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In Minnesota, Favre has found a rhythm with Rice

DAVE CAMPBELL

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) – Brett Favre was on the sideline between possessions during a recent game, quizzing his receivers about what type of coverage they faced.

That’s when another snapshot of Sidney Rice’s increasing confidence became apparent to Minnesota’s ageless quarterback.

“He goes, ‘I was wide open,”‘ Favre said, recalling Rice’s response. “I look at the picture on the sideline and I’m like, ‘The guy was all over him.”‘

Defensive backs around the league have begun to learn that’s not enough.

“The guy can be all over him and still not make the play,” Favre said.

Rice is an ideally sized NFL receiver at 6-foot-4. Though his speed is below average for his position, as evidenced by his eight receptions of 30 yards or more this year and only two touchdowns, he has that instinctual knack for using his body to fend off the defense and make the tough catch in traffic even with a cornerback or a safety tugging on his arm and No. 18 jersey.

“Actually, it’s that basketball mentality,” Rice said, referring to one of his hobbies. “It’s just like going up for a rebound, boxing a defender out, trying to get the ball while it’s in the air.”

That ability helped peg him as a one-trick player, simply the go-to guy in the back of the end zone. Now, with the progress-impeding injuries and unstable quarterback situation from his first two seasons behind him, Rice has flourished with Favre and emerged as a legitimate threat all over the field.

After totaling 201 yards on seven receptions last week against Detroit, reaching 553 yards on 27 receptions in a four-game stretch for the Vikings, Rice is fourth in the league and first in the conference with 786 yards. The second-round draft pick from South Carolina never had an 100-yard game until a month ago.

“I actually thought I was the ‘red zone’ receiver,” Rice said, with a polite smile. “Now I’m getting opportunities to make plays, and it’s opened the coaches’ eyes and they’re giving me more opportunities. I’m just fortunate.”

The chance to play with Favre, the three-time NFL MVP and career leading passer, was pure luck. Rice’s development, though, stems from plenty of hard work in the offseason.

He strengthened the right knee that bothered him so much last year. He ratcheted up the intensity of his training, spending several days at sessions organized in Minneapolis by Arizona All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald and attended by some of the game’s greats including Cris Carter and the standard-setter himself, Jerry Rice, who is not related.

“Working with those guys showed me the light,” Sidney Rice said.

He has also joined several Vikings teammates in extra drills after practice – like running hills and catching passes in various distracting situations – that they’ve credited for some of this success.

“The past couple of years, all the talk’s been about the receivers and how we weren’t able to produce and things like that: ‘We don’t have any receivers,”‘ Rice said. “We just took it upon ourselves to do the extra work and get better as receivers and make this team a more balanced team.”

Favre wore a microphone last week while Rice was racking up all those yards against the Lions, providing plenty of praise on a highlight package posted on the team’s Web site. Favre is shown on the video reminding anyone next to him, including Rice himself at one point, how good he thinks this lanky guy with the long dreadlocks really is.

“Run a go!” Favre told offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on the sideline as they looked at overhead photos of defensive alignments Detroit had used for the last few plays. “They can’t cover Sidney! How do you want to cover him? Off? Bump? Who cares?”

Later, Favre exclaimed the same sentiment to coach Brad Childress.

“Well, you’ve always told me that,” Childress replied.

“Right. Now you’re starting to believe me,” Favre fired back.

The Vikings have six players with 20 or more catches this year, but Rice has the most by far with 44. Favre’s skill at spreading the ball around and the control-based West Coast system he has played in for so long in Green Bay and now Minnesota have limited the amount of favorite receivers he’s had over 19 seasons. Sterling Sharpe, Antonio Freeman and Donald Driver probably qualify as such, a group in which Rice has at least obtained one-year membership.

Gaining insight from the Packers on forging a connection with Favre, however, is a tough task considering the friction he caused by deciding to join a bitter division rival. Two victories by the Vikings (8-1) over the Packers and a three-game NFC North lead have made it worse.

“Man, why would I want to talk about that?” Driver said, when approached this week.

Rice isn’t as fast as Randy Moss, but the success rate of Favre’s downfield flings to Rice has begun to remind Vikings fans of the way they used to sit up straight on the couch or leap out of their seats every time a deep ball went Moss’s way.

“It seems like each game he’s getting better and better,” left tackle Bryant McKinnie said. “Some of those catches are definitely Randy Moss-esque.”

Moss’s dominance as a pass catcher, despite the attitude and behavioral issues that led to his departure, was the driving force behind the franchise’s surge in popularity during a 15-1 season in 1998 that ended infamously with a humbling loss at home in the NFC championship game. Minnesota’s offense hasn’t been the same since Moss was traded in 2005, until Favre joined this well-balanced, emerging unit just a few months ago.

Favre took heat for calling these Vikings his most talented team, a perceived slight to the 1996-97 Super Bowl champion Packers, but he softened his stance a bit this week.

“This team has a long ways to go to ever equal that. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be as good or on paper we’re not as good,” Favre said, adding: “For the people who said that ‘He’s crazy,’ at least up until this point, they don’t have a leg to stand on. They’re waiting. Everyone is waiting for us to fail and waiting for me to fail, and that’s OK.”

Meanwhile, Rice is waiting for his next catch.

AP Sports Writers Chris Jenkins in Green Bay, Wis., and Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.