Shot Out Of The Playoffs

The Vikings squandered scoring opportunities early, and when the Cardinals scored on fourth-and-25 from 28-yard line with no time remaining, the early opportunities turned out to be the difference between a division title/playoff berth and sitting at home wondering what might have been.

The Vikings opened their 2003 season with a convincing win on the road … outdoors … at Lambeau Field … over 42-year rival Green Bay .. the defending NFC North champions. The Vikings hadn't won outdoors since, and they needed a win over Arizona in their last game of the season to guarantee a playoff spot.

For 59 minutes and 59 seconds, it looked like their final game of the season would be an outdoor win. Instead, cruel fate — or missed opportunities for those who don't believe in fate — took that win away, along with a division title and a ticket to the playoffs.

At his season-ending press conference last year, Vikings head coach Mike Tice guaranteed the Vikings would make the playoffs in 2003. Instead, a 28-yard Cardinals touchdown pass with no time remaining ended the Vikings' season in Arizona after a shocking 18-17 loss.

The Cardinals scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes, despite four sacks on their final two drives. But it was decisions earlier in the game that will be cited time and again by fans reviewing this game.

On the Vikings' first drive they faced fourth down on the 1-yard line and elected to go for the touchdown and were denied. Later in the first half, they faced fourth-and-2 on the 26-yard line and missed a 44-yard field attempt. Either one of those decisions or executions going the other way and the Vikings wouldn't have been executed from the playoff picture.

Instead, with a 9-7 record, they were eliminated by a Seattle win, Green Bay win and their own loss. Green Bay, the team that started the Vikings' 6-0 record to begin the season, claimed the last playoff spot with the NFC North title — and helped the Vikings become the first team since the 1978 Washington Redskins to start the season 6-0 and miss the playoffs.

The Vikings' troubles started with all the squandered opportunities in the first half, and those started with their first drive.

The Cardinals opened with the ball and quickly turned it over to the Vikings after going three-and-out. The Vikings wanted to earn the division title on offense, and it showed on their first possession.

Their opening drive featured a heavy dose of Randy Moss, who got the first two passes for a combined 17 yards before Michael Bennett broke off a 21-yard run off-tackle left. Moss followed with a 28-yard reception streaking down the right sideline, and the Vikings looked primed to score on their opening drive. With the ball on the 2-yard line, Bennett lost a yard on first down. A quarterback draw on second down put the ball inside the 1-yard line, but Moe Williams was stuffed for no gain on third down. Mike Tice continued his gambling coaching ways by going for it on fourth down and was shot down when Culpepper scrambled and was forced to throw the ball away with no one open in the end zone. The Vikings turned the ball over on downs.

It was the first of the fateful decisions.

Arizona followed its defensive stand with an impressive offensive drive, getting the right calls in the right situations. After picking up two first downs with a ball-control offense, first-time starting quarterback Josh McCown hit it big with a screen pass. When the Vikings brought an all-out blitz and McCown had a screen set up for Emmitt Smith, there were few tacklers standing between him and midfield. Forty-six yards later, Corey Chavous brought down Smith, and the Cardinals were threatening. On the next play, McCown avoided Chris Hovan and juked Nick Rogers for a 10-yard scramble, putting the ball on the 36-yard line. A 25-yard pass to tight end Freddie Jones on a misdirection play-action pass would be the last big play for the Cardinals, but they got it inside the 10-yard line and Neil Rackers capped the drive with a field goal for a 3-0 Arizona lead at 8:51 of the first quarter.

The Vikings needed to answer, and once again the offense drove the ball efficiently but came away empty. Onterrio Smith entered the game midway through the drive and was a catalyst, picking up one first down on a short pass before Culpepper moved the ball across midfield with an 18-yard scramble on third-and-16. Moss and Smith combined for another first down, and Smith eventually got the ball to the 26-yard line before the drive stalled. Burned once by going for it on fourth down and facing fourth-and-2 at the 26-yard line, Tice elected to have Aaron Elling attempt a 44-yard field goal. Elling missed wide right and the Cardinals held on to their 3-0 lead.

Arizona drove to midfield while picking up one first down, but the defense continued its aggressive ways and pressured McCown into a sack on second down and a hurried incompletion on third down, forcing a punt and giving the Vikings their third offensive opportunity after failing to score following drives of 72 and 54 yards. This time there would be no extended drive, as the power running game with Moe Williams produced one first down before yielding to the punting unit.

Following a stale Vikings drive, the Cardinals produced an exciting drive, but one that favored Minnesota. On third down, McCown threw a pass into traffic in the middle of the field and Brian Williams came down with the interception, but the pick was nullified by an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on Ken Irvin. That gave Arizona an automatic first down, but it squandered that when Emmitt Smith and Anquan Boldin bobbled a reverse that lost 18 yards before Boldin recovered. That play eventually forced a punt.

The Vikings faced numerous opportunities to score, and wrong decisions or execution had kept them from doing so. That continued on their next drive. At the end of Arizona's previous drive, the Vikings were calling timeouts while searching for a half-ending drive to put points on the board. Instead, when they got the ball at the 8-yard line, they ran two draws that netted 2 yards before Culpepper forced an ill-advised pass on the run on third down. It came up short of Kelly Campbell and into the hands of safety Dexter Jackson, who returned the interception 30 yards to the 13-yard line, but the Vikings defense dialed in and forced a 26-yard Rackers field goal with 19 seconds left.

The Cardinals went into halftime with a 6-0 lead in 30 minutes of football where they were out-gained but not out-coached.

The second half started slowly for the Vikings again, as the offense was forced off the field after three plays but the defense did the same to Arizona.

Finally, the Vikings came away with points on their seventh drive of the game, the second drive of the second half. Onterrio Smith started the drive with a 4-yard run and a 17-yard screen. Kleinsasser picked up the next first down with a hard-fought 13-yard reception, and it started to look much as easier as the drive continued. Kleinsasser's first down was the first of four consecutive plays that moved the chains. D'Wayne Bates moved the sticks with consecutive catches of 11 and 12 yards, and Bennett moved the ball to the 1-yard line with a quick run off-tackle left. Moe Williams finished the job with a 1-yard touchdown run, and, after moving the ball most of the first half but failing to score, the Vikings finally had a 7-6 lead with 7:08 to play in the third quarter.

The Cardinals and Vikings traded possessions, with each team ending the other's drive with third-down sacks. When the Vikings finally had the ball back in their possession at the start of the fourth quarter, they capitalized with another scoring drive.

The longest play of the drive was the first one, an 11-yard pass to Bates. Williams picked up another first down with a 9-yard reception, and three Culpepper runs netted 14 yards for the third chain mover of the drive. He picked up another first down with a 2-yard sneak before throwing a perfect sideline route to Moss on the next play for a 7-yard touchdown with 8:54 to play.

It wouldn't take long for the Vikings to turn their 14-6 lead to 17-6. On the Cardinals' next possession, Kevin Williams tipped McCown's first-down pass and caught it for an interception. Three Vikings plays later, Elling bumped his 46-yard field goal attempt off the left upright and through for a 17-6 lead with 6:48 to play.

The Cardinals had little to play for, but they put together a drive that quickly turned the tide. After a return to the Arizona 40-yard line, Boldin converted fourth-and-6 into a first down at midfield with just enough yardage. Then the Vikings brought pressure, with Williams and Hovan getting sacks before rushing four linemen on third-and-13. McCown had time and hit Nathan Poole for 37 yards to the 11-yard line. Three plays later, McCown scrambled on fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line and connected with backup tight end Steve Bush for the touchdown. When E.J. Henderson stopped Emmitt Smith on the 1-yard line on the two-point attempt, the Vikings were still holding onto a 17-12 with 1:54 to play.

That turned dangerous, however, when Jim Kleinsasser tipped the onside kick and the Arizona's Damien Anderson recovered on the 41-yard line. Poole turned out to be the hero on the drive. It started with a pass interference penalty on Denard Walker, and Poole picked up 13 yards one play later. But after a 4-yard run and sacks by Kevin Williams, his third of the game, and Chris Hovan, his second of the season, the Cardinals were facing fourth-and-25 from the 27-line. McCown took the snap, rolled right and, with time running out, lofted a sideline end-zone pass to Poole. He went high for the ball, came down with one foot in bounds and was forced out of bounds by Brian Russell. When he was ruled out by force and maintained possession, the Vikings' playoff hopes went up in smoke in the desert with an 18-17 loss.

The up-and-down flavor of the game encapsulated the Vikings' season. But in the end, they were as down as they could be with a loss to a team that had only won three games previously — all at home in their outdoor stadium.

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