Big plays save Vikings in 24-21 win

The Vikings didn't get many explosive plays from their offense, but their defense and special teams provided a spark that helped save the season and keep them in contention for the NFC North.

Sunday wasn't filled with a revival of a high-powered Vikings offense, and Randy Moss' return to the Metrodome won't last a memorable record-setting performance. But what happened on Mall of America Field, at Lambeau Field and Soldier Field Sunday were enough to keep the Vikings optimistic about their immediate future.

Minnesota did enough on defense and special teams to make up for an inconsistent offense and earn a 24-21 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Combined with losses by the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, it kept the Vikings' hopes of defending their division title alive. Minnesota moved to 2-3 on the season with a date with the 3-3 Packers next Sunday night, and the Bears fell to 4-2 after a 23-20 loss to the Seahawks.

"That bought us another week," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "It's week-to-week in this business. It's close to migrant work. You go where it is every week, so we just bought one more week. There is parity."

But the Vikings' hopes could have been dampened if not for a couple of big interceptions by E.J. Henderson and a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Percy Harvin.

Down 7-0, Henderson's first interception of the game set up the Vikings' first touchdown. Down 14-7 at halftime, Harvin's kickoff return tied the game. And with the game tied 21-21 midway through the fourth quarter, Henderson's second interception set up Ryan Longwell's game-winning field goal.

In between the big plays from the special teams and the defense, the Vikings offense found it tough to operate against the Dallas defense. Brett Favre was sacked three times and hit hard several other times on his way to passing for only 118 yards. But the key to Favre's game was no interceptions after throwing seven of them in the first four games of the season.

The running game didn't have much more success. Adrian Peterson was limited to a 3.0-yard average on 24 carries and as a team the Vikings had 95 yards rushing. As an offense, they gained only 3.8 yards per play.

But the Vikings defense was equally as effective, holding Dallas to a 3.4-yard average on the ground and doing enough to keep a high-powered attack mostly contained. The Cowboys were intent on checking down to the running backs, and Felix Jones caught at least twice as many passes (10) as any other Dallas receiver. Wideouts Miles Austin, Roy Williams and Dez Bryant combined for six catches for 71 yards.

Through it all, the game remained tight, with neither team gaining more than a one-touchdown advantage.

The Cowboys drew first blood, taking advantage of a botched exchange between Favre and Peterson at midfield during the Vikings' first drive that LB Bradie James recovered. A 12-yard pass to Jones started the chains moving, and when the Vikings missed sacking Romo in the backfield, he scrambled for another 12 yards. Three plays later, Roy Williams created separation from Lito Sheppard and caught a 15-yard touchdown for a 7-0 Cowboys lead with 5:02 to play in the first quarter.

The Vikings offense couldn't take advantage of excellent field position, despite getting the ball on the Dallas 45-yard line because of an excessive-celebration penalty on Miles Austin on the touchdown and kicking the ball out of bounds on the ensuing kickoff. But when the Cowboys took possession again, E.J. Henderson quickly got it back for the Vikings, intercepting a deflected pass and returning it 10 yards to the Dallas 16-yard line. Three plays later, Favre found Greg Camarillo open for a 10-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7 at the end of the first quarter.

Most of the second quarter was spent with the Vikings struggling to protect Favre and the Cowboys struggling to avoid penalties, but on their final drive of the first half, the Dallas was able to put points on the board with a 13-play, 82-yard drive, highlighted by a 30-yard pass to TE Jason Witten and a 14-yard third-down scramble by Romo. Facing second-and-goal from the 2, Romo fired a bullet to Williams for his second touchdown of the game and a 14-7 Cowboys lead at the end of the first half.

Without much offense, Percy Harvin injected a needed boost to open the second half, taking the kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown to quickly tie the game at 14.

After an exchange of punts, the Vikings were winning the battle of field position and started the second offensive series of the half on the Cowboys 49-yard line. Harvin and Peterson did the dirty work from the backfield – Harvin had two rushes for 18 yards, but the big play came on a snap that Favre fumbled, pick up and tossed to Jim Kleinsasser, who rumbled 20 yards. Four plays later, Peterson darted through an opening on the left side of the line for a 1-yard touchdown and Minnesota's first lead of the game, 21-14, with 43 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Cowboys answered on their next drive, a 10-play, 65-yard effort. Witten picked up the initial first down with a 17-yard pass play, and Marion Barber continued to pick necessary yardage when he converted fourth-and-1 with a 2-yard run. On third-and-12, however, Romo connected with Bryant down the right sideline on a pass that Lito Sheppard got his hand on but couldn't knock away. Bryant's 31-yard touchdown tied the game again, this time at 21, with 10:18 to play.

Once again, Henderson set up the offense on a short field when he intercepted another Romo pass, taking this one to the Dallas 22-yard line. After picking up one first down on a short pass to Moss, Favre threaded a pass between defenders at the goal line – one that Moss couldn't hold onto. But the Vikings still came away with points – what turned out to be the game-winning points – when Ryan Longwell kicked a 38-yard field goal with 4:05 to play.

The defense held Dallas to a quick three-and-out on the next possession and the offense was able to pick up one first down to help bleed the game time down to 29 seconds before punting to the Cowboys for one last chance. However, when the punt return took 16 seconds to go 3 yards, the Cowboys only had two plays and couldn't get past midfield as the Vikings survived both the game and maybe saved their season and division hopes.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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