MINNEAPOLIS — They drape the banners over the upper deck railing inside the Metrodome, airing out the famous names and numbers from a musty, bygone era.
Alan Page. Paul Krause. Jim Marshall.
Purple People Eaters they were, back before the Minnesota Vikings went vegetarian.
They had some of the greatest defensive reputations of their time, a time when the Vikings didn't have to run from their defensive reputation.
The banners hang high above the missed tackles and blown coverages littering the artificial turf below, like crotchety relatives sitting around the holiday dinner table, reminding everyone that the good old days are gone for good, sonny boy, and they sure don't make them the way they used to.
The Vikings are back in the NFC championship game for the second time in three years, they are 60 minutes away from their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1977, they have the most feared deep threat in the game, they have the leading rusher in the conference, they have a precocious 23-year-old quarterback who passed for 302 yards in his playoff debut . . . and yet they are constantly on the defensive about their defense, forever backpedaling against an attack armed with no shortage of ammunition.
The Vikings have the NFL's No. 28, or fourth-worst, defense.
They have the worst defense left in the playoffs.
They gave up almost 22 points and more than 335 yards a game during the regular season.
During each of their last three games of the regular season, all losses, the Vikings yielded at least 30 points and 400 yards.
As a result, they frittered away the NFC home-field advantage to the New York Giants, which is why Sunday's conference final will be played in Giants Stadium instead of the Metrodome, where the Vikings were 8-1 this season.
They could have taken the easy route.
Instead, they slipped and fell and wound up on the New Jersey Turnpike.
This never would have happened with Carl Eller and Wally Hilgenberg.
The divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints was not much of a muffler. The Vikings defeated the Saints, 34-16, limited New Orleans to 69 yards rushing and 10 points until the final 2 1/2 minutes, but that performance was roundly dismissed as the Vikings beating up on the Saints' junior varsity--no Jeff Blake, no Joe Horn, a cameo by Ricky Williams.
And still New Orleans racked up 19 first downs and 355 yards--48 on a late scoring pass from Aaron Brooks to Willie Jackson, a Cincinnati Bengal castoff going tip-toe through the Vikings, no less.
Defensive lineman John Randle, the Vikings' highest-paid defensive player at $7.7 million, knew what was coming, so he refused to talk to reporters after the victory.
Across the Viking dressing room, safety Robert Griffith stepped into the scrum.
"We're 28th?" he asked. "So what? Who cares? All that matters is how you're playing now. And I guarantee you there are a lot of teams that would like to be in our spot.
"To win in the playoffs, you have to play good defense. And we did that today."
Or, as wide receiver Cris Carter, felt compelled to add, "Our defense hasn't played as well as it would have liked, but we did win 11 games [in the regular season]. You don't win 11 games in this league without a defense."
The Vikings' problem is that seven victories came before Oct. 29. Minnesota opened the season 7-0, then lost consecutive road games at Tampa Bay and Green Bay, before beating the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day and the Detroit Lions a week later, seeming to right itself at 11-2.
Then the Vikings went 0 for December, giving up 40 points to the St. Louis Rams, 33 at home to the Green Bay Packers and 30 to the Indianapolis Colts.
Was that the sound of an autumn overachiever returning to earth?
Or the rattle of another Viking playoff bust settling into the bomb bay?
Coach Dennis Green launched into spin control, noting that the Vikings had just been stung by three "awesome" quarterbacks in three weeks--Kurt Warner followed by Brett Favre followed by Peyton Manning.
Which sounded reasonable enough until one looked around the league and saw teams quarterbacked by Trent Dilfer and Jay Fiedler winning playoff games because their defenses wouldn't allow them to lose. The Rams, who were supposed to have revolutionized football with their shoot-out-the-lights offense of '99, were out in the first round.
Suddenly, teams were winning again with defense. The Vikings, after loading up on the other side of the line with Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, Robert Smith and Carter, suddenly discovered they were the one team on the outside looking in.
Or so they have been told, much to their universal irritation.
Linebacker Eddie McDaniel was asked if he thought people believed the Vikings' defense was good enough to win the Super Bowl.
"You said the key word there: 'people,' " McDaniel replied. "I really don't care what people think about us. Basically, among us defensive players here in this room, we know what we can do and we went out there and made a statement [against the Saints].
"If we worry about what other people think about us, we are going to hurt ourselves."
The question was then rephrased: Did McDaniel think the Vikings' defense was good enough to win the Super Bowl?
"I really don't care what you think," McDaniel shot back. "I believe, yes. If I didn't believe, I wouldn't be here."
Still, the Vikings can't help feeling like the punch line to a what's-wrong-with-this-picture? scan of the NFL final four. The Baltimore Ravens and the Giants have defenses ranked among the top five in the NFL. The Oakland Raiders rang up a shutout in their second-round playoff victory.
How'd they get in there?
"Every day we have to prove our critics wrong about our defense and our secondary," cornerback Robert Tate said. "We know we have to stick together. We can't get caught up in what other people say. We'll be OK as long as we keep working hard."
And as long as the Viking offense keeps on keeping the Viking defense off the field.