The focus this week could have been to get Cris Carter and Randy Moss more involved after a very public display of displeasure with the playcalling in Chicago. But the best way the Vikings could get their star receivers involved was to get everyone else involved and take the heat off the deep ball.
The Vikings looked determined to get everyone involved in the offense, and they did. Everyone, meaning Carter, Moss, Michael Bennett, Byron Chamberlain, Jim Kleinsasser, Doug Chapman and even Harold Morrow, all in the first half. It worked.
The Vikings took a 10-6 halftime lead and converted that into a 20-16 win against Tampa Bay, giving Minnesota a new lease on the season at 1-2.
Kleinsasser caught eight passes for 51 yards and said the Bucs were just leaving the flat open. Moss and Carter each finished with five catches and quarterback Daunte Culpepper completed a career-high 30 passes on a day where he went 30-for-44 for 322 yards and touchdown.
In the first half, the Vikings offense put up 10 points against one of the NFL's better defenses, had their fifth-longest scoring drive in team history, taking 10:27 off the clock in the second quarter on one drive before a 24-yard field by Gary Anderson. But that 18-play drive wasn't the only good drive the offense put together.
It started with the ball and moved to midfield before Daunte Culpepper tried to do too much while stepping out of the pocket and floated a pass that was intercepted by linebacker Derrick Brooks. Brad Johnson and the Bucs converted with a drive to the 4-yard line, but failed to finish it, with Warrick Dunn getting stuffed for a 2-yard loss and Johnson throwing two incompletions. Instead, Martin Gramatica opened the scoring with a 25-yard field goal.
The Vikings followed with their first drive of more than 10 plays and hit paydirt with a 13-yard pass to Carter with 6:55 to play in the first quarter. But before Carter ever touched the ball, the Vikings had used Kleinsasser, Bennett, Moss and Chamberlain and went deep for Moss on the first play of the scoring drive. A heavy dose of Kleinsasser and Bennett catching out of the backfield and Chamberlain deep down the middle moved the ball, but when it came time for the touchdown Culpepper went for the touchdown-maker in the end zone to take a 7-3 lead.
Tampa Bay was held to one first down on its next drive, then the Vikings offense put together the franchice's longest drive since 1985 and opened a 10-3 lead. However, the drive wouldn't be quite long enough, as they left 2:55 on the clock. Johnson engineered the drive that brought the Bucs to within four points, hitting Jacquez Green for 35 yards, then used Dunn four times for 30 yards to get the ball to the 7-yard line. It resulted in a 25-yard Gramatica field goal and the Vikings went to the locker room with a 10-6 halftime lead.
Both teams went three-and-out to start the second half, then both teams followed with field goals while getting their big-play receivers in the mix on the drives. Gramatica brought the Bucs within one point with a 49-yard field goal, and Gary Anderson followed with a 29-yard field goal to make it 13-9 in the third quarter.
Then the officials got involved. The Vikings defense allowed passes of 14 yards to Jacquez Green, 22 yards to Keyshawn Johnson and a 20-yard run by Warrick Dunn. But when the Bucs got to the 15-yard line, a sack of Brad Johnson and a 4-yard pass to Aaron Stecker brought up third-and-7 on the 12-yard line. The pass to Keyshawn Johnson went incomplete, but when cornerback Kenny Wright got up and said a few words to Johnson he was flagged for taunting — giving the Bucs new life on the drive with a first down.
"I just told Keyshawn he needs to make that catch," Wright told VU, admitting he was surprised to see the flag.
Instead of another Gramatica field goal on fourth down, Dunn took the next carry up the middle on first down for a 6-yard touchdown and giving Tampa Bay its first lead of the game since their opening-drive field goal.
With 12:40 left in the game, the Bucs led 16-13.
Minnesota's next drive started with a 10-yard sack of Culpepper and ended with the quarterback throwing an interception to Rhonde Barber at midfield. But after the Bucs got one first down, the defense held and forced a punt.
The Vikings needed at least a field goal and were pretty much reserved that it had to come in this drive with 6:21 left on the clock. They started with the ball on the 4-yard line and executed the perfect drive. Nearly.
Culpepper hit Moss twice for 29 yards, but the big play came when Culpepper threw into triple coverage. As he rolled away from trouble he unloaded a pass to Chamberlain on a flag route. Chamberlain went up in traffic and stayed with the ball while three defenders came crashing down around him. The tight end made the catch and hopped out of traffic all the way down to the 3-yard line. After a false start, Culpepper took the first down play and ran it up the middle on a draw for the game-capping 8-yard touchdown.
The drive was nearly perfect, except for the fact that it left 1:03 on the clock.
The Bucs nearly took full advantage of that. Aaron Stecker opened with a 22-yard catch across the middle, then Keyshawn Johnson came back with catches of 15 and 9 yards to move to the 23-yard line. But after getting to the 17-yard line, rookie cornerback Eric Kelly pulled down a Brad Johnson pass on the 3-yard line with 10 seconds to go to end the game.
The Vikings escaped with the season still intact at 1-2 overall and 1-1 in the NFC Central Division. It was far from easy, but it could have the season-saver they were waiting for.
Vikes Stay Alive, 20-16
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