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Dark days in Minnesota

VOYAGE OF THE DOOMED

Mike Tice

Vikings coach Mike Tice appears to be going down with the ship, if he isn't fired first.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ten days after 17 Vikings embarked on an alleged and now-infamous Lake Minnetonka sex-capade aboard what has been dubbed the "Love Boat," Minnesota's 2005 ship might officially have sailed.

Sunday's 28-3 loss at Chicago is the type of embarrassing defeat that prompts an embarrassed owner to ignore the division standings, however encouraging, and a rather well-documented history of interim captains' struggles and fire his head coach. The rumor mill already was turning Sunday night with talk of Vikings owner Zygi Wilf possibly dismissing Tice as early as Monday.

The ship is sinking, for sure, and, frankly, Wilf would be doing Tice a favor by relieving him of his obligation to go down with it. The proper punishment would be to make Tice suffer for the duration of the season. You say his team was distracted? Don't give me that. The Saints won the opener at Carolina days after a natural disaster hit New Orleans. On their best day, the Vikings are dysfunctional.

That Minnesota performed so poorly coming off a bye week (albeit a tumultuous one) makes the loss even more disconcerting. The Vikings committed 14 penalties, several of which cost them points, and Daunte Culpepper tossed two more interceptions, giving him 12 for the year. A year ago Culpepper was worthy of MVP consideration. Sunday, Bears rookie Kyle Orton outplayed him. Ouch.

But this is the NFC North, which is led at the moment by two losing teams -- the Bears and Lions (both 2-3). The 1-4 Packers (idle this week) are some people's favorites after their performance a week ago. Hence, record-wise, at 1-4 the Vikings aren't out of it. But they certainly looked Sunday like a team that wasn't really into it. It's bad enough that many of them allegedly have behaved disgracefully off the field. But for the Vikings to play this bad (outscored 119-34 in losses) after all the moves management made in the offseason designed at improving the club is inexplicable. And for Tice and his staff, this kind of underachievement is inexcusable, even after the events of the past week.

After their last embarrassing loss, 30-10 at Atlanta two weeks ago, several Vikings players spoke of the need for each individual to do his job and not try to do a teammate's, as if that was the problem. Right about now they all deserve to be fired. Makes you want to burn every publication that picked the Vikings to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Which brings us back to Tice. With a promising season having all but gone up in flames, should he survive the year, he almost certainly will not return to coach the Vikings next season. There is still talent on the roster and, to be fair, much of it has been depleted by injury. Culpepper remains the team's best player, and if Wilf wants to do what's best for him, he'll consider bringing former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan back, this time as head coach.

For now, it looks like it's going to be another long, bitter winter in Minnesota.

NEW D IN BIG D

By Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.com

Effective alignment
In a Dallas locker room where Jose Cortez was reliving the 45-yard field goal that lifted his club over the New York Giants 16-13 -- and alternately describing the pressure kick in two languages, no less -- most of the straight talk was about the cozy comfort level the Cowboys' defense has quickly reached with its new 3-4 alignment.

The Cowboys defense has now permitted only two offensive touchdowns in its last three games. Sunday, they held the NFL's highest-scoring offense to one TD.

PRIME TIME HQ

By Jeremy Green, ESPN Insider

Three and out ...
• I am becoming a believer. The Redskins have taken the reigns off QB Mark Brunell, and he looks like the guy that used to play in Jacksonville. They can run the ball, and they have one of the best defenses in the NFL.
• I don't think Tedy Bruschi should come back this season. They should wait until next year, when he can go through the entire offseason progam.
• Joey Harrington gets worse by the week, but the Lions have no options right now. As soon as Jeff Garcia is fit to go, Harrington will be out of the starting lineup.

30-MINUTE MEN

By John Clayton, ESPN.com

Group of impostors
If Tedy Bruschi's return is going to mean something, the Patriots better get back to being the Patriots. The ultimate 60-minute team is giving it 30 minutes these days. During a ridiculous opening schedule that's seen them suffer an alarming number of key injuries, the Patriots, particularly the defense, are giving up too many big plays. Watching on television, Bruschi must have been stunned during Sunday's 28-20 loss to the Broncos. The way the Patriots played Sunday and over portions of the past six weeks, Bruschi might not recognize his teammates on the field.

PRIME TIME HQ

By Rick Spielman, ESPN Insider

Three and out ...
• Jake Delhomme has to take better care of the ball. He gave the Lions two TDs today. The Panthers will not be able to overcome those mistakes against the better teams in the league.
• Today was a must-win game for Oakland to stay in the race. The Raiders will not make the playoffs this year.
• If the Chargers can get what they want, they will probably trade Philip Rivers in the offseason. GM A.J. Smith says they can keep them both, but I don't see that happening, and I dont see how they could let Drew Brees go.


FURTUNATE SONS
Remember this day come playoff time
They say it's better to be lucky than good. The Falcons and Panthers are supposed to be good teams. Sunday they were lucky -- to be playing the Saints and Lions, that is.

Todd Peterson
Atlanta and Carolina eked out road wins with a lot of help from the home teams. New Orleans, playing its second "home" game at the Alamodome in San Antonio -- and its first game without injured star running back Deuce McAllister -- gained 456 yards of offense and amassed 32 first downs but lost, 34-31, when a questionable defensive holding penalty gave Falcons kicker Todd Peterson (left) a second chance at a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.

It never should have come down to that play, though. Michael Vick was far from spectacular in his return from injury, but the Falcons stayed in the game with touchdowns on a fumble return and a blocked kick.

Typical Saints. They have a history of playing well enough to win but finding a way to lose. "I'm telling you it was a flat out [expletive] call," Saints coach Jim Haslett said.

Chris Weinke
Meanwhile, the Lions performed their usual implosion act, blowing a six-point lead with a little more than three minutes to play and losing, 21-20. Detroit's Kenoy Kennedy knocked Jake Delhomme (three interceptions, two for TDs) out of the game on the decisive drive, but backup Chris Weinke (left) took the wheel and directed the Panthers to the winning points, his 3-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl. Weinke to Proehl?

Typical Lions. Lots of talent. Still a whole lot of growing up to do. The seat under head coach Steve Marriucci figures to heat up some.

The victories kept Atlanta and Carolina (both 4-2) a game behind 5-1 Tampa Bay in the NFC South. When the division title or wild-card playoff spots are decided and both these teams are in, they'll look back on their Week 6 wins and thank their lucky stars.

BUCS GRIND ON, CADILLAC OR NO
Pittman, offensive line drive Tampa to 5-1
It was supposed to be the Ricky (Williams) and Ronnie (Brown) Show, but Mike (Pittman) (below) took center stage. No word on the whereabouts of Bobby, Ralph and Johnny.

Michael Pittman
Anyway, the Buccaneers' backup running back, starting his second consecutive game in place of rookie Cadillac Williams, rushed for 127 yards in leading Tampa Bay to a 27-13 win over visiting Miami. Williams, playing in his first game since 2003 after "retiring" last year and serving a four-game suspension for substance abuse, had (yawn) 8 yards on five carries. Rookie Brown, who started alongside Williams, had a measly 22 yards on nine attempts.

You probably couldn't find nine people outside Tampa able to name the Bucs' starting offensive line. But the unsung quintet of, from left to right, Anthony Davis, Dan Buenning, John Wade, Sean Mahan, and Kenyatta Walker continue to create running room, regardless of the runner. And keep in mind Pittman had been "questionable" with a shoulder injury. Tampa QB Brian Griese went out with a knee injury in the second quarter. Chris Simms finished the job, made easier by the Bucs' effective ground game.

Tampa (5-1) has a bye next week, then travels to San Francisco where the Bucs figure to exceed last season's win total by Week 8. Regardless of how you feel about Griese or whatever concerns there are about Cadillac's durability, with the defense playing the way it is, the line run blocking the way it is, and Joey Galloway having the year he's having, the Bucs aren't going away.

The Dolphins, though, suddenly don't look like the darlings of the AFC East. They've suffered back-to-back ugly losses at Buffalo and Tampa since a somewhat surprising 2-1 start. They managed, though, to cut the franchise-record 18 penalties they committed a week ago in half Sunday. Miami might be struggling a bit but sits only a game behind the Patriots and Bills for first place.


SUNDAY'S BEST AND WORST
Tommy gun misfires ... again

Tommy Maddox
When we last saw Pittsburgh's Tommy Maddox (left), he seemingly was doing his best to help the Buffalo Bills get into the playoffs in last year's regular-season finale. Dude completed 12 of 24 with two picks starting in place of Ben Roethlisberger before third-stringer Brian St. Pierre rallied the Steelers to their 15th win of 2004. I don't know who played worse that day, Maddox or former Bills QB Drew Bledsoe.

Sunday, Roethlisberger again was on the sideline, this time with a knee injury (he dressed as the emergency QB), and Maddox got the start over Charlie Batch, who finished last week's game. Bill Cowher might be second-guessing himself right now. Batch certainly couldn't have done any worse. Maddox threw three interceptions, including one that Rashean Mathis returned 41 yards for a touchdown in overtime to give the Jaguars, giant killers these days, a 23-17 win in Pittsburgh. Maddox looks like he can't play anymore. The Steelers are set at most positions. What they need is a backup quarterback, because their current insurance policy has expired.

San Diego's throwback has another believer

LaDainian Tomlinson
With all due respect to Tom Brady, LaDainian Tomlinson has to be the best player in football right now. I always thought coach Marty Schottenheimer was exaggerating when he called L.T. (left) the best back he'd seen in his long career in the NFL. I'm starting to see what he's talking about.

Tomlinson tied former Baltimore Colts great Lenny Moore's league record with a touchdown in his 18th consecutive game. But he didn't stop there. In San Diego's 27-14 win at Oakland, Tomlinson caught a touchdown pass, ran for a touchdown and passed for a third, becoming the first player to post the TD trifecta since New England's David Patten in 2001.

Before Patten the feat hadn't been achieved since the late Walter Payton did it a generation ago. For those of us too young to have truly appreciated the Paytons, the O.J.s, and the Jim Browns, we're seeing those legends in L.T. He isn't just carrying the football. He's carrying that team.

Broncos belong in any discussion of AFC's best

Jake Plummer
I know everyone is in love with the Colts, and they have looked very good so far, but the Broncos are, shall we say, attractive in their own right. In the playoffs the past couple of years, that matchup has been an Indy blowout. If the two teams were to meet again, I wouldn't be so sure. Denver is playing well on both sides.

The story is Jake Plummer (pictured). Criticized for his errors as much as he's been praised for his athletic ability, Plummer is playing mistake-free, and so are the Broncos. Plummer isn't throwing interceptions, and Denver isn't turning it over, period (none in the last four games). Of course they're running the football.

I thought Mike Shanahan was losing it when he signed Jerry Rice, imported the entire Browns defensive line, and drafted Maurice Clarett (whom he later cut). But his Broncos haven't lost since melting in the Miami heat on opening day, winning five straight after Sunday's 28-20 home win over New England. Considering the competition, Denver, not Indianapolis, might be the best team in the league right now.

The Rams draw a tough assignment in their first outing without head coach Mike Martz, who is taking a leave of absence due to a bacterial infection of the heart. In his place, assistant head coach Joe Vitt will be the team's top decision-maker. Vitt gets no honeymoon period with a trip to Indianapolis to take on the NFL's lone undefeated team.

QB Marc Bulger, WR Torry Holt and the Rams' passing attack is in high-gear, but the rest of the team has seemingly fallen by the wayside. The story for the Colts so far has been the much improved play of their defense.

However, the focus will shift on Monday Night Football, as QB Peyton Manning and WR Marvin Harrison will look to break the NFL record for most touchdowns by a QB-WR tandem, currently owned by Steve Young and Jerry Rice (85). Against a Rams' secondary that has been exploited for 10 passing touchdowns already this season, it promises to be a record-breaking night in Indy.

Complete Coverage | ABC's Enhanced TV

SOME THINGS TO SLEEP ON

• The Patriots are hemorrhaging big plays these days -- three more of 50 yards or more against Denver on Sunday. More than anything, watching his depleted defense get eaten alive in chunks drives Bill Belichick crazy.

Rashean Mathis said after the Jags' win at Pittsburgh that Jacksonville had made a statement. I hear it. Loud and clear. That's Cincinnati (5-1) and Pittsburgh (4-2) back to back.

• Shows what I know. I thought the Redskins were crazy for trading for Santana Moss. The little guy has been huge for Washington -- 10 for 173 and two scores Sunday.

• I like Trent Green, but is it just me or does he throw an awful lot of balls at receivers' feet?

• You have to take your hat of to the Saints. A week after getting blasted in Green Bay, New Orleans bounced back and gave a solid, though losing, effort against the Falcons. Showed a lot of pride.

• Keep an eye on the Titans in the second half of the season.

Antowain Smith and Aaron Stecker had 88 and 86 rushing yards, respectively, for the Saints on Sunday. As long as New Orleans is in games, it'll be able to run the ball behind that offensive line with a between-the-tackles runner like Smith. What Deuce McAllister brought to the table was that additional breakaway speed element.

• The Ravens cut their penalties from 21 a week ago to 11 on Sunday. Still too many, though. But Jamal Lewis finally got enough carries (24) in a win over the rival Browns. Anthony Wright: 23 of 31. I'll take that. I thought Cleveland might have been on the verge of something.

• There is a middle ground between dormant and explosive, and the Lions' offense needs to find it, at least. Of Detroit's 157 passing yards, 86 came on one play to, of all people, tight end Marcus Pollard.

• Coaching move of the year to this point: Mike Mularkey turning to Kelly Holcomb with the Bills 1-3. They're 3-3 now, and the coach says he isn't turning back.

SUNDAY'S PLAYMAKERS

Passers
Mark Brunell, Redskins: 25 of 41, 331 yds, 3 TDs
Drew Bledsoe, Cowboys: 26 of 37, 312 yds, TD
Tom Brady, Patriots: 24 of 46, 299 yds, TD
Kerry Collins, Raiders: 24 of 48, 292 yds

Receivers
Santana Moss, Redskins: 10 rec., 173 yds, 2 TDs
Chad Johnson, Bengals: 8 rec., 135 yds, TD
Jeremy Shockey, Giants: 5 rec., 129 yds, TD
Rod Smith, Broncos: 6 rec., 123 yds, TD

Rushers
Curtis Martin, Jets: 18 att., 148 yds, TD
Willis McGahee, Bills: 29 att., 143 yds, TD
S. Alexander, Seahawks: 22 att., 141 yds, 4 TDs
L. Tomlinson, Chargers: 31 att., 140 yds, TD

Week 6 leaders

OUCH, BABE

Brian Griese, QB, Buccaneers
Left with knee injury vs. Dolphins; will have bye week to evaluate.
Carlos Emmons, LB, Giants
Injured his ankle in third quarter vs. Cowboys and did not return.
Ed Reed, S, Ravens
Left game vs. Browns to have X-rays on his ankle; X-rays were negative.
Dan Morgan, LB, Panthers
Taken off the field on a cart after suffering shoulder injury vs. Lions.

Week 6 infirmary report

WEEK 7 SCHEDULE

Sunday, Oct. 23
Kansas City at Miami, 1 p.m.
Indianapolis at Houston, 1 p.m.
New Orleans at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Detroit at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
San Francisco at Washington, 1 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
San Diego at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.
Green Bay at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Dallas at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.
Baltimore at Chicago, 4:15 p.m.
Denver at N.Y. Giants, 4:15 p.m.
Tennessee at Arizona, 4:15 p.m.
Buffalo at Oakland, 4:15 p.m.
Monday, Oct. 24
N.Y. Jets at Atlanta, 9 p.m.
Bye: New England, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Carolina

Complete schedule