- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

Minnesota’s playoff chances appeared to have sunk from slim to none when speedy running back Michael Bennett was hurt this summer.

Without the threat of a running game and no proven second receiver, opposing defenses would gang up on Randy Moss. And the Vikings’ defense, 26th in the NFL last year, certainly wasn’t going to make the difference.

Guess again. Minnesota is seventh on defense as well as ranking third on offense thanks to Moss, passing leader Daunte Culpepper and seven-year backup Moe Williams, Bennett’s surprisingly effective replacement.

Top draft choice Kevin Williams has teamed with Chris Hovan for an imposing tackle tandem. Linebacker Chris Claiborne, formerly with Detroit, has been a playmaker. New cornerbacks Denard Walker (late of Denver) and Brian Williams, along with ex-practice squad safety Brian Russell, have bolstered the secondary.

The Vikings still don’t have a worthy No.2 receiver, but Williams is averaging 5.1 yards a carry and is second in the NFC with 387 yards from scrimmage. Culpepper’s departure before halftime with three broken bones on his left side didn’t faze Minnesota last week in Detroit.

Journeyman Gus Frerotte came in and hit Moss with a bomb on his second play to set up a field goal and then found Kelly Campbell for a 72-yard touchdown that put the game away in the third quarter. Culpepper insists that he’ll play Sunday against San Francisco, but coach Mike Tice said he won’t if he doesn’t practice today.

Former Maryland quarterback Tice, who lost 11 of his first 14 games after replacing Dennis Green for the 2001 finale, now is riding a six-game winning streak. But last December’s 3-0 run was by a total of six points, and the current 3-0 start has come at the expense of winless Chicago, the 1-2 Lions and Green Bay, which always struggles in the Metrodome.

Still, a 3-0 NFC North record, 2-0 on the road, is huge. If the Vikings can get past the struggling 49ers and beat the Vick-less Falcons next week, they’ll be 5-0 for the second time in 28 years. The previous time was in 1998, when Minnesota set the NFL scoring mark, went 15-1 and reached the NFC Championship game.

“Being 3-0 in the division gives us the confidence that we can be a playoff team,” said Moss, one of four players left from those Vikings. “We’re not cocky about being 3-0, but we’re confident all the hard work we put into the offseason is paying off.”

Tomb Raiders? — Last year Oakland’s offense was virtually unstoppable before coming up short in the Super Bowl against Tampa Bay. The Raiders were No.1 in yards and passing and second in scoring. Quarterback Rich Gannon was the MVP. Receivers Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Jerry Porter combined for 224 catches and 18 touchdowns. Halfback Charlie Garner’s 5.3 yards a carry was second among the league’s top 25 rushers.

A year later, only Chicago and Cleveland have worse offenses. Gannon has crashed from the top to the bottom of passer ratings. With deep threat Porter out following hernia surgery, oldsters Rice and Brown can’t get open and opponents can focus on Garner. Oakland has converted 19 percent of its third downs to 47 percent for its foes while being outgained by an average of 378-237 yards. Opponents have a 12-minute average advantage in time of possession. That is why Oakland is 1-2 for the first time since 1998, having lost a battle in Tennessee and nipped lowly Cincinnati before being embarrassed in Denver.

“People are on to us right now,” Rice said. “I’m not saying we’re predictable, but when you’ve got the opponent out there calling out plays, then we’ve got a problem.”

If the Raiders don’t right themselves the next three weeks against San Diego, Chicago and Cleveland (a combined 1-7), then it’s time to break up the aging team and start over.

Eye-opener — Considering that until 1997, the career record for kick return touchdowns was nine, it’s even more incredible that Kansas City’s Dante Hall has taken five returns to the house in the past eight games. If Hall maintains that pace for the rest of this year, he’ll tie Brian Mitchell’s career mark of 13 return touchdowns in the Chiefs’ season finale.

Hall, who tops the NFL with a 33.6-yard average on kickoff returns and a 19.7-yard average on punt returns, also could join Mel Gray of the 1991 Lions as the only players to lead the league in both categories in the same season.

Hurricanes Central — All three starting linebackers from the 1992 Miami Hurricanes — Jessie Armstead (Washington), Michael Barrow (New York Giants) and Darrin Smith (New Orleans) — are still NFL regulars. And the Browns noted that coach Butch Davis’ first three recruiting classes in Coral Gables (he still has three classes in school) produced 26 draft picks compared to 20 such players in predecessor Dennis Erickson’s six classes, 28 in five classes for Jimmy Johnson and 25 in five for Howard Schnellenberger.

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