By my accounting the Vikings have faced one do-or-die game so far this year. That was three weeks ago against Detroit, a game they had to have to keep their season from completely imploding. Fortunately they were able to decisively beat the Lions, temporarily allaying fears of a total meltdown. The key word there is “temporarily.” Now, that brief respite from panic has expired, leaving the team once again facing a potential catastrophe. At 1-3, they pretty much have to win today at home against Dallas to preserve their playoff hopes. If they should fall to 1-4, with road trips to Green Bay and New England looming, you could virtually kiss goodbye any chance of their pulling it together and making a serious run. Sure, it would still be feasible in a long-shot sort of way – maybe if they could cobble together a win against Green Bay, with Brett Favre playing inspired ball against his old team and the Packer offensive line allowing Aaron Rodgers to get battered like it did last year in the teams’ two match-ups, but even if they did beat the Packers and get back to 2-4, they would still have an uphill climb against the Patriots and even if they won that game they would still be below .500. The only encouraging factor would be that the division does not look overly strong. Neither Green Bay nor Chicago looks like a team that will run away with anything, so 10-6 could get you the NFC North, with a tiebreaker. Like I said, that would be a long-shot. The more realistic road to getting back in serious contention starts with beating the Cowboys today.
The Cowboys, as we know, have their own problems. They have a couple of bad losses on their resume – on the road against a mediocre Redskins team and at home against a middling Bears squad – and it appears the fanbase may finally be tiring of quarterback Tony Romo‘s erratic play. There are actually a lot of similarities between the Vikings’ and Cowboys’ situations: Both teams have underachieved in spite of top-notch talent, both can trace a lot of their problems directly to their quarterbacks, both have head coaches who often exasperate their fans. The big difference is, Wade Phillips may be fighting for his job, while Brad Childress remains secure in the knowledge that, whatever happens this season, he will be back in 2011. In past years, when Phillips has found his ample backside planted firmly on the hot seat, his teams have risen up and saved him – and it looks like they will have to do it again this year. If Wade’s seat is to be restored to a more comfortable temperature, it will have to happen at the expense of the Vikings. To put it plainly, both teams need this game. This mutual desperation adds a particular zing to a game that, before the season, looked like a match-up of sure playoff contenders. It would’ve been entertaining either way – Vikings-Cowboys games almost always are – but now it has crossed the line from a mere sexy mid-season match-up to the realm of compelling sports theater.
Like it or not, much of this game’s value as drama can be attributed directly to Brett Favre and his recent well-publicized troubles. Once again, Favre’s mental state has become a central issue, and if reports are to be believed, that mental state is more fragile now than it has possibly ever been. Thanks to Ryan Longwell‘s loose tongue, we know that Favre cried while apologizing to teammates last week for the distraction created by his icky tabloid travails. Observers were already perhaps a little too fascinated with watching Favre’s in-game body language for clues about his emotional well-being and level of motivation, and now that game is going to reach a height possibly bordering on the absurd. Favre is often called “Hamlet” for his famed off-season indecisiveness, but now you can call him that for another reason: because his every expression and movement is being scrutinized by the media with the minute attention of theater critics basking in the performance of some great Shakespearian. Every time Brett grimaces, it means he’s lost his zest for the game. Every time he smiles, it means he’s back to just having fun out there. Every time he clutches his tendinitis-afflicted elbow, it means he’s thinking about contriving some way of escaping. All he needs now is a skull to soliloquize to.
The media may obsess over Favre’s every tic and gesticulation, but what concerns me is how his throws look. Monday night against the Jets was a mixed-bag in terms of encouragement. He did find Randy Moss for a deep touchdown, and did hit Percy Harvin a couple of times for scoring plays where Percy’s body seemed to transform into a knife slashing right through the meat of the Jets’ defense. But, Favre also missed a couple of throws that even he admitted he should be able to make in his sleep, and in the end, the comeback he launched by finally finding his groove with his receivers was derailed because he couldn’t find the groove consistently enough. Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson, despite rushing for a perfectly respectable 88 yards, found himself relegated once again to second-fiddle status in the offense. The team got away from Adrian because they couldn’t get anything going in the first half and found themselves falling behind – this week, with any luck, they’ll be able to feed Adrian early, finish off some drives with at least field goals, and keep feeding Adrian. And then if Favre can mix in a couple of spectacular throws to Moss and Harvin…everything should be fine. Fine for the Vikings’ offense, fine for the Vikings’ defense which won’t get worn down in the second half like they did against the Jets, and fine for the fans’ general outlook on the future, not to mention Favre’s own mental health.