The streak continues – for Brad Johnson, for the defense and for the Vikings as a team.
Once again, Johnson managed a better game than his counterpart, Trent Dilfer, and had the better support from his defense as the Vikings won their fourth game in a row with a 24-12 win over the Cleveland Browns. Johnson went 19-for-28 for 207 yards and three touchdowns – all to Marcus Robinson – and threw only one interception.
Dilfer, meanwhile, with a running game that was limited to 78 yards on 20 carries, threw two costly interceptions and his backup, Charlie Frye, threw another interception in his only pass attempt of the game.
The combination of an offense that began moving the ball through an efficient aerial attack and a stingy defense kept the Vikings within two games of the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears and gave Minnesota a winning record (6-5) for the first time this season.
The Vikings put themselves in difficult positions throughout their first drive, as three penalties on Marcus Johnson, making his first start at right tackle, put them in long-yardage situations. Travis Taylor was a good part of the offense to start, picking up the initial first down with a 12-yard reception and converting third-and-9 three plays later with an 11-yard catch. On second-and-20, Taylor came up with another big catch for 18 yards, which Mewelde Moore turned into a first down with an 8-yard run on third down. But the 25-yard line would be as close as the Vikings got. Paul Edinger capped the drive with a 43-yard field goal for a quick 3-0 lead at the end of a 12-play drive that took 7:02 of game time.
The defense forced Cleveland off the field in three plays, and the exchange of punts went deep into the second quarter until a turnover created the field position the Vikings needed to put points on the board.
When Trent Dilfer dropped to pass on the Browns' fourth possession, defensive tackle C.J. Mosley stripped him of the ball and Darrion Scott fell on it at the Browns 35-yard line. Three plays later, the Vikings had a 10-0 lead. After a 13-yard pass to Taylor and a 7-yard run by Moore, Brad Johnson threw a jump ball for Robinson and the Vikings had a 15-yard touchdown and 10-0 lead with 4:22 remaining in the first half.
The Browns responded with their only points of the first half with an extended drive with a heavy dose of running back Reuben Droughns, who took the first three carries for 12 yards before ripping off 33 yards on a screen pass into Minnesota territory. Dilfer followed with a 13-yard pass to Antonio Bryant, and the Browns were knocking on the red zone. After a 10-yard screen to Droughns and a 6-yard rush, a pair of penalties forced the Browns into kicking a field goal, a 32-yarder, to cut the Vikings lead to 10-3 going into halftime.
Just like the Vikings' first touchdown, their second was also set up by a turnover. On Cleveland's second drive of the second half, linebacker Keith Newman came on a blitz, sacked Dilfer and forced another fumble. E.J. Henderson pounced on this one and the Vikings had the ball 17 yards away from the end zone. Four plays later, after getting a first down and holding penalty, Johnson found Marcus Robinson for another 15-yard touchdown, this in the middle of the field for a 17-3 lead with 7:24 to play in the third quarter.
Cleveland answered with a field goal drive, but the Vikings would take that exchange any day. The Browns started with a 48-yard kickoff return from Joshua Cribbs, and from there they executed three consecutive first downs before the Purple Haze rose up and caused losses on two of the next three plays. Dawson delivered a 38-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 17-6 with 3:27 to play in the third quarter.
After an exchange of three punts, the Vikings defense was back forcing another turnover. Darren Sharper did it this time, intercepting backup Charlie Frye's only pass of the game and returning it 18 yards to the Cleveland 32-yard line. After a couple of Moore runs, Jermaine Wiggins got in the action with a 17-yard reception before Marcus Robinson caught his third TD of the game, a 2-yard jump ball for a 24-6 lead with 8:47 left in the game.
Sharper intercepted Dilfer on the next drive and tried to take it out of the end zone but only got 2 yards out before being tackled. Still, the Vikings got out of the shadow of their own end zone before punting and setting up Cleveland's only touchdown drive of the game.
Starting from the 48-yard line, Dilfer got wide receiver Frisman Jackson involved, hitting him on four plays in the 52-yard, 10-play drive that was capped with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Northcutt. When the two-point run attempt failed with 1:06 left, the Vikings had their 24-12 win after Wiggins recovered the onside kick.
With the win, the Vikings remain two games behind the Chicago Bears, 13-10 winners at Tampa Bay, with five games remaining. But with a 6-5 record, even the wild-card route looks like a possibility.
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