Entering Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game between the Vikings and Eagles, two opposite theories emerged on how Philadelphia's starters would handle not playing in their final regular-season games and then having a bye in last weekend's playoff-opening weekend.
Theory One: The Eagles starters would be rusty, having not played in a month, and being without star wide receiver Terrell Owens for the first full action of the starters would further inflame the situation. The Vikings, 8.5-point underdogs, would have to start quickly before Philadelphia found itself.
Theory Two: The lesser-promoted theory was that the Eagles starters would start quickly, having pent-up energy to burn, but then might tail off because they hadn't played a full game in a month.
The second theory was the one that proved true, as the Eagles took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter and went on to a 27-14 win. The loss sends the Vikings into offseason mode, while Philadelphia advances to its fourth consecutive NFC Championship game.
Each team left several scoring opportunities out on the field, as Daunte Culpepper threw two interceptions early in the second half to thwart a comeback attempt. The Eagles fumbled at the Vikings 1-yard line and through the end zone for a touchback to keep Minnesota in the game late in the third quarter.
But eventually, dropped passes, interceptions and a tough, aggressive defense by Philadelphia made certain of the Eagles' win.
The Vikings started trying to establish Michael Bennett, but they ended up going three-and-out. The Eagles tried to establish the passing game, but they too went three-and-out on two incompletions.
Minnesota reversed philosophy on its second drive, throwing to Nate Burleson and Randy Moss in the first three plays, but both throws were low. The three-and-out got worse when Darren Bennett punted for only 24 yards, setting the Eagles up on their own 47-yard line.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb and company were determined to get Brian Westbrook involved, and he did in a big way. Westbrook started with a 14-yard cutback run up the middle, then took a screen pass 10 yards. After a third-down holding penalty on Dontarrious Thomas extended Philadelphia's drive, Westbrook got his team into the red zone with a 24-yard reception after a misdirection rollout to McNabb's right. Two plays later, McNabb found wide receiver Freddie Mitchell for a 2-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Eagles lead with 6:18 left in the first quarter.
The Vikings picked up two first downs and crossed midfield on an 18-yard run by Bennett, but for the third straight time the Vikings offense stalled and punted.
The punt gave the Eagles poor field position, starting at their own 8-yard line, but it wouldn't matter. Mitchell picked up one first down with an 8-yard reception, but wide receiver Greg Lewis gave Philadelphia the big play, a 53-yard reception in which he beat cornerback Brian Williams on a go route. With the ball at the 21-yard line, WR Todd Pinkston caught a 14-yard pass against Antoine Winfield before Westbrook beat E.J. Henderson in coverage for a 7-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead 44 seconds into the second quarter.
With the wind in their favor, the Vikings offense finally responded. On third-and-8, Culpepper went deep and high for Marcus Robinson, and the lanky receiver pulled down the 40-yard pass at the 16-yard line. After a 2-yard run by Smith and a 7-yard pass to Kelly Campbell, Culpepper scrambled on third-and-1, put his shoulder down and burrowed into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown to cut the Minnesota deficit to 14-7 with 10:37 to play in the first half.
After giving up a 48-yard kickoff return to J.R. Reed, the Vikings defense had an unbelievable series of mishaps. Following a first-down incompletion, Willie Offord was flagged for a 7-yard pass interference penalty. On the next play, Henderson was flagged for pass interference for 25 yards. With the ball at the 14-yard line, the Eagles got another huge break for the third straight play. This time, McNabb hit tight end L.J. Smith for 10 yards, but Winfield put a helmet on the ball and forced a fumble. The ball flew up in the air and into the end zone, where Mitchell caught the fumble for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead with 10:08 to play in the half.
Minnesota's offense needed an answer and appeared to have it. After a 32-yard kick return by Moore, Culpepper started with passes of 15 yards to Moss and 16 yard to tight end Sean Berton. The Vikings had the ball at the Philadelphia 21-yard line and needed a 2-yard sneak by Culpepper on fourth down to extend the drive. Smith gave them another first down with a run of 3 yards and a catch for 8 yards to the 8-yard line. After a near touchdown to Robinson, who was just out of bounds, Culpepper ran a 5-yard draw and threw an incompletion on third down. The Vikings set up for a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 3, but holder Gus Frerotte stood up looking to pass on the fake. However, it appeared Moss was supposed to stay on the field and instead left Frerotte without a receiver. The backup QB was forced to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone and the Vikings came away without any points, keep Philadelphia on top 21-7.
The Eagles had their own mistake while knocking on the goal line. McNabb brought them across midfield with passes of 14 yard to Pinkston, 19 yards to L.J. Smith and 12 yards to tight end Chad Lewis. A 19-yard pass to Pinkston put the Eagles on the 9-yard line. But instead of settling for a field goal, McNabb passed to Dorsey Levens at the 3-yard line and he was gang-tackled backwards. The Eagles didn't get their timeout called, and the half ended with them on top by 14 points.
With all the craziness and mistakes of the first half, the second half looked to start better for the Vikings. The defense forced Philadelphia off the field in three plays, and Culpepper got Moss involved with a 20-yard reception on third-and-15 for the team's initial first down. Bennett picked up another first down with runs of 4 and 8, and a defensive holding call gave Minnesota its third first down. Bennett and Culpepper moved the chains again on two rushing attempts, but on third down linebacker Ike Reese came on a blitz, was blocked, dropped into coverage, tipped a pass and ended up with an interception to give the Eagles another opportunity.
Once again, the Vikings' second-half defense forced McNabb off the field after picking up one first down. And, once again, Minnesota drove across midfield before throwing a second interception. Culpepper converted third-and-22 with a 30-yard bullet to Robinson, and Moore picked up another first down with 13-yard outlet reception on third-and-5. But on the next play, Trotter picked off a pass intended for Smith.
Philadelphia's ensuing play wasn't any better, as Mitchell got open for a long pass play and extended for the goal line. Instead, he ended up throwing the ball over the goal line and into the pylon for a Vikings touchback, allowing them to stay in game down 21-7.
While interceptions ended the previous two Minnesota drives, too many downs ended their next one. Culpepper led the offense into Philadelphia territory with passes of 20 yards to Wiggins, 28 yards to Burleson and 13 yards to Burleson. But a third-down sack took the Vikings out of the red zone, and a fourth-down incompletion gave the Eagles offense another opportunity.
This time, Philadelphia converted and extended its lead. After an 11-yard completion to Mitchell opened the drive, the Eagles picked up a first down on a 46-yard pass interference call on Ralph Brown, setting the ball on the 8-yard line. While the defense didn't allow a touchdown, the Eagles got a 21-yard field goal from David Akers for a 24-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
When the Vikings went three-and-out, Philadelphia put together another field goal drive for a 27-7 lead, making matters desperate for Minnesota.
Smith responded with an 11-yard reception and a 10-yard run, followed by another 11-yard reception. Later, on fourth-and-3, Burleson converted with an 8-yard reception. Despite two dropped passes by Moss on the drive, he converted fourth-and-10 with a 15-yard reception, and on the next play Robinson hauled in a 32-yard touchdown with 1:59 left to play.
The game ended at 27-14 when Mitchell did the final damage by recovering the Vikings' onside kick.
It was Mitchell's final dig in a game where he caught five passes for 65 yards and a touchdown and recovered a fumble for another TD.
For the Vikings, they end the season at .500 — 8-8 in the regular season and 1-1 in their first postseason action in four years.
They head into the offseason with an improved roster and salary-cap money to spend. Free agents certainly will be the talk of the next few months, along with the potential sale of the team — all moves that could give Minnesota a better opportunity the years ahead.
Vikings Dumped From Playoffs, 27-14
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