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Vikings beat up on Bears, but Tice fired anyway

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Mike Tice left the Metrodome with a win -- and
a notice of unemployment.

His fourth full season with Minnesota ended after a meaningless
34-10 victory over the Chicago Bears that gave the Vikings a
winning record after a rough start.

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 wins 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.

"We are the No. 1 defense," linebacker Lance Briggs said.
"Nobody can take that from us."

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 last 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 win and some help from
others. But Chicago clinched last week, and Minnesota fell out of
postseason contention by losing at Baltimore -- a second consecutive
defeat following six straight 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 over 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."

Game notes
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
straight year he's led the Vikings in that category.