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Viking Conqueror Minnesota is 5-0 thanks to a defense led by a brawny, brainy lunatic named Chris Hovan

There it was, plain as the black greasepaint smeared on Chris
Hovan's face. That subtle squeeze. Invisible to most every naked
eye, it was what card sharks call a tell. To Hovan, the Minnesota
Vikings' ferocious defensive tackle, it was a blip that might as
well have had signal flares. Before the most important snap of
Sunday's game in Atlanta--the Falcons, up 20-12, facing
third-and-three on their 38-yard line early in the second half of
a game the Vikings were doing their best to lose--Atlanta center
Todd McClure had no idea that he was practically begging Hovan to
sack quarterback Doug Johnson.

Hovan enjoys letting the McClures of the league believe that he
is nothing more than the flame-haired woolly beast he appears to
be, thriving on instinct, chance and luck. But in truth, Hovan is
faster off the snap than any other NFL defensive lineman,
according to one scouting service, and he's damn smart. His head
is so full of tendencies gleaned from hours of study that he
recites even the most obscure by rote. Which gets us back to
McClure: Hovan read the snap by watching McClure's right hand as
he gripped the ball and squeezed tight, his knuckles going white
from the constricted blood flow. White knuckles equals imminent
snap; when Hovan saw that, it was time to go.

He collapsed the pocket enough to make Johnson rush a throw to
tailback Warrick Dunn that lost six yards. The Vikings tied the
score 2:37 later, forced a punt on Atlanta's ensuing possession
and scored again, taking a 27-20 lead they would never

"Poor kid," Hovan said afterward of Johnson, who struggled in the
second half under Minnesota's constant pressure. "We'd gotten to
him. His eyes were going everywhere. We let him off the hook in
the first half. At halftime we just decided to pick it up, to
tackle better. We decided we wanted to be a great team."

Which, however improbably, is what the Vikings are becoming. With
their 39-26 victory on Sunday, they improved to an NFC-best 5-0.
(The Carolina Panthers also won on Sunday to improve to 4-0.) It
is no surprise that Minnesota, which has long had one of the
league's elite offenses, has averaged 30.2 points a game, but
it's shocking that the Vikings' defense has become a force too.
Last season the unit ranked 26th and was largely to blame for the
Vikings' 6-10 finish. This year the defense has been overhauled
by new coordinator George O'Leary, and the result is 15 forced
turnovers (tied for first in the league) and a respectable 16.8
points allowed per game. "We believe in ourselves, in what we're
doing as a unit," Hovan says. "Coach O'Leary builds [the game
plan] around how he would attack us, as if he were the other
coordinator. He's meant everything to us."

No more so than Hovan, the unit's catalyst and self-styled
lunatic. The 25th pick in the 2000 draft out of Boston College,
Hovan is a burgeoning star who, along with the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers' Warren Sapp and the Panthers' Kris Jenkins, is one of
the NFL's finest interior defensive linemen. "I'm a disrupter,
man, plain and simple," Hovan says. Or to the offensive linemen
charged with stopping him, an indomitable dervish. Possessed of a
tree-trunk torso, powerful hips and a low center of gravity, the
6'2", 294-pound Hovan is a blocker's nightmare.

Using his quick first step, Hovan is expert at making contact
with his hands, a must for a player with short arms who's
typically outweighed by 35 to 40 pounds. The constant double
teams he faces have hurt his sack total (14 in three-plus
seasons), leaving him largely unknown to the casual fan. "The
people who matter know what Chris's value to us is. Take our
interceptions," says O'Leary, referring to the team's NFL-high 13
pickoffs. "Most of them have come off hurried throws. And that's
all about Chris."

Hovan sets his team's emotional tone on game day, starting with a
maniacal pregame entrance that's as rousing as the signature
strut of Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis. Not
surprisingly, Hovan has feasted on a steady diet of professional
wrestling since his childhood in Cleveland. With flowing red hair
atop his bulldog mug, a squat frame covered with tattoos, and his
face-paint mask, which by game time is a sweat-streaked mess, he
is the Vikings' walking, flexing adrenaline shot, more than
willing to let loose his inner Stone Cold.

"He's basically our 'f--- you' guy," says coach Mike Tice,
grinning broadly. "He's not afraid of anyone. He came in this
year knowing that our team's attitude starts with him. In camp he
got into it so much with Randy [Moss] and Daunte [Culpepper] that
I often had to separate them. He was saying to the offense, 'Hey,
we're not giving you guys anything anymore. It's a new day.' And
you know what? It worked."

Vikings teammates rave at Hovan's unmatched energy level,
dangerous though it may be. Indeed, Tice has had to hold Hovan
out of certain drills for fear that he might injure the
scout-team linemen he clubs into submission. "I'll never stop
working that hard, since I can't afford not to," Hovan says.
"Look, I never thought about doing this as a kid. I always
thought I'd end up driving a truck, working construction. But now
that I'm here, I want it all. I want what Sapp's got. I want to
be the guy who's talked about for the next 12 years. And I'll do
whatever it takes to get there."

To that end, his is a spartan existence. He sleeps no more than
four hours a night, and spends the other 20 either working out,
often in the gym that abuts his basement rec room; playing with
his bulldog, Rocky; watching film; or picking the brain of
O'Leary. "I liken Chris to Tim Green," says O'Leary, referring to
the Atlanta defensive end from 1986 through '93 who was among the
smartest players of his day. "They have the same desire to
understand not just their assignments, but the theories behind
pass protection, behind defensive schemes. The little things
interest them."

As his unit enjoys its rebirth, O'Leary enjoys some redemption.
He was adrift following his 2001 dismissal as coach at Notre
Dame, just days after taking the job, because of lies found on
his resume. When Tice--who has known O'Leary since playing under
him at Central Islip (N.Y.) High in the mid-'70s--hired O'Leary
as his defensive line coach a year ago, it seemed a favor to an
out-of-work mentor. Now O'Leary is more than paying his former
player back.

O'Leary's scheme has been helped by additions such as Detroit
Lions free-agent linebacker Chris Claiborne (an interception and
a fumble recovery versus Atlanta) and second-year free safety
Brian Russell, whose fourth-quarter interception on Sunday upped
his NFL-leading total to five. O'Leary has assembled a unit able
to digest his detailed game plans, which are presented to the
defense by three players in a Saturday meeting led by the
exacting coach. Pity the player who can't respond to a query
within the allotted time: three snaps of the fingers. "If we
don't know it then, we're too late," Hovan says. "The ball's
already snapped. But it's made us much more accountable."

While many of his teammates snuck away to see family and friends
during their bye this week, Hovan did not. To him, even having a
girlfriend would mean he's cheating on football. Besides, he's
got Rocky. So for now Hovan is content to sit alone in a dark
room and break down film, continuing his endless search for more
white knuckles.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS IT'S ME AGAIN Atlanta double-teamed Hovan, but the 6'2", 294-pound Vikings' defender still got in Johnson's face.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS LOOK OUT The keen-eyed Hovan studies opponents for tip-offs to what's coming.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS BENCH STRENGTH Though only in his fourth year, Hovan has emerged as a leader on Minnesota's revamped D.

"I want what Sapp's got. I want to be the guy who's talked
about for the next 12 years. And I'LL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO GET