Bears burn humiliated Vikings

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The Independent Online
For the Minnesota Vikings a season of highs and lows ended in the depths of despair. Defeat in the first round of the play-offs was bad enough. Humiliation in front of their own fans, by a side as mediocre as any to survive the regular season in recent memory, is bound to prompt a fresh bout of soul-searching. It will be scant consolation to the faithful in Minnesota that the result is par for the course for a franchise adept at winning in the regular season, but apparently incapable of sustaini ng a serious challenge once the new year arrives.

The Vikings lost 35-18 to a Chicago Bears side whose outstanding feature is its lack of outstanding features. Yet in less than two years their head coach, Dave Wannstedt, has put together a whole-hearted team who continue to find ways of beating more talented opposition. Their reward for another three hours of over-achievement is a trip to Candlestick Park on Saturday, where they will face the might of San Francisco. Victory there would surely establish these Bears as the most impressive bunch of nobodies the NFL has produced.

Chicago's doggedness was personified by the performance of Steve Walsh. The quarterback shrugged off the disappointment of throwing an early interception, and marshalled Chicago's unappreciated offense with aplomb. A 16-play, 80-yard drive in the second quarter culminated in his nine-yard touchdown completion to Keith Jennings to give the visitors a 14-9 half-time lead. The pattern continued into the second half with Raymond Harris running 29 yards for another score in the third quarter, while Walsh's 21-yarder to Jeff Graham in the fourth effectively sealed the victory.

The Bears defense contributed hugely to the win, forcing four turnovers, and continually putting Warren Moon under pressure. Moon, signed by the Vikings in the off-season as the final piece in their jigsaw, had a miserable day. Still suffering from the injury to his left knee that had kept him out of the final game of the regular season, he failed to find a rhythm and threw a couple of interceptions.

The defeat continues both Moon's and Minnesota's disastrous runs in the play-offs. At Houston, Moon lost six out of the nine games he played once the regular season had finished, including the last three. The Vikings too have lost three in a row. "Sometimes you wonder what it's going to take," Moon said. "I've been to the play-offs eight years in a row and I fight my butt off every year."

Dennis Green, the Vikings head coach, said they wanted Moon to return next season. "Warren's coming back next year, because I think he's one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. We like the way Warren plays, and we feel he still has some good years of playing to help the Vikings be a successful team," he said.

However for Moon, who will be 39 in November, the fear that an outstanding career will be completed without the Super Bowl appearance it deserves looms larger with each defeat. "You don't know how many chances you may have left," he said.

In Cleveland, the battle of the Bills finished with the protege triumphing over his old boss. For eight years at the New York Giants, Bill Belichick served as Bill Parcells' leading defensive coach, a span which included two Super Bowl victories. In 1991Belichick moved to the Browns, and two years later, after a period away from coaching, Parcells took over the New England Patriots. Their friendship endured, and Parcells provided moral support to his former assistant when Belichick came under fire a year ago for firing Bernie Kosar, the team's popular quarterback.

On Sunday they faced each other in an AFC play-off game, with Belichick's Browns running out 20-13 winners. In many ways Belichick has fashioned his Browns after the model laid down by Parcells with the Giants: a menacing, punishing defence (which includes, in Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks, a couple of linebackers from the old days) and a ball-control offense that takes few risks.

Vinny Testaverde, selected by Belichick to replace Kosar, would not be the first quarterback many would choose to fulfil the safety-first function, but against the Patriots he had one of best games as a Brown. He completed 20 of 30 passes, including 10 in a row at the start of the second half. More significantly, he threw no interceptions.

This was in marked contrast to his opposite number, Drew Bledsoe, who had three. Bledsoe's penchant for turnovers is one of the few flaws in one of the league's most exciting emerging talents, and such is his ability that even the crusty Parcells has been forced to adapt that tried and trusted New York game-plan. The Patriots held the lead briefly in the second quarter, but Cleveland's dominating defense had them constantly chasing the game and they were unable to continue a run of seven successive wins.

"I know I wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for Bill Parcells," said Belichick, whose side now travel to Pittsburgh. "I have a real debt of gratitude to him. I think he did a tremendous job with his football team the whole year."

NFL play-offs (home teams first) AFC: Cleveland 20 New England 13. NFC: Minnesota 18 Chicago 35.