EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) -The Dallas Cowboys hold a special place in the hearts of Minnesota Vikings fans - right next to former owner Red McCombs and former coach Les Steckel - as some of the biggest villains in franchise lore.
So this is how desperate things have become in Minnesota.
``I'm a big Cowboys fan,'' Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper said Wednesday.
Those words surely will draw gasps across a purple fan base that may have more hate in its heart for the Cowboys than even the neighboring Green Bay Packers, but there is an awful lot at stake this week.
The Vikings need to win at Denver and have the Cowboys defeat the Washington Redskins to get into the playoffs.
It's the final stomach-churning twist in this corkscrew of a season for the Vikings (8-7).
While McCombs' stay in the Twin Cities mercifully ended in 2005 and Steckel was booted after going 3-13 in his only season in 1984, the Cowboys have tormented the Vikings for more than 30 years.
It all started on Dec. 28, 1975, in an NFC divisional playoff game at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.
The Vikings, who had already advanced to three of the four Super Bowls they would reach in the 1970s, brought arguably their best team into the icy game against the Cowboys.
They led 14-10 with less than 1 minute to go when Roger Staubach threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson that lifted the Cowboys to a 17-14 victory.
Staubach coined the phrase ``Hail Mary'' pass after that game, and to this day the purple players and faithful vehemently argue that Pearson should have been flagged for pass interference for pushing off cornerback Nate Wright.
The Cowboys also defeated the Vikings in the 1977 NFC Championship game and the 1996 wild-card game, a humbling 40-15 wipeout at Texas Stadium.
On top of that was the infamous trade in 1989 that brought running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings and helped build the foundation for the Dallas dynasty of the 1990s.
In one of the most lopsided trades in sports history, the Cowboys sent Walker to Minnesota for five players and six draft picks. coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones used the draft picks to wheel and deal their way into landing future stars Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Russell Maryland and Kevin Smith.
Walker rushed for 2,264 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2 1/2 seasons in Minnesota, but never was able to live up to the incredible expectations thrust upon him by the package that brought him here.
Now it appears as though the Cowboys could stick it to the Vikings yet again.
With the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage locked up, coach Wade Phillips could rest many of his key players, which should make things easier for the surging Redskins (8-7).
Earlier this week, Phillips insisted the Cowboys would be playing to win to preserve ``the integrity of the game,'' but receiver Terrell Owens is out with an ankle injury and quarterback Tony Romo is expected to give way at some point to former Viking Brad Johnson.
``To tell you the truth, I'm not concerned about it,'' Vikings linebacker Ben Leber said. ``I don't think about it. I know that for us, we have to take care of winning the game. Without winning the game, it doesn't matter what the Redskins and Cowboys do.
``I think we should keep our main focus on winning the game and however everything else plays out is out of our control.''
Minnesota coach Brad Childress called any decision to rest starters ``the nature of the business.'' As an offensive coordinator in Philadelphia in 2004, the Eagles had clinched the top seed with two games to play.
They rested many of their key players for the final two weeks, losing both games. But the move paid off when the Eagles advanced to the Super Bowl after three straight losses in the NFC title game.
``They are looking at, I'm sure, being able to give it their best shot in their playoff run,'' Childress said. ``We've done it before. When you have nothing to gain in terms of positioning you kind of weigh where you think you're going to be freshness-wise and sharpness-wise to what you need to do in the game you're playing.''
Sharper called it ``ironic'' that the Vikings were placing so much hope in the Cowboys, especially Johnson. The veteran quarterback left Minnesota in the offseason after not seeing eye-to-eye with Childress, but he also holds plenty of contempt for Washington when the Redskins showed him the door in 2000 after two seasons.
``If he's in there, I think he's definitely going to want to perform well against one of his old teams,'' Leber said. ``I think he's going to be highly motivated. And if he helps them win the game, I think we should send him a little something.''
Notes: Vikings DT Pat Williams did not practice. The team said the 11-year veteran was given the day off. ... CB Antoine Winfield (shoulder) and WR Sidney Rice (ankle) practiced on a limited basis.

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