NFC Wild-Card Game : Vikings Try to Strike Back Against Saints

Times Staff Writer

It would be easy to suggest that the Minnesota Vikings, their backs to the Bayou, should have arrived here for the National Football Conference wild-card game via the Michael Jackson moondance.

Just what Viking Coach Jerry Burns needs at this point--more jokes.

The mere notion that the Vikings might have backed their way into today's playoff game (Channel 2, 9:30 a.m., PST) with the Saints at the Superdome really burns Burns.

"The 10 best teams got into the playoffs, and we're one of them," Burns said. "We're the only team that was 0-3 (during the strike) of the 10 teams that got in there. You guys say all you want about the team backing in. No team has overcome more problems and adversity, whether it be personal problems, the injury situation, the strike or whatever problems, than this team."

Then again, perhaps the Vikings have brought on some of their problems. But things are looking up. Quarterback Tommy Kramer not only was named the starter against the Saints, he also regained full driving privileges when a Minneapolis judge ruled that Kramer's car was wrongfully stopped on July 24, the night the quarterback was arrested on drunk driving charges.

Two days after the arrest, Kramer entered an alcohol rehabilitation center for the second time in five years. Before his hearing, Kramer had been allowed to use his car only for the purposes of work.

That's the kind of year it has been for the Vikings, as Burns was saying. And then there was that Jerry Falwell waterslide finish.

Instead of clinching the last wild-card spot on their own, something the Vikings could have done with two victories in their last three games, they instead lost two of three and had to pray for the Dallas Cowboys to beat the St. Louis Cardinals last week, which Dallas did.

So here the Vikings are in New Orleans at 8-7, riding the crest of three losses in four weeks with the prospect of facing a Saints team that would have won any other division outright in the National Football League.

The Saints are owners of a 12-3 record and winners of nine straight games. They're a team with ravenous fans, who are in the midst of quenching a 20-year playoff thirst. Their quarterback, Bobby Hebert, is Cajun and cooking, having been intercepted only once in his last four games.

The Saints' Jim Mora was named everyone's coach of the year. Running back Rueben Mayes is in the Pro Bowl. Saint General Manager Jim Finks, who once turned the Viking franchise around 20 years ago, is probably NFL executive of the year.

Meanwhile, the Vikings will try to halt a tailspin and feel good about being in the playoffs at the same time.

"If we had played poorly, I would be concerned about losing," Burns said after last week's 27-24 overtime loss to the Washington Redskins. "We have the elements of a good team and just have to put them together."

Of course, it all starts at quarterback, where Kramer and Wade Wilson have been passing the baton all season.

Kramer gets the start today despite having completed 40 of 81 passes for 452 yards all season. Aside from his off-the-field problems, Kramer has been plagued all season with a pinched nerve in his right shoulder, which has been almost painful to the touch.

Burns keeps waiting for Kramer to return to his form of a season ago, when he was the NFL's top-rated passer and was selected for the Pro Bowl. Kramer has started five games this season but hasn't finished one of them. So it figures Wilson will get in again.

Either quarterback will be up against one of the league's best and anonymous defenses. The Saints, led by the fortitude of 5-foot 9-inch inside linebacker Sam Mills, are first in the NFL in take-away differential. New Orleans defenders have intercepted 30 passes and forced 18 fumbles this season.

The Saints also have two of the league's best pass-rushing outside linebackers in Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson.

Swilling, still a relative no-name in the league, has 10 1/2 sacks this season. Jackson, a frequent visitor to Pro Bowls, is right behind at 9 1/2.

The Saints have seemed vulnerable only in the secondary this season, which isn't necessarily good when facing the Vikings' Anthony Carter, perhaps the league's second-best deep-threat receiver behind Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers.

NFC Wild-Card Notes

None of the Saint players has ever been in an NFL playoff game. . . . To show just how bad things have gone of late for the Vikings, quarterback Wade Wilson has been the team's leading rusher the last two games. . . . Saint Coach Jim Mora led the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars to two championships in three years in the United States Football League. Five former USFL players have made key contributions to his team in New Orleans. Bobby Hebert, the Saint quarterback, played for Michigan/Oakland. Others include kick returner Mel Gray (L.A. Express), safety Antonio Gibson (Philadelphia/Baltimore), linebacker Sam Mills (Philadelphia/Baltimore) and running back Buford Jordan (New Orleans/Portland Breakers).

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