ST. LOUIS -- Life near the top has been a foregone conclusion for the Minnesota Vikings with Dennis Green as coach. Success didn't come that quickly for Dick Vermeil's St. Louis Rams.
The Vikings have been playoff regulars since Green was hired in 1992. Although yet to make the Super Bowl under him, the Vikings made the playoffs in seven of Green's eight seasons. He has the NFC's longest tenure with the same team.
''Dennis has a track record as a proven coach,'' receiver Cris Carter said. ''The one thing he doesn't have, and we all don't have, is getting to that Super Bowl. That's always the goal here.''
In St. Louis, any suggestion of a title run when the season began would have been greeted with disdain. The Rams lost their prized free-agent signing, quarterback Trent Green, with a wrecked knee in the third exhibition game. They were coming off 5-11 and 4-12 seasons marked by discord bordering on dissension.
Questions of whether Vermeil, 63, could still handle the rigors of coaching -- he left the NFL in 1982 with burnout -- dominated summer talk.
Vermeil adapted, making changes in staff, players and style. The Rams responded with a 13-3 record, the best in the NFC, and the inside track to the Super Bowl.
The road to Atlanta
Wild Card Games
Saturday, Jan. 8
Tennessee 22, Buffalo 16
Washington 27, Detroit 13
Sunday, Jan. 9
Minnesota 27, Dallas 10
Miami 20, Seattle 17
Saturday, Jan. 15
Miami at Jacksonville, 11:35.m. (CBS)
Washington at Tampa Bay, 3:15 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, Jan. 16
Minnesota at St. Louis, 11:35 p.m. (FOX)
Tennessee at Indianapolis, 3:05 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Jan. 23
AFC championship, TBA (CBS)
NFC championship, TBA (FOX)
Sunday, Jan. 30
at Atlanta, 5:18 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, Feb. 6
at Honolulu (ABC)
''He's listening to his coaching staff more and to the veteran players more,'' linebacker London Fletcher said. ''We're not beating each other up in practices during the course of the week like we did last year.
''The veteran players he is listening to on their opinions: should we practice outside or inside, with pads or without. It's a 180 percent turnaround from last year to this year.''
It looked as if Minnesota would make the same kind of turnaround, and Green faced a major challenge early this season. Coming off a 15-1 record and the most prolific offensive year in league history, Minnesota started 2-4. Maybe it was a carryover from not winning the NFC championship despite such a gaudy record, or the ineffectiveness of quarterback Randall Cunningham, whom Green benched for Jeff George, or the lack of production defensively, particularly from such key players as John Randle and linebacker Ed McDaniel.
The defeats came in close games -- the total margin was 12 points -- and mainly because the offense sputtered.
Green didn't lose his cool, and the move to George paid off.
''I think our guys played hard,'' Green said. ''I never had any question about our guys' attitude. I just don't think we were playing as clean a game as we should have been playing. When you're playing Tampa Bay and Detroit and Green Bay, those are teams that you play twice every year. They have a great understanding of how they want to play you. If you make a few mistakes, they can beat you.
''We've been around long enough to know not to panic. You either know your team or you don't.''
Green knew his team was capable of good things, and a five-game winning streak confirmed it.
''We went 8-2 down the stretch and we won our last three games,'' he said. ''In the history of the Vikings, I don't know how many times we won three consecutive games at the end of the regular season.''
It's five times, but now they have won four in a row after the 27-10 playoff victory against Dallas.
The Rams, whose NFC West crown earned them a week off, had winning streaks of six and seven sandwiched around two losses before dropping a meaningless finale at Philadelphia. But the only playoff teams they faced this season, Tennessee and Detroit, both on the road, beat the Rams.
''I think the only thing that these guys have to do is go to the next level,'' Vermeil said. ''Personally, I have seen them do that in the games that were critical. I think back to Atlanta (in the second game). I think of the first 49ers game'' in which they snapped a 17-game losing streak to San Francisco.
''All of a sudden, boom, they were a level that I hadn't seen.''
Green has seen that level from his team. He can only hope it will reach that caliber soon -- like Sunday.
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