When the Vikings scored a touchdown with 9:44 to play in the second quarter, it appeared as though they were ripe to score a road upset win in San Diego. They were ahead by 10 points, and because Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding was injured on the game's opening play, San Diego was going to have to think long and hard about even attempting field goals. However, the inability of Minnesota's defense to stop Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and the dink-and-dunk San Diego offense produced a torturous turning point of the game for Vikings fans.
The shift in momentum began immediately after the Vikings opened up at a 10-point lead. Pinned on his own 10-yard line, Rivers led the Chargers on a 14-play drive that got as close as the Vikings 15-yard line. He picked up five first downs, having to face a third-down situation just once. With the Chargers unconvinced punter Mike Scifres could make a 43-yard field goal, San Diego kept the offense on the field on a fourth-and-20 play. They didn't come away with points, but it was clear they had found a formula to attack the Vikings defense.
Rivers got the ball back with just 1:38 to play in the half and one timeout. He again drove the Chargers into the red zone, picking up five first downs once again and facing just one third-down situation. The plays weren't huge – 10 yards, 8 yards, 14 yards, 8 yards – but they kept moving the chains. With 10 seconds to play and assuming the team wouldn't try a field goal, instead of throwing the ball away from his own 17-yard line in the final seconds, Rivers put it up for grabs as his arm was hit by Brian Robison and Antoine Winfield corralled the wounded duck for an interception. It preserved the 17-7 lead at halftime, but the worst was yet to come.
With a chance to make some halftime adjustments, the waterboarding of the Vikings defense continued. On the opening drive of the second half, Rivers flipped and tossed the ball around on short pass plays and, when running back Ryan Mathews took a check-down pass 37 yards to the Vikings 17-yard line, San Diego was back in business. Mike Tolbert did the rest. On a third-and-9 play, Tolbert took a dump-off pass and bulled over two Vikings to pick up a first down. On the next play, he lowered his shoulder and plowed over safety Jamarca Sanford for a touchdown, capping a seven-play, 69-yard drive to cut the Vikings lead to 17-14.
After the Vikings held the ball for just two minutes, Rivers spread it around to pick apart the Vikings defense – picking up first downs with passes of 10 yards to Antonio Gates, 11 yards to Vincent Jackson and 11 yards to Randy McMichael. It looked as though he would lead them to another score, if not for a great individual play by Jared Allen, who dropped in coverage and intercepted a pass. It gave the Vikings hope as the game moved to the fourth quarter with the Vikings still ahead 17-14.
"You're playing against the No. 1 defense and you know the No. 1 offense is on the sideline. You want to do as much as you can to keep their offense on the sideline by sustaining drives, and in doing that coming out with points," Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "In the first half we did that, and in the second half I believe they had 16 more minutes than we had as far as time of possession is concerned. You don't have many opportunities, but when you do you have to take full advantage of it and we didn't. That's part of why it was a tale of two halves."
With confidence riding high on the San Diego sideline, when the Vikings gasped on offense after a failed stepchild of the Wildcat killed the drive, Rivers set up on his own 32 and continued the slow-speed assault on the Vikings. He found Gates for 15 yards in the seam of the Vikings defense and, two plays later, hit Malcolm Floyd for 16 more. When the Vikings defense finally did get a stop, the Chargers gambled on Scifres' ability to kick a 40-yard field goal. It wasn't an artistic success, but it did the job – tying the game at 17-17.
After a three-and-out by the Vikings, the Chargers offense appeared almost unstoppable. Rivers drove them 74 yards in just six plays, capped off by a 19-yard rollout and pass to Tolbert for a touchdown, giving San Diego its first lead of the game, 24-17, with 5:01 to play.
"That's an offense that they do a good job of controlling the clock," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "They were the No. 1 rated offense a year ago. We've got to do a better job of getting off the field in key situations."
The Vikings offense again sputtered and went off the field on three plays, sending an exhausted Vikings defense back on the field with 3:01 to play. At that point, Rivers took advantage of the Vikings' inexperienced replacement defensive tackles. He got Letroy Guion to jump offside twice and Fred Evans to jump offside on third-and-2 play that gave the Chargers a first down and allowed Rivers to kneel down three times to end the game.
At the time the Vikings took a 17-7 lead in the second quarter and dodged a couple of defensive bullets before halftime, it appeared as though they were on their way to a road win. Instead, the inability of the defense to contain Rivers and his slow-motion offense slowly but surely created a tortured turning point.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Turning point: Rivers' torturous attack
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