Few words can describe how important Sunday's 20-16 win over Tampa Bay was for the 2001 Minnesota Vikings. A loss would have left the team at 0-3 for the first time in almost 35 years, saddled with three losses in the conference — two in the division — and, for all intents, out of the playoff hunt.
Instead, the Vikings responded like champions, combining offense, defense and special teams — culminating in a 96-yard game-winning drive that put the Vikings back where they anticipated they would be from the beginning.
"You could definitely say this game was crucial even though it was early," Cris Carter told VU. "We needed this one bad and I think there was a chance Tampa was looking past us. There were a couple of times we went down there unbeaten, knowing if we won we would put them away and didn't get it done. I think maybe they thought the same thing coming here."
As expected, the game was tight throughout, as both teams counterpunched like a pair of grizzled boxers. For the first time this season, the Vikings won the opening coin toss, but it didn't serve them well, as, following an impressive opening drive in which Daunte Culpepper completed his first three passes, he was picked off by Derrick Brooks at midfield and gave the Bucs the first advantage of the game.
Tampa took immediate advantage, picking up chunks of yardage. Brad Johnson completed an 11-yard pass to Keyshawn Johnson and, following a 13-yard run by Warrick Dunn, Johnson again found Keyshawn — this time for 18 yards to the 4-yard line. The Vikings defense rose up to snuff the drive from there, stuffing Dunn for a 2-yard loss before forcing a pair of incompletions to make the Bucs settle for a 25-yard Martin Gramatica field goal to take a 3-0 lead with 7:39 to play in the first quarter.
The Vikings marched back with their first drive of 10 plays or more this season, behind some impressive plays from Culpepper. First he converted a third down with a 6-yard pass to Michael Bennett and, following a 9-yard reverse by Moss and a 2-yard sneak by Culpepper, he converted another third down with a 8-yard pass to Byron Chamberlain to move across midfield. One play later, Culpepper would find Chamberlain open over the middle for 27 yards to the 13-yard line. On the next play, Culpepper hit Carter in stride on a slant pattern for a touchdown to give the Vikings a 7-3 lead with 44 seconds left in the first quarter.
"Getting long drives was something we hadn't been able to do all year," Culpepper told VU. "We knew we could do it but hadn't been able to get it done. Today we were able to keep their defense on the field and get everyone involved. We used our check-offs when we had the chance and everyone contributed."
Minnesota came right back on offense after forcing a quick punt from the Bucs and responded with the most time-consuming drive in the last 16 years. Starting from his own 20, Culpepper did most of the damage through the air, converting a third down with a 6-yard pass to Carter, a 16-yard pass to Chamberlain for another first down and an incredible acrobatic move to get the ball away on a third-down pass to Jim Kleinsasser for 8 yards to move the Vikes into Tampa territory.
Culpepper stayed in the air, completing short passes of 7 yards to Doug Chapman, 2 yards to Jake Reed and 6 yards to Kleinsasser to the 9-yard line. The drive stalled in close, but Gary Anderson converted a 24-yard field goal and the Vikings led 10-3 with 2:55 to play in the half to culminate a 10-minute, 27-second drive.
Despite the Vikings controlling the ball for more than 20 minutes in the first half, Brad Johnson led the Bucs on a late drive that included passes of 35 yards to Jacquez Green and 9, 11 and 8 yards to Warrick Dunn to set up a 25-yard field goal by Gramatica to cut the lead to 10-6 at halftime — setting up a second half that would have season-long implications.
The defense dominated early in the third quarter as the teams exchanged punts, but the Bucs would get the first sustained drive of the half. Starting on his own 17, Johnson came out passing, hitting Keyshawn for 7 yards and Green for 5 more before turning the ball over to the ground game. Dunn moved the chains with a 13-yard run, Johnson scrambled for 10 more and Alstott got 9 more on the next play. It looked like the Bucs might be moving in for the lead, but Winfield Garnett spiked down a pass to force the Bucs to settle for a 49-yard Gramatica field goal to cut the Vikings lead to 10-9 with 6:57 to play in the third.
The Vikings responded with yet another sustained drive to reestablish momentum. Starting from the 20-yard line, Bennett ripped off a 15-yard run up the middle. Culpepper and Moss then did their magic. After completing an 8-yard pass to Moss, Culpepper heaved a bomb that Moss pulled in on the 3-yard line to set up another scoring situation. An offensive pass interference call on Carter would sabotage the drive, but Gary Anderson got points out of the drive with a 29-yard field goal and the Vikings increased their lead to 13-9 with 1:44 left in the third.
As the game went to the fourth quarter Johnson was passing, completing consecutive passes of 14 yards to Green, 4 yards to Alstott and 22 yards to K.J. before Dunn broke off a 20-yard sweep to the Vikings 15-yard line. The Vikings had the drive stopped when Johnson threw a pass behind Keyshawn, but after the play Kenny Wright was flagged for taunting and gave the Bucs an unwarranted first down.
"Coming into the week, Keyshawn had been calling Robert Tate things in the paper," Wright told VU. "He was out there talking the whole game. He dropped the ball and I let him know about it. I didn't touch him. I didn't do anything. They just called a flag."
The Bucs made the most of the opportunity, as Dunn broke off a 6-yard run for a TD to give the Bucs a 16-13 lead with 12:40 to play.
It looked like the Bucs had a chance to put the game away when Culpepper threw a hideous pass to Carter that was picked by Ronde Barber, but the defense came up with a big stop, as a holding call took the Bucs out of scoring position and forced a punt — leaving the Vikes 96 yards away with 6:21 left in the game.
Knowing their season was on the line, the Vikes responded with a championship-caliber drive. The drive started with runs of 7 and 2 yards by Bennett, and Moss converted a first down with a swing pass that he turned into a 14-yard gain. After passes of 4 yards to Bennett and 6 yards to Kleinsasser, they kept the drive moving as the clock ticked under 2 minutes. Culpepper kept finding the open man, completing passes of 15 yards to Moss and 7 yards to Kleinsasser. But, faced with a blitz, he threw a high pass to Chamblerlain in triple coverage. As three Bucs converged on the ball, somehow Chamberlain came away with it and rumbled 37 yards to the 3-yard line.
A false start call on Brad Badger backed the Vikings up 5 yards, but it didn't matter, as Culpepper took a quarterback draw for an 8-yard touchdown to cap the drive and give the Vikings a 20-16 lead with 1:05 to play.
The Bucs wouldn't go down quietly, as the defense was asked to hold the lead. Johnson needed 75 yards and picked up yardage in big chunks, completing passes of 22 yards to Aaron Stecker and consecutive passes of 21 and 9 yards to Keyshawn to the 18-yard line. Looking for the go-ahead score, Brad Johnson went for Keyshawn Johnson in the end zone, but rookie Eric Kelly got in front of the ball and intercepted it, being tackled by Orlando Thomas to end the drive and give the Vikings their first win of the year.
Now the Vikings must try to build on their momentum with a road game at New Orleans, but getting the first win, especially against the Bucs, was critical.
"You try not to make too much of one game, but we knew that we had to win this game or we would be a huge hole," Carter told VU. "I think we played with a lot of emotion and got a lot of big plays from a lot of different guys. That's how teams win games and win championships." VU
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