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Yearly turmoil takes toll on Vikes' spirits

They make the bedlam of lunchtime at an elementary school feel like the quiet of a doctor's waiting room.

The Minnesota Vikings, a team overflowing with talent, in a dome unforgiving to visitors, in a division where no team wants to assert its dominance, find a way to create chaos.

They seem to exist in a perpetual state of confusion.

After failing to make the playoffs on a last-second loss to the Cardinals last season, the Vikings were thought to have nowhere to go but up. And when they won five of their first six this season, many felt the time had finally come for quarterback Daunte Culpepper and receiver Randy Moss to make a move deep into the playoffs.

But the Vikings staggered in the middle of the season, lost Moss to a hamstring injury and dropped four of their last five to finish 8-8.

They made the playoffs and will travel to NFC North rival Green Bay for Sunday's wild-card game. But if the wheels have not come off, the lug nuts are loose.

In Culpepper (4,717 yards, 39 TDs) they have a quarterback with a powerful arm and a tendency to throw interceptions in bunches (seven of his 11 in three games). They have a star running back (Onterrio Smith) who was suspended for four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. They have a coach (Mike Tice) presumed to be on the hot seat.

And with a chance to clinch the division and host a playoff game, they lost to the Packers on a last-second field goal at home!

"There's only so much emotion a man can pour into something," Tice said in Minneapolis. "At a certain point, losses take effect. We can all sit here and say they get paid (to play), but they are all human beings. "I just feel that having this freaking team so beaten down because of some of the close losses, we need some early success."

Then there's Moss. Arguably the most gifted receiver in the game, Moss recorded 49 catches this season, 13 for touchdowns. But in another display of questionable judgment, Moss walked off the field with two seconds to go in a 21-18 road loss to the Redskins on Sunday.

With there still being a remote chance to win, Moss' actions sparked harsh criticism from his teammates.

"I didn't like it," Pro Bowl center Matt Birk told reporters. "I made sure I got into the locker room early and let him know about it. Hopefully, it won't happen again."

Against the Packers, who swept them this season, the Vikings will need vintage Moss. That's the silver lining: In 13 games against Green Bay, Moss has 66 receptions for 1,243 yards (18.8) and 12 touchdowns.

Still, the Vikings admitted this week that the grind of another difficult season was taking its toll.

"You know, we're going to the playoffs," cornerback Antoine Winfield told reporters. "You'd think we'd be a little more excited about that. But I really don't know. I can't get a good read on it."

Culpepper said he sensed some positive anxiety during the week of preparation.

"There should be some tension in the air," Culpepper said. "There should be guys paying a little more attention to details. Just that atmosphere of just knowing how serious it is, is really what it's all about."

But the disappointments and complicationshave taken their toll.

"They know they're the underdogs," Tice said of his players. "Probably half their wives don't think we can win, so what the heck? Let's go in and prepare with exactness and go out and play hard and play with great emotion and let the chips fall where they may."

Information from other news organizations was used in this report.