the battle somewhere around the third quarter Sunday, after assuming a 34-0 lead over the dreadful Baltimore Ravens.

The Bengals, gazing ahead a tad too soon, then surrendered 29 points in the final 1½ quarters to a Ravens team looking for an excuse to pack its bags. After the Bengals finished off the Ravens 42-29, wide receiver Chad Johnson paraded around the Cincinnati locker room with a Terrible Towel. And fellow wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who blistered the Baltimore secondary to the tune of nine catches and 147 yards, spoke about the impending showdown in Pittsburgh.

For once, even though they lost the first divisional matchup in Paul Brown Stadium last month, the Bengals have the talent to win a signature game. It's hard to envision Pittsburgh being able to throttle the Bengals the way they did the first time around, given the way the Cincinnati offense is performing. But if the Bengals are to win Sunday in The 'Burgh, and they certainly have a legitimate shot at doing so, they've got to be able to do something at which they failed miserably in the first meeting: match the intensity of the Steelers.

Heinz Field isn't nearly as intimidating as Three Rivers Stadium was, and the Steelers don't enjoy the same degree of advantage there that they did at their previous home, for sure. Houshmandzadeh didn't start in the first game, but still managed seven catches for 75 yards, and his presence could make a difference next week. Sooner or later, to be taken seriously as a contender, the Bengals have to win a galvanizing game. But the fact they started yapping so early about it only demonstrates they've still got a lot of growing up to do in the next seven days.

Punts
After lying dormant for three weeks, the Atlanta pass rush sprang to life at Detroit on Thanksgiving, notching five sacks, with end Patrick Kerney and tackle Rod Coleman registering 1½ sacks each. ... Detroit has now lost four of its last five games on Thanksgiving Day. ... With his 55-yard run in overtime on Thursday, Denver back Ron Dayne surpassed the rushing yardage with which he entered the game. ... Dallas has lost four games by a total of 13 points. ... Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey now has six interceptions, a career best, with five games left to play. ... Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice, who was suspended for one game earlier in the season, now has nine sacks and six forced fumbles this season. The franchise record for forced fumbles in a season is seven. ... The Carolina defense has now gone six straight games without surrendering 300 yards to an opponent. ... Baltimore tailback Jamal Lewis finally posted his first 100-yard game of the season and, fittingly, it came against Cincinnati. He has rushed for 100 yards or more in eight of nine games against the Bengals' defense. ... Philadelphia had just two offensive linemen Sunday who opened the season as starters (left guard Shawn Andrews and left tackle Jon Runyan). ... The Packers' defeat means the Packers have suffered their first losing season since Brett Favre took over as the starter in '92. ... With two sacks on Sunday, New York Giants right defensive end Osi Umenyiora now has 10 for the season, his first double-digit sack year. ... Tennessee's victory over San Francisco snapped a five-game losing streak. ... Tom Brady's four interceptions tied a career worst, and his passer rating of 42.3 was the second lowest of his career. ... Oakland right end Derrick Burgess had two more sacks on Sunday, raising his total to nine for the season and arguably making him one of the most productive free-agent acquisitions of the year. ... Raiders safety Reggie Tongue suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and will miss the rest of the season. ... San Diego tailback LaDainian Tomlinson became only the seventh player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first five seasons. ... Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson, whose season has been a series of injuries, had his first 100-yard game and first touchdown catch Sunday. He posted 12 catches for 159 yards. ... Washington has now lost 10 straight games to AFC teams. ... Redskins owner Dan Snyder can't be a happy man. He's been beaten the last two weeks by former Washington head coaches he canned, Norv Turner (Oakland) and Marty Schottenheimer (San Diego), and former Skins coach Steve Spurrier is going to a college bowl game. ... The victory by Miami on Sunday means that all three rookie head coaches have posted at least as many wins as their teams had a year ago.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.