Vikings ready to pop Arizona bubble; With Minnesota favored by 15 1/2, interest focuses on Moss-Williams matchup; NFC PLAYOFF PREVIEW


MINNEAPOLIS -- The Arizona Cardinals are a good story.

The Minnesota Vikings are a good football team.

That's why today's divisional playoff game between the Vikings and the Cardinals isn't even expected to be a speed bump on the Vikings' road to the Super Bowl.

The 10-7 Cardinals are the feel-good story of this football season, but they don't figure to be a match for the 15-1 Vikings.

The Vikings, favored by 15 1/2 points, are the highest-scoring team in NFL history, while the Cardinals are 21st in defense.

"But you can't measure our heart, and we have a team with guys with heart," offensive tackle Lomas Brown said.

A month ago, they were 6-7 and going nowhere. That was before Jake Plummer led them to three improbable victories on field goals by Chris Jacke on the final play. Plummer has nine comeback wins in just 26 starts.

The Cardinals -- whose last previous playoff victory had come 51 years ago when Harry Truman was president and owner Bill Bidwill, who's no Adam Sandler, was the team's water boy -- then shocked a Dallas team that had beaten them 16 times in the last 17 meetings.

The veteran Cowboys team seemed to know it wasn't good enough to go to the Super Bowl and decided not to delay its playoff exit another week.

That victory earned the Cardinals a trip to Minnesota.

The Cardinals have nothing to lose but the game, which they are likely to do. Just getting this far makes their season a success.

The Vikings, by contrast, are just getting started, and everything is going their way. The Cardinals' victory at Dallas means they didn't have to face the Green Bay-San Francisco winner in the first round.

And when Green Bay lost, the Vikings avoided any chance of having to play their division rival a third time.

The Vikings finished the season 15-1, and the only two previous teams to post that record (San Francisco in 1984 and Chicago in 1985) won the Super Bowl.

"When people have seen us play, everybody expects us to be the best," said cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock.

Former Raven Leroy Hoard doesn't worry about the expectations.

"There's no real burden. You have to set goals for yourself. We haven't set a goal for ourselves that we haven't reached," Hoard said.

The only interesting facet of this game is the matchup of Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams, who shut down Michael Irvin last week, against rookie wonder Randy Moss.

Moss, who refused to give an interview when he was named rookie of the year, gave Williams a backhanded compliment.

"They are average corners with the exception of Aeneas Williams being a Pro Bowl player. He raises their level above average. We know we have to be on our game," he said.

But even if they shut down Moss, the Vikings have Cris Carter and Jake Reed as targets for Randall Cunningham. Then there's the running of Robert Smith and Hoard.

Cardinals coach Vince Tobin said: "I'm sure the Vikings are not that concerned about the Cardinals. It's hard to spot a weakness you can really hone in on. They set all those records and they didn't do it with mirrors."

Overconfidence could be a problem -- except that offensive coordinator Brian Billick wants to keep rolling up big stats for his pinball offense.

Billick wants to keep his resume up to date. He's almost certain to get a head coaching job at the end of the season -- he's the hot candidate now that George Seifert and Mike Holmgren have new homes.

Billick already has a 25-page resume that notes in the six years he's run the offense, the Vikings have scored more points, produced more yards, pass completions, first downs and third-down conversions than any other team.

If you want to check his facts, he'll give you a computer printout. He's a computer geek who needs only a couple of clicks to tell you how the Vikings are No. 2 in the league against the blitz, have scored 47 points on their first drives and have gone three-and-out just 26 times all year.

He's also created a category called "explosive plays." Those are plays of 20 yards or more. They've done that 85 times.

Billick likes to compare the Vikings to the 49ers in 1994, when Mike Shanahan was in his final year as offensive coordinator before going to Denver.

"That's the one I've always held personally as a benchmark," he said.

That means the Vikings aren't likely to take a conservative approach. Billick won't even go conservative and sit on the lead in the fourth quarter. He's always looking for more explosive plays.

That's why the question isn't whether the Cardinals are going to lose, it's whether they're going to be embarrassed.

The Cardinals hope to run the ball with Adrian Murrell and keep the Vikings' offense off the field as much as possible and make it respectable.

"You hope you don't get in a scoring contest with them," Tobin said.

Whatever kind of contest it is, all the odds favor the Vikings.

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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