EDEN PRAIRIE -- The Minnesota Vikings enter the playoffs as a wild card instead of a Super Bowl favorite, but Cris Carter insists they are just as dangerous as last year.
''I think a lot of teams are going to be a little ... not necessarily afraid, but they're going to be looking out for us, given the experience that we had last year,'' Carter said.
Last year is a sore subject among the Vikings.
The 1998 Vikings (15-1) didn't even get to the big game, losing to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship at the Metrodome.
''I think it's been well documented,'' Carter said of the most disappointing loss in team history. ''I think we were very upset. But besides that, I'm not going to elaborate on that much.''
The Vikings (10-6) were 2-4 this season before Jeff George replaced Randall Cunningham at quarterback. They won their final three games after defensive lineman John Randle was moved back inside and Robert Tate bolstered a second-rate secondary.
But their 8-2 finish wasn't enough to defend their NFC Central title, won by Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers also earned a first-round bye, leaving the Vikings to face Dallas (8-8) Sunday in the wild-card round.
The Vikings are a remarkably healthy team, so it's not like they needed the rest. Besides, they'd just as soon not let any time off steal their momentum like last season, when they earned home field but never regained the magical touch of their stirring regular season.
''Last year, we were a little anxious to play,'' Carter said. ''I think that the first divisional game against Arizona we were a little rusty because of the time off. There's certain advantages to having the time off.
''I don't think we deserved the time off (this season). We lost six games. We're the fourth seed. But we're still in a good position because we're a dangerous team.''
Carter said the burden of being the odds-on favorite was too much for the Vikings last season.
''It's tough to be 15-1 and get a bye,'' he said. ''I think we're far more relaxed this year than we were last year because we were in territory we were not familiar with.''
Dallas and Minnesota are the only NFC playoff teams that also made the postseason last year.
The Cowboys are in the playoffs for the ninth time since 1991, but they stumbled in at 8-8, their worst mark they've ever taken into the postseason.
''We would like to go in under different circumstances,'' Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman said. ''I think there's a certain mentality that would like to have us feel as though we didn't deserve to make it. But, we're not even the No. 6 seeded team. We went in as the No. 5 team. I think it just says where the league is, in particular, where the NFC is.''
Carter said the Cowboys pose a stiff challenge because of their experience in big games.
''They still have what we call the heart of a champion,'' Carter said.
Both teams are healthier than they were when the Vikings beat the Cowboys 27-17 on Nov. 8. Aikman (concussion), Emmitt Smith (hand) and Deion Sanders (hamstrings) were all limited that day and Robert Smith (hernia) was out for the Vikings. All are back and playing well.
''It's hard to double team Randy Moss and Cris Carter when you have a healthy Robert Smith because he can take it the distance,'' Cowboys safety Darren Woodson said.
Cowboys coach Chan Gailey said Moss and Carter present the classic pick-your-poison dilemma.
''It's like asking which of your kids you love more,'' Gailey said. ''I don't have to pick which one of my sons I love the most.''
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