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Timing unhealthy for Vikings' visit NFC's best is in town to face banged-up team

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore fans who have dreamed about watching a Super Bowl contender finally get their wish today, when the Minnesota Vikings come to town.

Sporting the league's premier offense, the 12-1 Vikings combine the league's most rejuvenated player in quarterback Randall Cunningham with the league's most celebrated rookie in wide receiver Randy Moss. Throw in receiver Cris Carter and left guard Randall McDaniel, each a future Hall of Famer, and left tackle Todd Steussie, a probable Pro Bowl player, and you have fireworks on tap.

How good are the Vikings? They have lost superb wide receiver Jake Reed without missing a beat. They lost running back Robert Smith to a knee injury two weeks ago -- he should return for the playoffs -- and they have marched on smoothly with Ravens castoff Leroy Hoard, who is averaging 4.7 yards a carry and has scored 10 touchdowns this year.

How good are the Vikings? Good enough to put most teams away before breaking a sweat. The Vikings have outscored their opponents 118-33 in the first quarter. They lead the league in scoring (442) and have scored twice as many points as the

Ravens (219). They are the class of the NFC.

"It's one of those teams without a weakness," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said of the Vikings. "Great team speed on defense, three of the best wide receivers in the business, a fine offensive line, a great quarterback, a veteran team. This is the best football team we've played. This will be a game that shows how much pride we have."

Survival might as well be the theme for the Ravens, who would be handicapped at full strength against a team with Minnesota's weapons. But the Ravens are a badly wounded bunch.

They probably will be missing three starters today on the offensive line. Center Wally Williams (neck) most likely will give way to second-year man Jeff Mitchell. Tackles Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Brown, who have yet to miss a start in three years here, probably will sit out with severe ankle sprains. And right guard Jeff Blackshear is trying to shake off an abdominal muscle pull.

The Ravens will counter by moving James Atkins from left guard to Ogden's left tackle spot. At right tackle, barely used Spencer Folau steps in for his first career start. Somewhere, Minnesota's front four -- tackles John Randle and Jerry Ball and ends Duane Clemons and Derrick Alexander -- is salivating.

In addition, the Ravens will be missing Jermaine Lewis, their top deep threat and a guy who could swing the game their way with his punt-return ability.

"Whether it's running or passing, we've got to find a way to move the ball on [the Vikings] and put the ball in the end zone," Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh said. "They've got all kinds of good players on defense and guys who make a ton of big plays on offense. We watch them on film, and they're always ahead 24-0 and 42-14. They're the best team we will play. Beating a team like that would salvage a lot."

Beating the still-motivated Vikings, who are vying for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, would rank among the more shocking upsets in recent memory. Picture the Texans prevailing at the Alamo.

Besides moving the ball enough to keep Cunningham and Co. off the field, the Ravens also are asking their defense once again to keep them in the game. That will be a daunting task, to say the least.

Minnesota, which hung 46 points on a solid Dallas defense on Thanksgiving Day, has scored 94 points in its last two games, mostly without Robert Smith. The Ravens' front seven should fare decently against the likes of Hoard and Moe Williams, but the Vikings' explosive passing game is another story.

Remember how the Ravens' secondary allowed rookie Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to carve them up like a holiday turkey? Cunningham, Moss and Carter represent the Bermuda Triangle, where all secondaries have perished in 1998.

The Ravens figure to play much of the time with an extra defensive back on the field to neutralize Moss, who has scored six touchdowns in his last two games and has set an NFL rookie record with 14 receiving scores. They'd better get big-time showings from cornerbacks Rod Woodson and rookie Duane Starks, who have played some bad football lately. Second-year man Ralph Staten starts at free safety in place of Corey Harris.

Cunningham sees Woodson and Starks rebounding.

"I like to hang the ball [deep] and let Randy or Cris run under it, but with Rod Woodson and the other young guy over there, you can't do that," said Cunningham, who is the league's highest-rated passer and is enjoying the finest season of his 12-year career. "Certain [cornerbacks] look for the ball, certain guys don't. You can't do that against those guys."

Cunningham, who has thrown 27 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions, figures to find a way. Moss, who averages 20.4 yards per catch and leads the NFL with 1,120 receiving yards, figures to find a way. And Carter, who ranks fourth all-time in touchdowns (98) and fifth all-time in receptions (813) among wide receivers and is still playing at a Pro Bowl level, figures to find a way.

"If we keep the score down, we've got a chance to beat these guys. You don't want to get into a shootout. That's their game," Ravens defensive tackle James Jones said. "They feel like their guys are going to beat anybody down the field or out-jump them. Their offensive line is as good as any we've seen. Their receivers block well.

"As a player, these are the guys you want to play. They have the top team in the NFL right now."

Touching down

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss already has established the NFL rookie record for receiving touchdowns in a season (14) and can move into the top four for total touchdowns

by a rookie with one today against the Ravens:

Year.... Player.................. TDs

1965.... Gale Sayers, Chi........ 22

1983.... Eric Dickerson, L.A.R... 20

1980.... Billy Sims, Det......... 16

1962.... Cookie Gilchrist, Buf... 15

1988.... Ickey Woods, Cin........ 15

1995.... Curtis Martin, N.E...... 15

1998.... Randy Moss, Min......... 14

Ravens today

Vikings at Ravens

Site: Ravens stadium

Time: 4:15 p.m.

Line: Vikings by 10

TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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