Coming into the matchup of the 5-1 Broncos and the 5-0 Vikings, the talk of the game was the differing but effective styles of the offensive lines. Denver's smaller offensive line uses a zone blocking scheme and has been leading the way for 1,000-yard rushers for years. Minnesota's offensive line is the biggest in the league and has been effective in coming together as a group this year.
The final analysis was the Vikings' offensive line survived, while their defensive line thrived in leading the way for the 28-20 win in a statement game.
The Vikings now hold a four-game divisional lead over Green Bay in the loss column and a one-game lead over Dallas and Carolina in the race for the conference playoff edge.
Daunte Culpepper returned to his role as the Vikings' starter at quarterback and threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns and kept his interception-less streak for the season alive, finishing with a 133.0 passer rating. This game, however, he was the quarterback getting Randy Moss involved and using his biggest threat effectively.
Moss got into the game early and often, catching 10 passes for 151 yards.
But Lance Johnstone and the defense did one better. Johnstone led a five-sack effort with 1.5 sacks, which helped lead to three more interceptions — one by Johnstone for a touchdown as he dropped into coverage.
The defensive line was up to the challenge on the first drive, as sacks by Kenny Mixon and a shared sack by Johnstone and Kevin Williams on third down ended the Broncos' first drive after they picked up one first down.
The Vikings offense sputtered on its first drive, failing to pick up a first down. The defense followed suit by holding Denver to a three-and-out series, setting up the Vikings' first-blood drive.
Culpepper opened the drive by finding Moss for his first action of the game, a 14-yarder, followed by another 6-yard pass to Moss. The true test of the Vikings' confidence on offense showed when fullback Charles Stackhouse was stopped for no gain at the Vikings 46-yard line on third-and-1. As soon as the measurement showed officially no gain, head coach Mike Tice signaled the offense to go for the first down, and Culpepper promptly moved the chains with a 2-yard sneak. One play later, Culpepper scrambled and bought all kinds of time and eventually lofted a pass for Kelly Campbell at the 10-yard line. Campbell slipped after making the catch, but he had the awareness and time to get his feet underneath him and elude the pursuit, making it to the end zone for a 47-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 6:10 to play in the first quarter.
The Broncos got their only big gain of the opening quarter when Clinton Portis got outside of Chris Claiborne and picked up 24 yards on the opening play of the series. After Steve Beuerlein hit Rod Smith for 11 yards, the backup QB went deep for Smith again. But this time Brian Russell stepped in front of the bomb at the goal line and came away with an interception for the franchise record-tying sixth consecutive game.
However, the rest of the first quarter was spent trading punts with little offensive success for either team. But when Denver received the ball in the second quarter on its own 9-yard line, the running game started to go. Portis, Mike Anderson and Rueben Droughns took consecutive carries for a combined 33 yards, and Portis and Droughns brought the ball to midfield after that. The drive fell apart in a hurry, as a 12-yard sack by Claiborne put the Broncos at third-and-22, and that was enough for Beuerlein to put up another prayer, this one picked out of the air by Corey Chavous for his career-high fifth interception of the season.
The Vikings still couldn't put together a drive to move the ball, giving Denver another opportunity to tie the game. It started at the 17-yard line and was extended with the initial first down coming on a penalty on Russell, who was flagged for a questionable unnecessary roughness hit on Shannon Sharpe after a pass defected off the tight end. With the help of that call, the Broncos did the rest on their own. With a heavy dose of Portis, who got five of the next seven touches, the Broncos found room around tackle and scored with a 4-yard sweep to Portis with 1:51 left in the first half to tie it at 7-7.
It turned in the Vikings' favor quickly.
After the kick return, the Vikings had 1:43 to work the first half. When Culpepper handed off to Williams, some thought it was a sign they were content to sit on the tie. But on second down, Culpepper found Moss for 10 yards and a first down, then Williams took a short pass over the middle and busted it for 23 yards to the Broncos 45-yard line. A sack and false start made it look like the momentum would end, but on third down Culpepper eluded the rush with a shuffle to the right, then fired across the field to Moss. The 6-foot-4 Moss came back to the ball to catch it up in the air, and when the deeper D-backs corralled Moss at the 14-yard line, he twisted and flipped the ball over his shoulder to Williams in stride at the 15-yard line. Williams took it in untouched with no time remaining and the Vikings had a 14-7 halftime lead.
They carried that momentum in the second half — in a big way.
Williams took the first two carries, but Moss did the damaged with a 20-yard catch for a first down. Onterrio Smith picked up 11 on a speedy rush, and Jim Kleinsasser picked up the next first down with a 12-yard catch. Williams and Smith brought the ball to the 5-yard line with rushes of 9 and 8 yards, respectively, and Smith pushed it across the goal with a 5-yarder with 9:24 left in the third quarter.
The momentum continued with the Vikings defense. On the Broncos' third play of the ensuing drive, Johnstone dropped back into coverage and read Beuerlein's eyes perfectly and stepped in front of his pass to Rod Smith. Johnstone caught it in stride and rumbled 33 yards for the touchdown and a 28-7 lead with 7:57 to play in the third quarter.
The Denver offense finally had a chance to sustain a drive — their first real opportunity since tying the game at 7 in the second quarter. They worked into Vikings territory with two passes for a combined 30 yards to Ashley Lelie and a 13-yarder to Shannon Sharpe, but the drive stalled at the 27-yard line and Jason Elam connected on a 46-yard field goal to bring it to 28-10 Minnesota.
The Vikings picked up one first down but punted back to Denver and left the Broncos with good field position when the Vikings were flagged for interference on the punt catch. Denver used Portis and Sharpe to move the ball to the 28-yard line — with three Portis runs and three Sharpe receptions for 34 yards — but again they had to settle for a 46-yard Elam field goal, trailing 28-13 with 14:17 left in the game.
The Vikings needed to take time off the clock, but instead they began to self-destruct and went backwards on their next drive. The Broncos answered with a 12-play, 61-yard touchdown drive. The stars of their offense carried them, with Lelie starting it on a 13-yard pass and Portis and Sharpe doing much of the rest. Sharpe picked up a key first down with a 17-yard catch and Portis carried five times for 11 yards. But it was a pass interference call on Denard Walker in the end zone on third down that gave the Broncos extended life. Two plays later, third-string quarterback Danny Kanell, who entered the game in the third quarter when Beuerlein dislocated his pinkie after taking a hit, found Mike Anderson for a 1-yard touchdown pass with 6:45 left to cut the lead to 28-20.
This time the Minnesota offense responded, with Moss picking up a first down and nearly breaking it for a touchdown. It ended with a twisted ankle 39 yards downfield, to the 39-yard line. The Vikings got 7 yards on three carries from Williams, and on fourth-and-2 Tice elected to go for the first down instead of a 49-yard field goal attempt. It looked like genius when Culpepper found Kelly Campbell in stride, but Campbell didn't extend enough for the ball enough and had go off his fingertips, giving Denver one last shot in a game in which it had many opportunities that it couldn't capitalize on.
The Broncos took over on their 32-yard line and opened with a 10-yard pass to Sharpe, followed by a 16-yard Portis run, a 5-yard pass to Sharpe and a 6-yard Portis run to the Vikings 30-yard line. But it began to fall apart. First down: incompletion to Lelie. Second down: 5-yard pass to Adrian Madise. Third down: False start. Third down, part II: Portis for no gain. And the game-saving play of the game on fourth down: Johnstone capped a strong performance by knocking down Kanell's pass at the line of scrimmage for a 28-20 Vikings win.
The Broncos were a target game ever since the Vikings' fast start. They needed to play playoff competition to prove they are for real. They did both, playing the Broncos with a tough defense and proving they are for real.
The NFC opponents enter the picture for the next two games, but the Vikings continue to play host and use their home-crowd advantage. For now, they are 6-0 and have a four-game lead over Green Bay in the loss column. In two weeks they will have the chance to bury those same Packers in the Metrodome.
Defensive Pressure Leads To 28-20 Win
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