Too much time on their hands — their defense's hands — killed the Minnesota Vikings once again in a 34-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers, a loss that gave Green Bay the division title and "tore the insides out" of Vikings head coach Mike Tice.
In a battle of bad defenses, the Vikings were forced to punt three times in the second half after an explosive first half of scoring. The third Vikings punt of the half and the final one of the game left the Packers with one minute, 35 second with which to work. That was plenty of time for Packers QB Brett Favre to turn a 31-31 tie into a three-point win.
The Packers drove 76 yards in 11 plays, using every second before a 29-yard field goal kept the Vikings' playoff hopes in doubt for at least two more days.
Although they won't win the division, the Vikings (8-7) will still make the playoff via a wild card berth with a Carolina loss or a St. Louis loss this weekend.
The first-half explosive of the Vikings showed in the fact that Green Bay ran 31 more plays over the course of the game, and that fact may have worn down the oft-maligned Minnesota defense in the end.
The game marked the return of Michael Bennett as the feature back, as he ran 17 times for 92 yards while Onterrio Smith was a surprise deactivation. QB Daunte Culpepper was 16-for-23 for 285 yards, three touchdowns and a 151.3 passer rating. Nate Burleson was Culpepper's big-play target, catching two passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, while Bennett added three catches for 67 yards.
The Packers' Donald Driver was the prime-time player of the game, catching 11 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown, while teammate Javon Walker added five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown. The Minnesota run defense held Ahman Green to 64 yards on 19 carries.
The Vikings got it started right Friday … and early. The Packers picked up two first downs on their first possession, converting a third down with a 4-yard Green run and a second down with an 11-yard pass to Najeh Davenport. But on third-and-5, Lance Johnstone caught Favre from behind, hit his arm and knocked the ball loose. By the time it was done getting batted backwards, the Packers knocked it out of bounds at their own 29-yard line for a 25-yard loss.
The Vikings took over after the punt, and Bennett converted the initial third down when Culpepper faked a dive to Sean Berton and pitched outside to Bennett, who picked up 25 yards through a huge hole. But that would be the only first down the Vikings picked up on the drive.
After forcing a Green Bay punt, the Vikings drew first blood, and they did it starting from deep in their own territory. Jermaine Wiggins took advantage of an opening underneath Randy Moss for a 12-yard reception. Three plays later, Burleson slipped past coverage and picked up a huge block from Marcus Robinson at the tail end of a 42-yard pass play to the 26-yard line. Bennett moved the ball to the 12-yard line with two runs. After an incomplete first-down pass to Moss in the end zone, Culpepper went right back to him after scrambling. When cornerback Al Harris slipped in coverage, Moss had the touchdown and the Vikings had a 7-0 lead 11 seconds into the second quarter.
Green Bay answered with its own scoring drive. The Packers made a statement drive, using a nice balance of the run and the pass on a 16-play drive that took 8:12 off the clock. It started easier than it ended. Antonio Chatman started the chains moving with a 14-yard reception, followed by a 10-yard run by Green. Three plays later, Driver caught a 12-yard pass on third down. But that would be the end of the double-digit gains. From there, the longest gain would be the most important one of the drive, an 8-yard pass to Driver at the goal line on third-and-goal from the 9. When the officials ruled that he wasn't in the end zone, Packers coach Mike Sherman used his final challenge of the game and was overruled. On fourth down, Green plowed into the end zone to tie the game with 6:37 to play in the first half.
While the Packers used 16 plays, the Vikings needed only one — setting up the theme for the second quarter. On first down, Burleson caught an intermediate pass, slipped an arm tackle by Ahmad Carroll and was off to the races for a 68-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead 22 seconds later.
Once again, the Packers used a sustained drive for their answer. Seven of their nine plays were less than 10 yards, but the two big plays brought the ball across midfield — with a 25-yard pass to a wide open Driver — and then into the end zone with a 22-yard pass to a wide open Bubba Franks. Both of them occurred in the middle of the field and allowed Green Bay to tie the game at 14 with 1:17 to play in the first half.
Just as they had done previously, the Vikings used only one play from scrimmage to score. But this one was set up by a 55-yard Kelly Campbell kick return to the 38-yard line. Bennett did the damage this time, taking a screen pass from Culpepper, slipping an arm tackle by Nick Barnett at the line of scrimmage and putting a move on cornerback Joey Thomas at the 5-yard line for a 38-yard touchdown reception. With 58 seconds to play in the half, the Vikings regained the lead at 21-14.
But it wasn't over yet. When Chatman broke a tackle on the ensuing kick return, he was able to reverse his direction and get 59 yards on the return. That quickly, the Packers were in field goal position. The half couldn't end without controversy, however, as Green Bay was out of timeouts. When they passed to Driver and he was tackled short of the first down, Favre asked for a measurement to give them time to get their field goal unit on the field with only 7 seconds remaining. Although they were a half-yard short, the measurement stopped the clock and allowed Ryan Longwell to boot a 42-yard field goal to make it 21-17 at the half.
The Vikings weren't explosive to start the third quarter. They picked up two first downs and drove to the Green Bay 42-yard line but were forced to punt.
Despite backing the Packers up to the 11-yard line, Favre came out firing with success. On the second play of the drive, he hit Javon Walker for 25 yards. Three plays later, Driver pulled in a 34-yard pass to the 25-yard line. Green picked up another first down with a 14-yard reception, and Walker finished the drive with a 9-yard touchdown catch on a broken route in the middle of the field. With 7:41 to play in the third quarter, the Packers had a 24-21 lead.
It took the rest of the third quarter and another three seconds, but the Vikings tied the game on their ensuing drive and did it in Green Bay fashion, using 14 plays to drive 69 yards. Four of those plays went more than 10 yards, with Sean Berton and Bennett picking up 11 and 12 yards, respectively. Four plays later, Bennett was back at it, picking up 17 yards on a delayed pass in the middle of the field to the 14-yard line. However, after a 6-yard loss on a pass and a false start, the Vikings were forced to go to Morten Andersen for a 29-yard game-tying field goal three seconds into the fourth quarter.
After an exchange of punts, the Vikings defense came up big. On the third play of the Packers' next drive, linebacker Chris Claiborne reached high for an interception and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown and a 31-24 Vikings lead with 8:18 to play.
The Packers didn't panic, however, putting together another long touchdown drive — this one going 13 plays and 80 yards. Driver picked up the initial first down with a 20-yard reception. Walker moved the chains one play later with a 17-yard pickup, and it started looking too easy. The Packers went back to Driver for 12 yards, then ran it three straight times for 10 yards and the fifth first down of the drive. When the Vikings forced two incompletions in the next three plays, the Packers were faced with a game-deciding choice — kick a field goal and hope for a touchdown on their next drive (if they'd get another drive) or go for the touchdown on fourth-and-3. They opted for the latter and Favre came through with a 3-yard bullet to Driver with 3:34 to play to knot the game at 31.
Minnesota needed a sustained drive to take time off the clock and score. They were mildly successful in the first department, picking up one first down before going backwards. After Bennett picked up a first down with an 11-yard run to start the drive, the Vikings were flagged for a false start and a holding on center Matt Birk. It backed them into first-and-25, and Wiggins' 20-yard catch-and-run on third down wasn't enough. The Vikings punted and the Packers were set up with the ball on their own 13-yard line with 1:35 to play.
Favre started with passes of 6 yards to Driver and 9 to Walker. After an incompletion, he found running back Tony Fisher open in the flat for 21 yards. After another incompletion, he connected with Driver for 18 yards and Walker for 31 yards. That put the Packers at the 7-yard line, where they could take a knee three times and kick the game-winning, 29-yard field goal as time expired.
When it counted, the Vikings offense couldn't stay on the field long enough and drive them into field goal position and their defense couldn't get off the field when the Packers were trying to do the same thing. The end result was another last-second loss on a field goal by the Vikings' opposition, a scenario that has played out too often this season.
Now the Vikings are forced to wait for help from other teams — Tampa Bay playing Carolina on Sunday or Philadelphia playing St. Louis on Monday — this week or create their own win next week.
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