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False Start In a rematch that fell far short of their titantic NFC title game, the Vikings took revenge on the Falcons--but didn't meet expectations

It's a little early for temperature taking in the NFL--heck,
Mike Ditka hasn't even gone wacko yet--but the thermometers
nevertheless were out on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, site of the
NFC's Which of Us Still Has Egg on Our Face Bowl. Would it be
the Atlanta Falcons, last seen surrendering the honor of the
conference in a 34-19 Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos? Or
would it be the Minnesota Vikings, last seen scratching their
heads and trying to figure out why, with a 15-1 regular-season
record and an offense that was the most potent in league
history, they weren't the ones chasing around John Elway in
Miami? "We have a lot to prove for a team that went to the Super
Bowl," said Falcons coach Dan Reeves before the game. "To a
certain extent, so do the Vikings."

Both clubs still do, because Minnesota's 17-14 victory in the
season opener pleased almost no one. Certainly not Reeves, who
was exasperated by Atlanta's mistakes; certainly not Vikings
wide receiver Randy Moss, who had said before the game that
Minnesota's offense has the potential to score 60 points against
anyone; certainly not those fans hoping for a repeat of last
January's NFC Championship Game, an overtime classic won by the
Falcons 30-27. In Sunday's rematch the Falcons'
possession-oriented offense couldn't keep its hands on the
ball--Atlanta coughed up three fumbles, and clock-killing back
Jamal Anderson was held to 50 yards on 16 carries--while the
Vikings' high-wire act remained for the most part grounded.
Their longest gain was a 34-yard ramble by alternate tailback
Leroy Hoard that kept a time-consuming drive alive late in the
fourth quarter.

All right, it was just the first game of the season, and perhaps
it was an anomaly. After all, how many times will Minnesota's
Gary Anderson and Atlanta's Morten Andersen each miss two
makable field goals, the last a 39-yarder by Andersen that could
have tied the game with 3:38 left? Perhaps the teams struggled
because they're trying to add subtle but meaningful accessories
to offensive wardrobes that fit them so nicely last year. The
Falcons, those Dirty Birds who didn't air it out much last year,
are trying to go downfield more; they did a decent job of it on
Sunday, outpassing the Vikings 278 yards to 184. Meanwhile,
Minnesota, though it has three hungry wide receivers clamoring
for the ball, is trying to establish more of a ground game. The
two-headed tailback attack of Hoard (50 yards) and Robert Smith
(47) produced most of the Vikings' 115 rushing yards, while the
Falcons ran for only 81.

Maybe neither of these teams has found itself yet because both
began the season with such heavy burdens. Minnesota shoulders
the burden of expectation, Atlanta the even weightier burden of
doubt. The where-the-hell-did-they-come-from feeling that
followed the Falcons all the way to their first Super Bowl still
lingers. What's more, in its 33-year history Atlanta has never
put together back-to-back winning seasons. Although, "barring an
asteroid's hitting our stadium," Jamal Anderson doesn't see his
team's experiencing a drop-off, the educated guess is that the
Falcons won't approach their 14-2 record of 1998. It's more
likely that the Vikings will again be the class of the NFC,
albeit not the dominator they were last season.

Last season. Those words have already driven offensive-minded
Minnesota to defensiveness. "Let people compare us to last
year," said a steamed Ray Sherman, the Vikings' offensive
coordinator, after his troops had failed to burn Atlanta. "Would
you rather see us score 30 points and lose the ball game?"
Understandably, last season falls most heavily upon Sherman. As
Minnesota put up an NFL-record 556 points and rookie Moss caught
17 touchdown passes, offensive coordinator Brian Billick (now
coach of the Baltimore Ravens) was called a genius so often that
it wasn't clear whether he had succeeded in springing Moss deep
or formulating the unified field theory that had stumped Einstein.

Sherman was put in a tough position: Should he change nothing
about the fun-filled, bombs-away offense and hear that all he's
doing is running Billick's game plan? Or dare he tinker with the
precious system that he inherited? Sherman and coach Dennis
Green agreed that tinkering was necessary, not least because the
Falcons had taken away downfield passes in the NFC title game,
and also because the Vikings' defense, weakened by free-agent
defections, might on occasion need more rest than it got under
Billick's sudden-strike strategy. "There are times when
[defensive coordinator] Foge Fazio is going to come to me and
say, 'My guys need a little blow,' and we've got to keep that
offense on the field," Sherman says. "Scoring quick is great,
but you've also got to guard against becoming a three-and-out

The pieces--Smith, Hoard, a terrific offensive line and an
occasional cameo at blocking back by tight end Jim
Kleinsasser--are in place to make Minnesota an excellent running
club. But let's not get carried away (as the Vikings' running
backs will certainly not). All of Minnesota's wide-open stuff
was on display, if not in sync, on Sunday, and it's merely
stating the obvious to say that the running game prospers
largely because the Vikings' defense-stretching passing attack
is so threatening. Minnesota used a three-wide-receiver set that
generally put Moss and Jake Reed on the flanks and veteran Cris
Carter in the slot. (How many teams can use a downfield force
like Carter, who caught seven passes, including a two-yard slant
for a touchdown, almost as a possession receiver?) On a few
occasions Robert Tate gave the Vikings a four-wideout set, with
Carter, Moss and Reed on the same side. You think that's not
scary? Though Moss (only three catches for 24 yards) had a
subpar game, he was largely responsible for both Vikings
touchdowns because of long pass-interference penalties he drew.
("They're putting him in diapers with calls like that," said
Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan, angered about having been
flagged for the first.) Imagine if Shaquille O'Neal didn't have
to shoot free throws after getting hammered on an alley-oop;
this is the luxury that Minnesota has when Randall Cunningham
airs it out to the speedy 6'4" Moss and waits for a spectacular
reception or for flags to fly.

That type of offense is what opposing defenses came to expect
and what fans came to love about last year's Vikings. Don't
think for a minute that their playground style will disappear,
but for a while at least, Minnesota will be a little more
conservative, a little more run-conscious, a little more
inclined to play what Hoard jokingly calls "normal football." If
it doesn't work, well, you know what Moss says the Vikings are
capable of.

"We got the win, and that's what we came here for," said Green.
"The rest of what we want we'll get later."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Jammin' Jamal Vikings Robert Griffith and Ed McDaniel put the hard squeeze on Anderson, who was held to 50 yards rushing.