0

Vikings feel at home in dome

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings don't want to stay in the Metrodome.

This January, though, it's the perfect place for them and their old quarterback to play.

Their muffin-like home lacks the amenities and gleam of most stadiums around the league, leaving the Vikings well short of their competitors in revenue production. They're aggressively lobbying state leaders to help come up with a way to pay for a new venue before their lease expires in two years.

Well, they would be wise not to badmouth the big bubble too much this month: The Vikings have been as comfortable there this season as ever.

Brett Favre has been essentially unstoppable, with 21 touchdown passes against only two interceptions in eight games under the roof. Minnesota won't be forced outside until the Super Bowl because top-seeded New Orleans also plays in a dome.

"I've played in almost all the stadiums in the NFL, and I think ours is the loudest out of everybody else," said defensive tackle Pat Williams, pointing to the proximity of the fans in the lower bowl to the field.

Baseball was often an awkward fit at this venue, which once hosted a Super Bowl and is now officially known as Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

Forgetting the lack of luxury seating, fancy food and concourse space, however, it's been a huge advantage for the home team. The Vikings have even been accused a few times by frustrated foes of cranking up the volume to the max on sideline speakers and piping in extra noise to make the atmosphere especially raucous and challenging for opponents.

"Sometimes the fans like basically get so loud we can't hear the play call," Williams said. "We'll be yelling at the guys trying to get the play in, and we can't hear each other think out there."

The Vikings, who finished 12-4 and got the first-round bye for the NFC playoffs that comes with the No. 2 seed, went 8-0 during the regular season for the third time in 28 years in the Metrodome. The others were 1998 and 1989.

"It ain't no mindset of anything like playing outside," Williams said, describing the climate consistency, one of Minnesota's many benefits of this environment.

That late-season fade that kept the Vikings from overtaking the Saints (13-3) played out in three embarrassing defeats, all on the road in nationally televised night games.

Their inability to adjust in front of unfriendly fans at unfamiliar fields stood out. The weather wasn't great, particularly in the overtime loss at Chicago, and players had a hard time keeping their feet. For the season, their 4-4 road record was the worst among the six teams in the NFC playoffs.

Favre wasn't as bad in those games as Packers fans hoped, or Vikings fans feared, but the reputation for substandard performance in wintry weather he recently developed in Green Bay wasn't quite squelched.

Earlier in his career, Favre was a stalwart on Lambeau Field's famed tundra, though he has since insisted he never liked it. Marked by his meltdown in the NFC championship game there in the upset loss to the New York Giants two years ago, Favre's late-season record was further tarnished a year ago with the New York Jets while playing with an injured throwing arm.

The Vikings don't have to worry about that, though.

As long as they're alive in the NFC tournament, they'll enjoy 68-degree air without wind to help keep those kicks in line. They'll have spongy artificial grass to give their defensive ends a little quicker path to the quarterback and their wide receivers a little faster track down the field.

"It's been a great year," Favre said. "I'm not surprised by the fact that we are in the playoffs. Once again, where we go from here, we will see. This team is capable of a lot of good things.

"I thought about that throughout the whole process of coming back, of what is acceptable versus not acceptable. I had to be cautious with anything less than Super Bowl. Although that is the main goal and the only goal ... I can't beat myself up. I can only do what I can do and hope that that's good enough."

In a second half rally against the Bears on Dec. 28, Favre helped inject a swagger into the offense that was missing for most of the month. The Vikings returned against the Giants intent on an aggressive approach, willing to be a pass-first team and letting Favre do his thing.

"We're going to play no-holds barred," tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said, paraphrasing a challenge from offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. "We're going to get after people, and we're not going to hold back."

So, the Vikings hope, they can relish the graying Teflon roof and thrive off the rock concert-like racket for two more weeks before testing again their fresh-air mettle in Miami. Thanks to two wins over the Packers, the Vikings (4-1) have the best record against the rest of the NFL playoff field.

Whenever the offseason begins, the organization will refocus on political efforts to get a new stadium built. Even Williams won't argue with that.

"I don't think that dome will work. It's a loud stadium, but it's a raggedy stadium," he said. "You've seen that locker room. We're right on top of each other. It's like a high school room. ... I like the dome, but it needs some improvements."