Minnesota was made well aware of the fact that it had lost 17 of its last 18 games outdoors. So it was of little surprise when the Houston Texans had their retractable roof open on a 73-degree Sunday afternoon.
Despite the history, the Vikings looked like they were headed to an easy road win, but Houston forced overtime before Marcus Robinson broke free on a 50-yard touchdown to give Minnesota a 34-28 win and a share of the lead in the NFC North.
The Vikings did it with a crippled cast of characters on offense and defense. They were missing their starting right tackle and tight end, both on injured reserve. They were down to their fourth-string running back starting the game, and without their second-string tight end and starting Pro Bowl center. And that was just on offense. On defense, they were missing their starting middle linebacker, a starting outside linebacker and for a time were forced to play with Max Yates at middle linebacker, a player just called up to the active roster this week.
Despite 10 penalties, including six false starts, the Vikings overcame all the road adversity and walked away with a win and a 3-1 record.
They did it behind 396 yards passing and five touchdowns from Daunte Culpepper, and 90 yards receiving and 90 yards rushing from rookie Mewelde Moore, their fourth-string running back. Robinson also added 150 yards receiving and two touchdowns, while Randy Moss had 90 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensively, the Vikings shut out Houston in the first half but ended up allowing 372 yards passing to quarterback David Carr, who led the Texans back from a 21-point second-half deficit.
The teams exchanged punts to the start the game, each crossing midfield before being forced to punt. But on their second drive, the Vikings got Moore in a groove. He showed great vision, the ability to break tackles and good explosiveness. He began with runs of 17 and 5 yards before Culpepper converted another first down with a 12-yard scramble. Then Moore and Robinson carried the offense from there. Robinson caught two passes for a combined 28 yards and two first downs, and Moore took carries of 8, 9 and 2 yards to the 1-yard line as the first quarter came to a close. On the second play of the second quarter, Randy Moss caught his first pass for a 1-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Vikings lead.
The defense stopped Houston on three downs when Kevin Williams batted back a third-down pass, and the Vikings had another opportunity. Once again, they drove across midfield behind Moore but were forced to punt.
The defense continued to play stoutly, forcing the Texans offense off the field after two first downs when Antoine Winfield stuffed a screen play for a 2-yard loss on third-and-6.
Culpepper and company had one more shot on offense, getting the ball with three minutes left in the half and no time outs. The offense managed the drive to perfection, hitting the underneath routes to the sidelines in the face of blitzes. Moore started with a 5-yard run, and then the passes went to Moore for 16 yards, Kelly Campbell for 11, Richard Owens for 10, Moore for 8 more and Robinson for 9 to the 21-yard line. After a false start by the Vikings, the fourth such penalty of the first half, Robinson hauled in another 9-yarder before drawing a pass interference penalty at the 5-yard line on the next play. The Texans' aggressive defense brought a cornerback blitz and a linebacker blitz on consecutive plays to force incompletions. But on third down the Vikings countered with a fake handoff to Moss in motion and Culpepper bootlegged against traffic before finding Nate Burleson for the 5-yard scoring play and a 14-0 lead with 36 seconds left, taking that advantage to halftime.
The Vikings defense had allowed only four first downs in the first half, and their solid play continued to open the second half. Kevin Williams ended the Texans' opening drive three plays into it with a 5-yard sack of Carr, which set up the Minnesota offense on the Houston 49-yard line after a punt.
The offense also continued its efficient ways, needing only three plays to score. On the first play, Culpepper stood in the face of the blitz and delivered a 29-yard pass to Moss, and the ball was moved to the 10-yard line when Jamie Sharper's hit on Culpepper drew a penalty flag. After a throwaway under pressure, Culpepper threw the jump ball for Robinson for a 10-yard touchdown and a 21-0 lead early in the third quarter.
This time, the Texans answered, despite poor starting field position. After a bad return and a penalty, Carr was starting on his 6-yard line. Since the Houston's running game wasn't working, they went to the air. Carr delivered a number of big plays, hitting tight end Mark Bruener for 27 yards and Jabar Gaffney for 22 yards on consecutive plays. Two plays later, Andre Johnson delivered with a 36-yard grab over tight coverage to the 4-yard line. Two plays later, Carr went back to Johnson, and he went high for a 2-yard touchdown reception to make it 21-7.
The Vikings picked up only one first down, but their defense put them back on the field after three plays when Terrance Shaw knocked away a third-down pass to Johnson. Again, Minnesota could only muster one first down before punting away.
Houston kept its offensive improvement from the first half going — with the passing game serving Carr well. He converted a first down with a 35-yard pass to Derrick Armstrong to the 19-yard line. After a penalty, Carr hit Johnson for a 20-yard pass, and Davis did the rest, taking a second-down run into the end zone to draw the Texans within seven points, 21-14, with 11:27 to play in the game.
Minnesota couldn't answer right away, but neither could the Texans, and midway through the fourth quarter Culpepper delivered a 50-yard strike to Moss on third-and-1 for what should have been the game-deciding touchdown with a 28-14 lead with 6:49 to play.
However, the Texans weren't done. On their next possession, Carr completed a 19-yard pass to Armstrong on fourth down, then found Johnson for 14 and 8 yards. Davis converted a first down with a 6-yard run to the 6-yard line, and Carr took it to the 1 on a scramble. After a tripping penalty, Carr found Armstrong for the 11-yard touchdown, and the Texans were back within a touchdown at 28-21 with 3:11 left.
Penalties continued to haunt the Vikings, as Nat Dorsey's third false start of the game took them out of a second-and-1 situation, and a Rod Davis penalty on the ensuing punt changed Houston's field position from their own 40-yard line to Minnesota's 42-yard line. It wouldn't take Carr long to turn field-position potential into points on the board. He went to Armstrong for 8 yards, then found Johnson for passes of 12 and 22 yards, the second being the game-tying touchdown with 1:50 left.
The Vikings' last-chance regulation drive ended with a sack, and Houston's last-chance desperation play ended with Lance Johnstone's sack, sending the game to overtime.
Houston's defensive line was too much for the Vikings, and three straight plays to Moore couldn't pick up a first down. Minnesota were nearly as strong on defense. After allowing one first down, Chris Hovan's first sack of the season on third down forced a Texans punt, and the Vikings finally delivered the death blow.
Culpepper started with an 11-yard pass to Robinson, and Moore picked up another first down with a 20-yard gain on an outlet pass. Facing first-and-10 from the 48-yard line, Culpepper delivered a strike to Marcus Robinson, who had cornerback Dunta Robinson beat after slipping. But Marcus dropped the ball and the breakaway touchdown wouldn't happen on that play. Two plays later, it did. Robinson got the angle on another post pattern and sprinted into the end zone from 50 yards out, giving the Vikings a 34-28 overtime win and ending their outdoor losing streak at six straight games.
The Vikings maintain a first-place tie with Detroit atop the NFC North, and travel to New Orleans next Sunday night to work on their road (although not outdoor) record some more.
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