Nice surprise: Even with week off, Vikings stretch NFC North lead

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings brought a souvenir back from their midseason vacation: an even bigger lead in the NFC North.

The latest sign of how well this Brett-Favre-at-quarterback season is going for the Vikings came on Sunday, when Green Bay and Chicago both lost and dropped three games behind Minnesota (7-1) with eight weeks left.

Not a bad way to spend the bye, huh?

"Shoot, that was the easiest games I think we've played," linebacker Ben Leber said, smiling. "We got to sit on the couch and watch the other teams lose. It benefited us this time, and hopefully we can control our own destiny from here on out and win some games."

Beaten by previously winless Tampa Bay, the Packers (4-4) are essentially four games behind the Vikings, who hold the tiebreaker by virtue of beating Green Bay twice.

The Bears (4-4) haven't faced Minnesota yet -- a Nov. 29 visit to the Metrodome is their first meeting -- but they are dealing with plenty of problems after a 20-point loss at home to Arizona.

"I'm more concerned about us moving ahead than somebody else losing, but that's a nice feature that happened," coach Brad Childress said. "If we play well this week, things have a way of adding themselves up."

A lot of players left town last week, enjoying the chance to sleep in and sit around, and others spent extra time with their families in town.

Childress was glued to the TV on Sunday like millions of other football fans around the country, flipping back and forth between various games.

"I actually chew my fingernails more when I watch other people play than when I watch us play, for whatever reason," he said.

Perhaps the best reason for the Vikings to be excited about November is what's ahead.

They have three straight home games against Detroit (1-7), Seattle (3-5) and Chicago, and none of those teams currently have winning records. It's always dangerous in the NFL to find comfort in the schedule, but it's also difficult to envision a more favorable start to the second half of the season.

With a few more wins, they'll be fighting to earn another bye week -- for the first round of the playoffs.

For more on the Minnesota Vikings, check out the latest from our bloggers.

"We're starting to get that swagger now, knowing that we're an elite team right now and knowing the talent we have and the promise we have," tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said. "We all know it. We all feel it: confidence in each other, knowing the next man is working as hard as you are."

Asked about the benefit of having three consecutive home games, Childress wouldn't even acknowledge it.

"I don't know anything about three in a row. I know we've got one in a row here against an NFC North opponent," he said.

Antoine Winfield's status is still uncertain. The Pro Bowl cornerback has missed the last 2 1/2 games because of a right foot injury he suffered in the first half against Baltimore on Oct. 18. Childress said Winfield came out to the field and was "moving around" but didn't suggest he was close to returning.

"He's pushed it as hard as he possibly can under doctors' orders," Childress said. "The next part of it is getting out here and moving on this hard surface."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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