MINNEAPOLIS -- Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Minnesota Vikings insisted it wasn't as easy as it looked yesterday.
They're now one victory away from their first Super Bowl appearance in 22 years and the fifth in the history of the franchise.
Minnesota is good enough to make a hero out of Ravens castoff Leroy Hoard, who became the first Viking to score three touchdowns in a playoff game.
Hoard, who lasted two games into the Ravens' first season, did all that even though he's the second-string running back who does the heavy-duty running near the goal line. Starter Robert Smith rushed for 124 yards to complement Randall Cunningham's 236-yard passing effort.
Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick, who's likely to parlay this 16-1-and-counting season into a head coaching job, conceded it looked easy even if it wasn't.
"There's nothing easy about this, I promise you," Billick said. "They do make it look easy and that's like any profession. Talk about the great actors and they say, 'Gee, it comes natural to them,' and that belies the hard work they put into it. This is a hard-working group of professionals and they deserve all the success they've gotten."
They could almost take it for granted, though.
"It's not as if we are surprised," said Cris Carter, who caught five passes for 82 yards. "It's not even as if we're celebrating. We are still looking for the bigger prize."
"I think we were a little bit rusty [after the bye week]," said defensive end John Randle.
"The offense wasn't really on," Cunningham conceded.
Although Billick said it was the offensive line's best showing, with an average rush of 5.2 yards, he will lecture the team about three missed opportunities that cost it 15 points -- an interception by Cunningham in the end zone and a pair of misfirings on third-and-short that forced the Vikings to settle for field goals.
"That's the frustrating part," Billick said. "That's the little things that you look at. It drives you nuts, little mistakes here and there, particularly at a playoff level. Unfortunately, that's what I'm going to have to focus on tomorrow when we look at the film, not all the great plays they made. They know it's my job to be a nitpicker."
That's the kind of team the Vikings are. They score 41 and note they could have had 56 but for three bad offensive plays. In fact, it could have been 56-0 but for three bad plays on defense.
The Cardinals scored all three of their touchdowns on fourth-and-goal from the 1. On the first one, the Vikings stopped them, but the Cardinals got another chance because of a late hit by linebacker Dwayne Rudd on Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer (23-for-41, 242 yards). On the third one, it was questionable whether Mario Bates crossed the goal line, but it was such a rout that nobody argued the point.
Despite their reputation for being a quick-striking team, the Vikings put together a 13-play, 80-yard drive and a 12-play, 73-yard drive just to show they could do it.
The Vikings appeared to be able to do whatever they wanted to do so they tried a few gimmicks that will look good on Billick's resume.
Three times in the first quarter, the Vikings moved quarterback Cunningham to a wide receiver position and snapped the ball directly to David Palmer as if he were a single wing tailback.
Palmer twice ran for first downs on short-yardage situations. The third time on a first-down play, he tried to pass, but faced a big rush and had to throw it away.
The plays didn't make much difference, but gave Billick a chance to show how innovative he can be. Not that the Vikings needed any innovation.
"This is the same stuff we've been doing," Billick said. "You've got to put a little wrinkle in here and there. Everything we did today, we've done at some point in the season."
How easy was it?
The Cardinals had the ball for just 54 seconds in the first quarter and didn't complete a pass or get a first down until they were trailing 17-0.
Two of Plummer's first four passes were intercepted as he appeared to have problems coping with the noise at the Metrodome.
The Vikings didn't have to punt until the fourth quarter when it was 34-14.
Randy Moss didn't catch a pass in the first quarter and the first pass thrown to him him on the first play of the second quarter was intercepted, but he still made four catches in the rout.
The young Cardinals (10-8), with Plummer in just his second year, may have a future, but they weren't ready to cope with the Vikings or the crowd.
They were penalized five times for false starts and lost a fumble on a center exchange because Plummer wasn't ready to get the ball.
"We have not been in a place this loud," said Plummer, who said he could have used the calming influence of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman but couldn't hear him. "The first interception was a case of me being hyped up and wanting to make a big play when I should have been patient. I'm young, but I don't want to keep using that as an excuse."
Arizona coach Vince Tobin admitted the Cardinals had no answer for stopping the Vikings.
"We had a five-man line that we tried and lot of other things and none of them worked," he said.
Asked if the Vikings are a juggernaut, he said, "I don't know what a juggernaut is, but I know one thing, they've got a good football team."
Pub Date: 1/11/99