San Francisco, Green Bay and Minnesota have all been NFC playoff fixtures since Bill Clinton occupied the White House in 1993.
Not so in 1999. The 49ers were eliminated two weeks ago with their seventh straight loss. And the loser of tomorrow night's game between the Packers and the host Vikings (both 7-6 overall and 5-4 in NFC play) will be on the brink of missing the playoffs. That's something the Packers haven't done since Brett Favre's first season as their leader in 1992 and something the Vikings haven't done since 1991, the year before Dennis Green became their coach.
Both teams are coming off last-second losses. Minnesota was edged out 31-28 in a wild game at Kansas City, while Green Bay was stunned by Carolina 33-31 for its first defeat in 12 December games at Lambeau Field with Favre at quarterback.
"That was a tough one to swallow for everybody, but I'll do whatever's necessary to correct it," said Green Bay's first-year coach Ray Rhodes, whose job is rumored to be in jeopardy if the Packers are watching the playoffs on television.
Despite Favre's subpar season and a shaky running game, the Packers' downfall has been their defense, which has the fourth-fewest sacks and is tied for 26th against the run.
"I've been around here a long time, and this is the first time I've seen guys wide open like that," Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler said after the Panthers' Wesley Walls and Patrick Jeffers shredded the Packers for 14 catches, 243 yards and two touchdowns. "Some of their guys were so wide open you could almost underhand them the ball. . . . Minnesota's going to look at this film and laugh."
As long as the Vikings stopped crying after watching their own defensive films. There's only so much quarterback Jeff George and the NFL's third-ranked offense can do to overcome the defensive shortcomings. Pro Bowl tackle John Randle, who racked up at least 10 sacks each year during the seven-season playoff run, has just five. No team gives up more passing yards, and only the expansion Cleveland Browns have surrendered more total yards. The Packers, Chiefs and Detroit all rallied to beat the Vikings with late marches.
"We have to learn to stop somebody in the two-minute drive," moaned Red McCombs, whose Vikings are 7-7 since a 16-1 start under his ownership. "From the time you're in high school, you put so much energy into the offensive side of the two-minute drives. Why isn't there as much energy on the other side of the ball?"
Minnesota undoubtedly will miss the energy of Pro Bowl receiver Cris Carter, who's out with a severely sprained ankle. And while the Vikings are 6-1 at home under Green against the Packers, Green Bay is the NFL's best December team (15-3) the past five years.
Minnesota closes the season with two tough contests: at the New York Giants (who have been second best in recent Decembers at 11-5) and at home against the Lions (8-5). Green Bay visits NFC Central leader Tampa Bay next week before winding up at home against Arizona (6-7).
TRIVIA TIME - Which was the last team other than the Packers or Vikings to win the NFC Central title? (Answer below).
SINKING IN SEATTLE - Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, who led the Packers to those six straight playoff berths, is on the verge of doing something he never did in Green Bay: lose four in a row.
Seattle (8-5), which had a three-game lead in the AFC West just three weeks ago, has since lost to Tampa Bay, Oakland and (most shockingly) San Diego to fall a half-game behind Kansas City. The Seahawks sandwich trips to Denver (4-9) and the New York Jets (5-8) around a visit by the Chiefs, whose finale is at home against Oakland (6-7). Holmgren sounds like a man who's prepared for the worst.
"[Making the playoffs] is the next logical step," he said of the team with an NFL-high 11 straight years on the postseason sideline. "Now is it this year, next year or whenever? …