Phil Pash’s simply sports: 31 turns from loser to winner for Vikes

The Minnesota Vikings scored 31 points for the third straight game against the Green Bay Packers. But instead of losing 34-31 as they did in the previous two, this time their defense showed up, and they won 31-17.

It happened in Lambeau Field in an NFL wild-card playoff game Jan. 9, and to say Packer fans were stunned is putting it mildly. The Vikes jumped out to a 17-0 lead and intercepted miracle-worker Brett Favre four times to advance.

Minnesota will play at Philadelphia Jan. 16. Indianapolis, St. Louis and the New York Jets also won on wild-card weekend to join Pittsburgh, New England, Atlanta and Philly in the next round Jan. 15-16. The latter four had first-round byes.

Green Bay swept the regular-season series with the Vikes, including a last-second win at the Metrodome Dec. 24 to clinch the NFC North crown and the home field for the wild-card game. But the Packers now have lost two playoff games in the last three years at Lambeau.

Daunte Culpepper threw four TD passes—giving him 11 and no interceptions against Green Bay this season—and Randy Moss caught two TD passes, making good on his promise to atone for walking off the field Jan. 2 while his teammates were trying to win their regular-season finale.

Even so, the childish Moss felt compelled to do something else outrageous—pretending to pull down his pants and moon the crowd after scoring his second TD.

The Vikings stumbled into the playoffs by losing seven of their last 10, the worst record over the final 10 regular-season games of any team in the 72-year history of the NFL playoffs. Coach Mike Tice even dubbed himself “Coach Collapse.”

The Packers, on the other hand, were feeling good after winning nine of their last 11 and drawing the Vikings, who had lost 20 of their last 22 games outside of domes.

The Bears’ offense was offensive. But not in the right way. So on Jan. 4, offensive coordinator Terry Shea was fired by head coach Lovie Smith. And on Jan. 8, fired Illinois head coach Ron Turner was hired to direct the Bear offense for the second time.

Turner served as Bears’ offensive coordinator under Dave Wannstedt from 1993-96, and Chicago set several team records in 1995 when its offense was ranked ninth in the NFL. During those four seasons, the Bears were 32-32.

The Bears, who finished 5-11 this season, also ranked last in six major statistical categories, including scoring and total yards, using four different quarterbacks. Chicago lost six of its last seven games, and had more lost fumbles (21) than offensive touchdowns (19).

Shea took over a unit that ranked 26th, 29th and 28th in total yards the previous three years under predecessor John Shoop, and actually took a step back in 2004.

He previously was quarterbacks coach of the high-scoring Kansas City Chiefs. His hiring last January had been applauded by Bear fans and players alike, who hoped he would bring excitement to an offense that was characterized as boring under Shoop.

No doubt, the Bears need to do a much better job of moving the ball up and down the field—and into the end zone. They need to quit playing their “shell” game of frequently going into a shell, many times when they are behind, which is truly strange. What are they trying to do—protect a deficit?

Top-ranked Illinois got a first-half scare at Ryan Newman’s alma mater Jan. 8. But tenacious Dee Brown led a second-half turnaround as the Fighting Illini escaped Purdue with a 68-59 victory.

The Illini are 16-0, 2-0 in the Big Ten Conference, with games this week vs. Penn State in Assembly Hall tonight (Jan. 12) and at state rival Northwestern Jan. 15. They entertain Iowa Jan. 20, play at Wisconsin Jan. 25 and host Minnesota Jan. 29.

Brown scored all 14 of his points in the second half, hitting threes, diving for loose balls and playing tough defense. Luther Head scored 15 points for Illinois.

Illinois is off to its best start since the 1988-89 team began the season 17-0. That team won the Big Ten championship and advanced to the Final Four.

The only other Illinois team to start the season with 16 straight wins was 1914-15, when the Illini won the national championship.

In a TV interview some time ago, Illinois coach Bruce Weber said he was dividing the season into four segments—the non-conference portion during which the Illini were 14-0, the Big Ten season, the Big Ten tourney (March 10-13 at Chicago’s United Center) and the NCAA tourney.

The misgivings about new Illinois football coach Ron Zook continued last week when two assistants he brought with him from Florida, Larry Fedora and Joe Wickline, changed their minds and jumped ship for Oklahoma State.

Zook was fired by Florida even though he won there. That raised initial questions. After losing Fedora and Wickline, Zook said: “Of course, I’m disappointed. They’re great coaches, and because of their talents, they were pursued by other programs. This is going to happen when you hire good coaches.

“But I’m not going to have any problem finding two more coaches of that caliber.’’ That’s some statement.

Fedora, an offensive coordinator who has been close to new Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy since they were assistants at Baylor, and Wickline, who’s close to Fedora, both received big raises to go to Stillwater, Okla. Fedora is thought to have gone from $175,000 to $275,000, and Wickline nearly doubled his Illinois salary of roughly $100,000, a source said.

Zook’s staff now is Dan Disch, Reggie Mitchell, Tommy Thigpen and former Indiana safeties coach Curt Mallory, son of former Indiana, Northern Illinois and Miami of Ohio coach Bill Mallory and the brother of former Illini defensive coordinator Mike Mallory.

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