MINNEAPOLIS (Jan. 1, 2006) -- Mike Tice left the Metrodome with a victory -- and a notice of unemployment.
Then owner Zygi Wilf informed the coach in a brief emotional meeting that his contract was not being renewed, a firing that Tice himself expected -- but didn't embrace.
"Of course I'm hurt," he said. "I'm a man, not a machine."
Minnesota finished 9-7, one positive for Tice during yet another up-and-down year marred by a scandalous boat party during the team's bye week. But despite victories in seven of the final nine games, Wilf -- who bought the team this summer -- told Tice he wanted to go in another direction.
Most of the players were gone when the Vikings announced the decision. Brad Johnson was leaving the stadium with his family when he found out.
"I wish him greatness," said Johnson, who completed 27 of 40 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns against the NFC North champions -- who rested most of their regulars.
Thomas Jones ran 12 times for 62 yards in the first half to finish with 1,335 yards for Chicago (11-5), which used a dominant defense and an eight-game winning streak to take control of the division. Jones' rushing total was the highest for a Bears player other than Walter Payton and the greatest sum since Payton's 1,551 yards in 1985.
"It is only a first step for us," coach Lovie Smith said. "We can't wait to get to Soldier Field and play the playoff game in front of our home crowd."
The only thing Chicago really had to play for was a franchise record for fewest points allowed, 187 set by the 1986 squad. But a season-high 34 points surrendered raised the total to 202, and the Bears also gave up a season-high 396 yards -- in case anybody was keeping track.
Michael Bennett, in probably his last game with Minnesota, ripped off a late 61-yard touchdown run and totaled 82 yards on six carries. A pending free agent, Bennett never built on his breakout 2002 season because of injuries and failed to give the Vikings the reliable featured back they've badly needed the past two years.
Kevin Williams had two sacks, and tight end Jim Kleinsasser blocked a punt to set up a field goal for Minnesota, which had four scoring drives that lasted 2 minutes or less.
"It's nice to go out on a good note with your buddies," Kleinsasser said. "The guys that you've battled with, coaches included."
Less than three weeks ago, it looked like this game could determine the division title -- or at least give the Vikings a chance to get a wild-card spot with a victory and some help from others. But Chicago clinched last week, and Minnesota fell out of postseason contention by losing at Baltimore -- a second successive defeat following six consecutive victories.
"The part that we had control over, we didn't quite get done," Kleinsasser said.
Predictably subdued on this New Year's Day, Minnesota fans filled most of the 64,000-some seats -- though the crowd included plenty of navy blue and orange in support of the Bears.
Chicago, which has a first-round bye and won't play again until Jan. 14 or 15 against the highest remaining seed in the NFC field, stuck receiver Muhsin Muhammad, safety Mike Brown, cornerback Charles Tillman, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and nose tackle Ian Scott on the inactive list.
"This is an exciting time," Muhammad said. "We really want to seize this opportunity."
Rookie Kyle Orton returned at quarterback in place of Rex Grossman, looking as shaky as he did before he lost the job to Grossman in the second half of a victory against Atlanta on Dec. 18. Orton tripped once while handing off to Jones, had to recover his own fumble on a dropped snap and finished 6-for-14 for 59 yards with no touchdowns or turnovers before yielding to Jeff Blake in the fourth quarter.
"We have a great team here, not a team of individuals," Orton said. "I'm not arrogant enough to say I don't have things to work on. I have a ton of things to work on."
Blake threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Justin Gage with 7:08 left, bringing the Bears within 27-10. Gage had six catches for 67 yards.
Chicago center Olin Kreutz played briefly in an uneventful first quarter against Minnesota's Pat Williams. The two traded several barbs through the media this season, with Kreutz cracking derogatory jokes about Williams' weight and Williams' agent alleging that Kreutz campaigned to other players to keep him out of the Pro Bowl.
Tight end Jermaine Wiggins had three catches for 16 yards and finished with 69 receptions, the second successive season he has led the Vikings in that category.
The Associated Press News Service
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