Most people in Minnesota doubted the Vikings' chances in their first playoff meeting against the Packers in Green Bay. The Vikings had lost seven of their last 10 games, the defense had looked porous lately and the offense had struggled at key times.
And then that cliché about nothing that happens in the regular season mattering came into play Sunday for the Vikings on their way to a 31-17 wild-card win in Lambeau Field.
The defense looked solid and intercepted four Brett Favre passes. The offense took an early 17-0 lead that it never surrendered, and the Vikings suddenly looked like a team that deserved to be in the playoffs after backing their way in with an 8-8 record.
It started with Daunte Culpepper's efficient management. The quarterback completed 19 of 29 passes for 284 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Despite pressure most of the game, he didn't panic and throw the game-changing turnover. His counterpart, Favre, didn't have that same composure, lofting a number of ill-advised or ill-timed passes.
The Vikings rallied around Randy Moss, who became a lightning rod of controversy this week after walking off the field in Washington, D.C. with two seconds to play. Moss responded with four catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns, but his final touchdown was followed by a mock mooning of the crowd.
Even with all the sideline theatrics aside, Minnesota simply outplayed the Packers on offense and defense.
The Vikings didn't have a chance to give up a game-opening kickoff, as they took the opening kickoff. However, when Onterrio Smith returned it to midfield, a flag took it back to the 24-yard line. The offense started explosively, as it did in the second quarter of Dec. 24 meeting. After a 1-yard run by Michael Bennett and a 7-yard pass to Moss, Culpepper scrambled on third-and-2 and, before crossing the line of scrimmage flipped a pass to Moe Williams when middle linebacker Nick Barnett came up to stop Culpepper. When Darren Sharper missed the tackle and Williams picked up downfield blocks from Jermaine Wiggins and Marcus Robinson, he was gone — sprinting 68 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Vikings lead.
The start on defense was just as impressive. After back-to-back 2-yard gains by Ahman Green, Chris Claiborne shot through an opening in the offensive line and met Favre head-on for a 10-yard third-down sack.
After getting the ball at their own 45-yard line, the Vikings were looking to continue the momentum and did exactly that. Jermaine Wiggins caught a 9-yard pass, then followed it up with a 13-yard outlet reception. After a 13-yard run by Bennett, Moss went in motion to the right and was allowed to get off the line of scrimmage easily. When Culpepper put the pass in between cornerback Al Harris and Sharper, the Vikings had a 14-0 lead with 8:44 to play in the first quarter.
The Packers responded with a first down on an 11-yard sweep to Green, but on the second play of the drive Favre threw a bullett to cornerback Antoine Winfield, and the Vikings had their third offensive possession with less than half of the first quarter in the books.
After a 9-yard pass to Bennett, the Vikings went to a designed rollout run by Culpepper. He beat defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila to the outside and picked up a block by Nate Burleson. Twenty-four yards later, Culpepper was finally knocked out of bounds in scoring position. After a 2-yard loss by Bennett, an incompletion to Moss and a 10-yard completion to Wiggins, the Vikings were forced to settle for a 35-yard field goal from Morten Andersen and a 17-0 lead with 6:06 left in the first quarter.
The Packers responded with a field goal drive of their own. Green picked up the initial first down with a 3-yard run up the gut, and Javon Walker found a seam between Brian Williams and Winfield for a 19-yard reception. But the Vikings defense stiffened and forced Ryan Longwell into a 43-yard field goal with 2:42 to play in the opening period.
Minnesota's offense finally stalled without picking up a first down, and the Packers had good field position at their own 43-yard line for their fourth drive of the game. They drove across midfield with runs by Green and Najeh Davenport. Once at the 45, William Henderson found room for roaming after a checkdown pass for 17 yards. The Packers then went to the running game on first downs, but the passing game moved the chains. It worked two times, and Green Bay was sitting with first-and-goal on the 3-yard line. It avoided disaster when Davenport was hit by Willie Offord and fumbled right into the arms of tight end Bubba Franks on first down. One play later, Franks caught the ball in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown to cut the Vikings lead to 17-10 with 10:24 to play in the first half.
The Vikings responded with a drive deep into Green Bay territory the ended without points. On the second play of the drive, Burleson got single coverage with safety Michael Hawthorne, slipped a tackle at the line of scrimmage and was gone for 29 yards. A 27-yard scramble by Culpepper on a six-man blitz moved the ball to the 9-yard line. But after a 1-yard run by Smith, an overthrown fade pass to Moss in the end zone and a 5-yard pass to Moe Williams, Morten Andersen slipped while attempting a 27-yard field goal on fourth down.
But the defense responded on the Packers' next play from scrimmage when Brian Russell intercepted Favre. After a 9-yard run by Bennett, Burleson got inside position on cornerback Ahmad Carroll and Culpepper found the wide receiver for a 19-yard touchdown and a 24-10 lead with 6:33 to play in the half.
The Packers responded with another long drive into Vikings territory, but turnabout was fair play when Ryan Longwell missed a 28-yard field goal wide left in the waning seconds of the first half.
While the first half was a frenzy of excitement and Green Bay turnovers, only the turnover factor continued.
Green Bay's opening drive of the half started with a tipped pass by Brian Williams that Ralph Brown intercepted. But that turnover didn't lead to points, as the teams exchanged the first five possessions without points. It was that fifth possession of the second half that also ended in an interception when Favre underthrew a pass to Antonio Chatman that Brian Williams pulled down.
The Packers continued to bring pressure and Minnesota's offense continued its second-half stall, picking up one first down before a third-down sack of Culpepper ended the Vikings' third possession of the half.
After throwing four interceptions, Favre finally found a rhythm on the Packers' next drive and made it look too easy. He passed five times without and interception, starting with 14-yarders to Driver and Green. After a 10-yard run by Davenport, Favre went to Driver for 16 and 7 yards. After a 5-yard run by Green, fullback Nick Luchey got a pass for 6 yards, and the Packers were on the 9-yard line. Green took a run up the middle for 8 yards and left the field limping, and Davenport took the ball into the end zone and left the field in pain as well. But, despite the banged up backfield, the Packers had cut the lead to 24-17 with 13:37 to play.
The Vikings offense needed to get back to a rhythm, and even with Moss limited with a taped ankle, it found that rhythm. Culpepper and the Vikings went to work on maligned cornerback Ahmad Carroll and found their success there. After a 4-yard pass to Marcus Robinson, Burleson drew a holding penalty on Carroll, and the Vikings had their initial first down of the drive. Burleson moved the chains again with receptions of 4 and 8 yards. After a 6-yard pass to Smith, Carroll was flagged for illegal contact. With the ball on the Green Bay 34-yard line, Culpepper audibled at the line and found Moss on a slant-and-go for a touchdown and a 31-17 lead with 10:18 to play.
Even down by 14, the Vikings defense needed to try and keep Favre and the Packers' passing offense at bay. The Packers responded with two first downs on consecutive passes, but two incompletions and a sack by Lance Johnstone ended the drive and forced a punt.
With just over 8 minutes to play, the offense needed to pick up at least a few first downs to help manage the clock. It did exactly that. An 11-yard completion to Kelly Campbell started the chains moving, and a third-down completion of 17 yards to Onterrio Smith gave the Vikings another set of downs. Smith went for 17 yards again, this time on a second-down run, and Green Bay was starting to look defeated. On third-and-11, Smith took another run 10 yards, and, with the ball at the 20-yard line and time the most important factor, the Vikings called a sneak for Culpepper with 3:21 to play that gave them the first down and allowed them milk the clock even more. After four Smith runs, the Packers had the ball on downs but had time for only one pass as the Vikings earned their first playoff win, 31-17, under Mike Tice and their first since Jan. 6, 2001.
Minnesota will travel to top-seeded Philadelphia on Sunday in hopes of improving on their 27-16 loss to the Eagles in the second game of the season. If the Vikings play as completely as they did today in Lambeau Field, they have that chance.