Vikings Fall in Opener

Three interceptions and two fumbles did in the Vikings offense and an opening kickoff return by Carolina started the bad day.

The Vikings came out in the season opener against Carolina looking to show their defense was improved and take care of what was supposed to be one of the easiest opponents on their schedule. They did the first and failed miserably at the second, as the quarterback Daunte Culpepper had one of the worst outings of his short starting career with three interceptions and a game-ending fumble.

The whole game the Vikings offense couldn't find the flame to ignite a fuse and five turnovers in all was enough for Carolina to take advantage.

The game, however, was marred to start by several questionable calls by the replacement refs. Some were righted in time, others were allowed to stand because they couldn't be challenged. And the final controversial call of the game, made on a challenge, was the correct one that ended any Vikings hope of a comeback. Trailing 24-13 with 3:32 remaining and on the 6-yard line, Culpepper scrambled and ran to the 1-yard line. He fumbled out of bounds when hit and the ball advanced into the end zone before going out. Originally it was ruled the Vikings ball at the 1-yard line, but after a Carolina challenged, the ball was correctly given to the Panthers on a touchback to give the Panthers the 24-13 win.

The Vikings had to wait to show any improvement on defense because, after Carolina won the toss, kick returner Steve Smith took the opening boot from Mitch Berger and returned it 93 yards to give Carolina a 7-0 lead with only 17 seconds ticked away.

The rest of the first half was generally a display of offense by the Vikings that resembled a wet firecracker, not the explosive stick of dynamite fans in the Metrodome are used to seeing. The defense gave up field position, but held the Panthers out of the end zone.

Carolina's only offensive points came after a 41-yard drive early in the second quarter that resulted in a 23-yard field goal by John Kasay. But the Vikings offense sputtered for the rest of the half, as well. The only pass that was attempted to Randy Moss resulted in an interception after miscommunication between Culpepper and Moss for the second straight game, and the rest of the passing game was similarly missing in action in a bad first half of football that ended with the Vikings trailing 10-0.

The offense put together another lackluster drive to start the second half, but on their next possession finally got it going with a heavy dose of Culpepper's legs and Byron Chamberlain's hands. The tight end picked up 22 yards to open the drive and 8 yards on the second-to-last play of the drive. In between, Bennett carried for 8 yards and Culpepper for 6. But the scoring play came when the Vikings lined up three receivers to the right, Moss to the left and Culpepper took it in from 7 yards out on a draw to make it 10-7.

The Vikings got the ball back when defensive end Talance Sawyer dropped back in coverage and picked off a Chris Weinke pass to give Minnesota the ball back 1 yard into Carolina territory. Two Bennett runs and a 28-yard pass to Moss set up the Vikings on the 12-yard line. On third down, Culpepper bought time and rolled right before finding Carter ready to receive a toe-dragging sideline catch in the end zone for the touchdown. A blocked extra point meant the Vikings only had a three-point lead … and that was short-lived.

Carolina took the next possession and drove 80 yards behind the rushing attack of backup running back Nick Goings and a 43-yard reception by Muhsin Muhammad. Muhammad also got the scoring catch on the drive with 2:53 left in the third quarter.

The ball quickly went to Carolina again, as Culpepper threw his third interception of the game on the first play of the next drive, giving the Panthers the ball only 34 yards from the end zone. They made that distance, thanks largely to a 25-yard pass to Wesley Walls. Weinke scored the touchdown on a 1-yard sneak and Carolina had a two-possession lead at 24-13 with 9:52 left to play.

The offense got two first downs, but gave it up before midfield after two straight incompletions. The defense held and it was up to the offense to score twice in short order. They nearly did, but Culpepper's end zone fumble ended any hopes.

The Vikings offense came out sluggish and lacked big plays throughout the game, and every player acknowledged that after the game. Moss called it "lolligagging" and said he thought all along the team would win. But when Culpepper fumbled, all hopes had ended. Five turnovers and bad field position spelled the Vikings' doom in the opening game.

And it gets even tougher next week, being Monday night on the road against the defending Super Bowl champs in Baltimore.

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