- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

Don’t bet on chic NFC darkhorse Minnesota to reach its first Super Bowl since 1976.

Sure, the Vikings have some marvelously talented players like receiver Randy Moss, quarterback Daunte Culpepper and sidelined running back Michael Bennett, but they’ve also lost eight of their last 11 games because something’s missing in Minnesota. And it’s not just a young defense that was 23rd last year and is 26th so far this season.

As the Vikings nosedived from a 6-0 start last season to a 9-7 finish that cost them a playoff spot, they led the struggling New York Giants 17-16 with 5:30 to go at home and lost 29-17. And they allowed two touchdowns — the second on a 28-yard pass on the last play — in the final 1:54 to lose the finale to hapless Arizona 18-17.

No heart.

The Vikings trailed just 10-6 Monday in Philadelphia when Culpepper — who has averaged more than a fumble a game in his five seasons — lost the ball when tackled at the goal line. Coach Mike Tice couldn’t challenge the call because it came with less than two minutes to go in the first half. But Tice also didn’t challenge the officials in the third quarter when they awarded Terrell Owens a touchdown when the Eagles’ receiver was seemingly down before reaching the goal line and then lost possession in the end zone.

No smarts.

Tice and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan also could never figure a way to get Moss free deep against the Eagles’ zone defense, so they didn’t test young cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. Instead, the Vikings kept dumping the ball off to tight end Jermaine Wiggins.

“I kept coming to the sideline telling Coach, ‘I see fear in their eyes. Let’s keep attacking,’” Moss said. “I was frustrated because we kept driving, driving, driving. We put yards on the scoreboard, but we didn’t put up the points.”

The Vikings produced 410 yards and had the ball for almost 38 minutes but managed only a lone, late touchdown and three field goals on six trips inside the Eagles’ 25. A Culpepper touchdown run was called back by a holding penalty. It’s those kind of failures that have left only Buffalo with fewer victories than Minnesota since last Oct.19.

The Packers are very beatable, as they showed in last week’s stunning home loss to NFC North lightweight Chicago. The Bears are rebuilding. Detroit is on the rise but not yet ready for prime time. So the Vikings, who have games against the Bears and lowly Houston sandwiching a bye over the next three weeks, could win the division by default.

However, Minnesota just doesn’t seem tough enough or smart enough to beat quality opponents week after week, which would be necessary to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl.

How do you say Patriots in Mandarin? — Winning two Super Bowls in three years apparently has given New England a certain worldwide appeal. In response to the number of international visitors to Patriots.com, the club has established a Chinese section on its Web site (click on the Chinese character). Tian Y. He, a Patriots fan who is studying electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, will translate team news into Mandarin.

“With a local resource like Tian available to us, offering our first non-English translation of Patriots.com to a Chinese audience was a no-brainer,” club director of interactive media Fred Kirsch said. “We hope this launch will be the first of many others as we continue to extend our reach to fans around the world.”

Tian immigrated from Beijing to Tennessee as a third-grader in 1993 and soon fell in love with football. He became a Patriots fan when he began his studies at MIT.

“To work for the reigning Super Bowl champions and to spread my love of the game to billions of my fellow countrymen is just a dream come true,” Tian said.

Big names, small checks — No team has a more glamorous practice squad than Tennessee. The Titans’ eight-man unit includes running back Jarrett (son of Walter) Payton and linebacker Jordan (son of Jerry) Kramer. Payton is a free-agent rookie from Miami (Fla.). Kramer got into four games on special teams last year as an undrafted rookie out of Idaho.

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