Moon over Chicago
More than anything else, it was quarterback Warren Moon's demeanor that convinced tackle Chris Hinton that the Vikes were going to pull out a victory in overtime against the Bears last Thursday night. A split second after watching Bear kicker Kevin Butler's 40-yard overtime field goal attempt sail wide left, the 38-year-old veteran quarterback turned to Hinton on the Viking bench and calmly said, "Let's go win it." Two plays and 51 seconds later, Moon connected with Cris Carter on a 65-yard touchdown pass, and the Vikings beat the Bears 33-27.
"Warren's not a big rah-rah guy," Hinton says. "But whenever the game's on the line, he makes you feel as if you're going to win."
The victory was Minnesota's second in four overtime games this season, and it gave hope as well as new life to the Vikings, who had come into the game riding a three-game losing streak that had turned ugly the week before with a loss to Tampa Bay. The Vikings' once solid playoff hopes suddenly looked pretty iffy. But with Thursday's win, Minnesota tied Chicago for first in the NFC Central with an 8-5 record, and if the two teams finish with identical marks, the Vikings will win the division on the tiebreaker because they have beaten the Bears twice in head-to-head competition.
Which is not to say that Minnesota is now a lock to make the playoffs. The Vikings' vaunted defense, which was ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season, had slipped to No. 7 through Sunday's games. In the last month teams have nullified the pass rush of tackles John Randle and Henry Thomas by putting two blockers on each of them and by having their quarterbacks take three-step drops and throw short passes to backs and tight ends. Randle and Thomas had chalked up 14½ sacks before the tailspin, but they were sackless during the three straight losses, and the defense forced just two turnovers in those games.
Defensive coordinator Tony Dungy made a minor adjustment before the Chicago game, going to more man-to-man coverage instead of the usual zone, and the move paid off. The defense forced three turnovers—a 54-yard interception returned for a touchdown by rookie cornerback Dewayne Washington, a fumble recovery by linebacker Ashley Sheppard that set up a 41-yard Fuad Reveiz field goal and a fourth-quarter fumble recovery by Jack Del Rio that led to another touchdown.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Dungy cautions. "At halftime I told the defense that I saw a glimmer of life in the way we were playing. But we had a chance to slam the door in the second half, and we didn't. We won because they missed a field goal, and we can't always count on that."
During the losing streak the Minnesota offense came under attack too. Offensive coordinator Brian Billick was blasted by the local media for his tendency to rely too heavily on the passing game while ignoring the Vikings' stable of running backs. Even Moon, who averaged a wearying 49 passes per game in November, openly criticized Billick's play-calling.
Surprisingly, Billick admits his mistake. "I'll be the first to say that I haven't stayed with the run as much as I should, especially in the second half of games," he said the day after the Bear game. "I don't want to keep putting Warren in such a vulnerable position. He's 38 years old and it's the end of the season, so he's already taken a pounding." Still, the night before, Billick had Moon throw the ball 48 times against the Bears.
When Moon agreed to be traded to Minnesota last April, it was because he wanted to preserve his body—and prolong his career—in a more balanced offense than Houston's run-and-shoot. Ironically, he's passing more this season than almost ever before, having already thrown 545 passes. (In his 10-year NFL career, Moon has thrown more often only twice, in 1990 and '91, when he had 584 and 655 attempts, respectively, for the Oilers.)
Moon claims he hasn't taken too bad a beating, but he does admit that he's tired. He badly sprained his right wrist against Green Bay on Oct. 20, and the injury has affected his throwing. "Because I get a lot of zip out of my wrist, I've had to change my throwing motion, and that has caused tendinitis in my elbow," Moon says. "I can't get a good follow-through. The ball hangs on me, and it floats high."
Maybe so, but his last floater against the Bears has buoyed the Vikes' playoff hopes.
Beware of This Bear
After the Bears suffered a humiliating 42-14 loss to the Vikings on Sept. 18, coach Dave Wannstedt went on a rampage, threatening to bring in replacements in a heartbeat if the Bears didn't improve. At the time, third-year defensive end Alonzo Spellman was on the hottest of hot seats. He had replaced All-Pro Richard Dent, and he was not only sackless after three games but had also not shown much progress as a pass rusher in his pro career.
The threat of losing his job seems to have been the wake-up call Spellman needed. The day after the Minnesota debacle, he began studying tapes of the NFL's best pass rushers—Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas. He analyzed how they gained leverage and power and how they set up opponents with a series of moves and countermoves. Week after week Spellman has also confided in his own pass-rushing guru. "He's someone very close to me who has taught a lot of great pass rushers," says Spellman, who won't reveal his guru's identity, apparently because it is someone with another NFL team who might catch heat for helping an opposing player.
All the extra work has paid off. Spellman has grown more adept at using his arms and hands to shed pass blockers and is now second on the team in sacks, with 4½. But why did it take him so long to apply himself fully to his job?
"All my life I was always so much bigger, faster and stronger than everybody else," says the 6'4", 285-pound Spellman, a first-round pick out of Ohio State in 1992. "I didn't need any technique. In high school and college I was flying around the field making plays, and the other guys were overwhelmed by my relentlessness. At this level that won't get it done.
"At the beginning of this season I'd use my club move [a chopping maneuver to knock away the hands of an opposing blocker] in practice every day, but like a lot of young defensive linemen, I was afraid to use it in games. I was afraid of making mistakes. Well, two or three big plays outweigh the mistakes. I now know that in order to gain confidence in a move, you have to try it in a game. That's the only way you'll see what benefits it reaps."
The Pack Is Slack
With Sunday's 34-31 loss to the Lions, the Packers (6-7) fell dangerously close to dropping out of the playoff picture. And the collapse of the once impregnable Green Bay defense has become the talk of the NFC.
Through this season's first eight games, the Packers allowed opponents only 260.3 yards and 12.9 points per game, and they were ranked first in the NFL in both categories. Meanwhile, 62-year-old defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, who had taken over when Ray Rhodes returned to his old job with the Niners, was being touted as a great motivator and innovator. Now suddenly, in the last five games, Shurmur has lost his Midas touch. The Packers have lost three of those five, and their defense has allowed a whopping 391.8 yards and 29 points per game.
What happened? It seems the entire defense deteriorated all at once. The pass rush, with its front line of Reggie White, 32; Sean Jones, 31; and Steve McMichael, 37, started showing its age. (In the past five games White has had only two sacks; he had six before that.) The linebackers have been mediocre. Outside linebacker Bryce Paup, who was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, has been quiet during the Pack's three straight losses, to Buffalo, Dallas and Detroit.
But the defensive secondary appears to be the Pack's most glaring weakness. Strong safety LeRoy Butler, a Pro Bowl player last season, has struggled with illness (pneumonia) and injury (a bruised right shin). Former No. 1 pick Terrell Buckley, a 5'9", 176-pounder who didn't allow a touchdown this year until Green Bay's Week 10 win over Detroit, has been outmuscled the past five weeks by some of the NFL's best big receivers. Opposing quarterbacks have figured out they can burn Buckley by throwing jump balls over his head. Against the Lions on Sunday, the Packers moved Buckley around in the coverage so that he wouldn't have to match up with Detroit's 6'3" wideout, Herman Moore.
And where does Green Bay go from here? No one seems to have an easy solution. "When you start so well, and then all of a sudden you're not making the plays you made earlier, I just don't understand it," says Shurmur. "I don't have the answer, but we've got to find the answer."