Three Years Later, Memories Still Fresh

Two Vikings bitterly remember the 2003 meltdown in Arizona that kept Minnesota out of the playoffs and made Cardinals receiver Nate Poole a hero in Green Bay, and former Packer Ryan Longwell tells it from his perspective on the Green Bay sidelines. It's a story that symbolizes the domino effect of the NFL's playoff chase, creating happy memories for some and frustrating recollections for others.

Forgive a few Minnesota Vikings for shuddering the first few times they see the Arizona Cardinals during pregame warm-ups Sunday at the Metrodome. Sunday's contest is the first time the two teams have met in almost three years, but even three years isn't long enough to erase from memory one of the most horrific meltdowns in Vikings history.

It was Dec. 29, 2003, Vikings fans will recall, when the 9-6 Vikings traveled to Arizona to face the 3-12 Cardinals. A win for the Vikings would clinch the NFC North Division title and a first-round playoff home game. A loss, unthinkable at the time, would cost the Vikings a playoff berth.

"We shouldn't have even been in that situation to begin with," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said Wednesday. "We should have already locked up a playoff spot."

The Vikings started the 2003 season 6-0 and appeared to be among the NFL's elite. But a late-season swoon forced the Vikings to stumble into Phoenix in dire need of a win.

"The way the season started we should not have let it even come down to that final game," tight end Jim Kleinsasser said.

The Vikings started sluggish but managed to grab what appeared to be a commanding 17-6 lead with 7 minutes left in the game. All that was left was for Arizona to roll over and the Vikings respond by donning NFC North Division Championship hats.

But the Cardinals responded with a touchdown, a successful onside kick, and then capped off the shocking comeback victory when quarterback Josh McCown completed a 28-yard strike to Nathan Poole in the corner of the end zone as time expired. Poole got one foot in bounds and was pushed out, officials ruled, so Arizona won the game 18-17.

That Kleinsasser and Williams clearly recalled Wednesday how the game unfolded from there even though it was three years ago should come as no surprise. Besides both being among a select group still with the Vikings three years later, both played unique roles that unforgettable afternoon.

Williams, who had a strong game as a rookie with eight tackles, three sacks and one interception, was chasing McCown out of the pocket when time ran out and he heaved a desperation pass to Poole.

"I turned and looked but I thought it was going out of bounds," Williams said. "Then they claimed he was in bounds. I think it could have gone either way, but it didn't go our way and we missed the playoffs."

The Vikings became the first team since the 1978 Washington Redskins to begin a season 6-0 and fail to qualify for the playoffs.

"It was really deflating when you know you gave it your all and to still come up short on a play like that," Williams said. "You almost would've rather got blown out because you know it's coming, rather than see it happen the way it did to us at the end."

Kleinsasser has bitter memories of the game as well. After the Cardinals scored a touchdown to narrow the gap to 17-12 (their two-point conversion failed), Neil Rackers attempted an onside kick. Kleinsasser initially touched the ball, which was recovered by Cardinal Damien Anderson.

A few plays later, McCown connected with Poole.

"That game put a cap on how the whole season went," Kleinsasser said. "It was a great play by Poole in Arizona, but how we let it get to that point, I don't know. We didn't need to let it come down to the last game."

Not all Vikings wince when they look back to that game three years ago. There is one Viking, currently in his first year with Minnesota, who celebrated the stunning Arizona victory from a thousand miles away.

"It was fun being on the other side of that story," said Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell, who three years ago was on the Packers' sideline as Green Bay indirectly benefited from the Vikings' collapse to the Cardinals.

The Packers hosted Denver in their 2003 regular season finale and were prepared to pack up their belongings and look forward to next season. Green Bay was behind the Vikings in the standings and, had the Vikings beat Arizona as expected, would have been home for the postseason.

Green Bay took care of its business and was coasting to a 31-3 win over the Broncos, but the Packers still were subdued because during their game they heard the Vikings were cruising in the fourth quarter as well.

Then … well, we'll let Longwell tell the rest of the story.

"It was one of the more bizarre things that I ever witnessed," Longwell said. "We were way up in the game we were playing. The game was out of reach and the 2-minute warning comes and all of the sudden the stadium erupts.

"To hear 65,000 people at Lambeau Field erupt because of the 2-minute warning, I had never seen that before. We turned around and everybody was not watching the field, they were watching the TVs in the skyboxes. Obviously it got down to us pretty quick that the Cardinals had made the catch and we had won the division.

"We go from where we don't make the playoffs to winning the division and hosting a playoff game."

The Packers were preparing for the worst. Even though they were en route to winning their game, they didn't think the Vikings had a collapse in them. Not against lowly Arizona.

"The Vikings had a big lead and on the sidelines the feeling was we were going home tomorrow," Longwell said. "In a matter of 30 seconds you go from going home tomorrow to not only winning the division but hosting a playoff game. Instead of being depressed that your season is over they are handing out division champion hats.

"It was really unique."

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