In the end, there were so many good signs, but there isn't much of a substitute for good fortune and clutch plays during the stretch drive of a game. The Bears had both, the Vikings neither.
Despite winning most of the battles through more than three quarters, the Vikings ultimately faded during the final nine minutes of the game, giving up two touchdowns during that span and losing 27-23 in the final 30 seconds.
Daunte Culpepper scored on a run. Randy Moss scored on a long pass. The Vikings whipped the Bears in the running game behind an aggressive offensive. But when it mattered, Chicago's passing game came through in the fourth quarter, with wide receiver Marty Booker finishing with eight catches for 198 yards and a touchdown.
The addition of middle linebacker Greg Biekert seemed to spark the defense, especially in stopping the run, but the defensive line appeared to wear down in the heat in Champaign and couldn't get pressure on Bears quarterback Jim Miller in the fourth quarter. That allowed Miller time to find his receivers on their final two drives, the last one producing the winning touchdown with a 9-yard pass to David Terrell with 29 seconds remaining.
The Vikings opened the game determined to run the ball, but not against the Bears' big interior defensive linemen. With Chris Liwienski and David Dixon big on the right side, that is where Michael Bennett and the Vikings concentrated their efforts. Bennett had two 9-yard runs to the right on the first drive, but besides those and a 10-yard pass to Derrick Alexander, the Vikings offense stalled at midfield.
The new-look defense of the Purple truly did look new — they stopped the run for the majority of the first half. On Chicago's first drive, the Vikings held Anthony Thomas to no yards on two carries.
Minnesota's offense responded with a scoring drive, the first of the game. The big play came when Daunte Culpepper found D"Wayne Bates open deep over the middle for a 46-yard gain to the 9-yard line. However, once in scoring position, a loss on a Bennett run, an incompletion and an illegal motion penalty — a common occurance in the first quarter — forced a field goal attempt. Doug Brien was good from 30 yards, and the Vikings had a 3-0 lead with 6:17 left in the first quarter.
After an exchange of punts, the Bears answered after getting great field position, starting on their own 29-yard line. The Vikings stuffed Thomas for no gain on two runs, but Booker put the Bears ahead with a 29-yard touchdown catch with 59 seconds left in the first quarter.
Culpepper and the Vikings responded with a touchdown drive of their own. It started with a 12-yard pass to Jim Kleinsasser, then a 12-yard run by Bennett. The big play came when the other tight end, Byron Chamberlain, broke free over the deep middle of the field, turning a post pattern into a 60-yard gain before being caught at the 1-yard line. The Vikings needed three plays and a Chicago penalty, but Culpepper capped the drive with a 2-yard run for a 10-7 lead to start the second quarter.
Chicago answered, as well. Booker made the big play again. He caught a 26-yard pass across the middle and had another 15 yards tacked on when Willie Offord met Booker helmet to helmet. However, the defense rose up from there and forced Paul Edinger into a 49-yard field goal to tie the score at 10.
It was all Vikings for the remaining 9:20 in the first half.
Kleinsasser and backup running back Moe Williams became the workhorses. Kleinsasser caught three passes on the drive for 34 yards and two first downs, and Williams ran three times for 32 yards and two more first downs. But, despite getting to the 6-yard line, the offense was unable to get in the end zone and was forced to settle for a 22-yard field goal, putting the Vikings back on top at 13-10 with 3:33 left in the half.
After that scoring barrage, the teams exchanged punts, but the Vikings got the break they needed on the road. On the first play of this Bears drive starting with 1:07 left in the half, Jim Miller muffed a snap from the shotgun and Talance Sawyer eventually recovered on the 33-yard line.
After being held to two catches for 3 yards, Moss got free deep over the middle on the first play of the ensuing drive. Culpepper delivered the ball perfectly, and the Vikings had a 20-10 halftime lead.
However, despite overheated players in black uniforms in a hot stadium, the Bears moved the ball on the opening drive of the second half. Receiver Dez White did most of the damage with two catches for 30 yards, putting the ball in Chicago's territory. Thomas picked up one more first down with the Bears' longest run of the game to that point (they had only 9 rushing yards in the first half), an 11-yarder, but the Vikings defense held from there when Chris Hovan got the first sack of the game on third down. Edinger converted another 49-yard field goal to pull the Bears within a touchdown at 20-13.
Minnesota continued to drive the ball, but an interception at the 2-yard line by Reggie Austin on an underthrown ball to Derrick Alexander gave the Bears a chance to drive the length of the field and tie the game.
They wouldn't. The Bears drove across midfield, with Booker getting a catch for 13 yards, White for 15, and Booker again for 23 and 14. But a holding call on Bernard Robertson killed the Chicago momentum and backed the home team up just enough to have Edinger's 43-yard attempt drift wide right.
The Vikings took advantage of the field position on the miss and opened with a running vengeance. Doug Chapman ran for 12 yards, Culpepper for 7, then Chapman for 10 and 1 yards — all on consecutive plays. Moss converted the third first down of the drive with a 9-yard catch. Chapman took it for 9 yards again, but on a naked bootleg on third down Culpepper got caught for a 5-yard loss. The Vikings settled for a field goal and, after taking heat all preseason, Brien converted his third straight field goal attempt, this one from 42 yards out.
With it, more importantly, the Vikings had built up a 10-point lead again with nine minutes to play in the game. That would prove to be a huge factor down the stretch but still not enough.
The Bears hit on a big play to — guess it — Booker, who cleared behind the safeties for a 54-yard pass play before being forced out of bounds. After a 5-yard pass to Thomas, the running back posted runs of 11, 7 and 1 yards, the last for a touchdown with 6:45. After a drive of less than 3 minutes, the Bears were within a field goal at 23-20.
The Vikings needed a drive to eat time, with a score being icing. They drove, but a critical mistake cost them big. Williams picked up two first downs to get the ball to midfield. But facing third-and-13 after a false start was called on Chris Liwienski, Culpepper went deep to Alexander but apparently didn't see Mike Brown in waiting. The safety, like he had done so many times last season, came up with a huge interception.
Brown's return set up Chicago on the Vikings 49-yard line with 2:34 to play. The Bears picked up a first down with a 12-yard run from Leon Johnson on third-and-1, then found Booker for 9 yards. Thomas converted that into a first down with a 2-yard run on third-and-1. Then it looked too easy, as former Vikings tight end John Davis picked up a first down on a 10-yard catch, and Miller waited for David Terrell to clear in the end zone on the next play and hit him for the game-winning 9-yard touchdown with 29 seconds to play.
After throwing an interception on the last series to set up Chicago's final touchdown, Culpepper dropped the ball — literally — when he was stripped by linebacker Roosevelt Colvin and recovered by fifth-round draft choice Bryan Knight to seal the win.
Minnesota had a ton of encouraging signs in areas that were in doubt. They rushed the ball with authority and stopped the rush with an aggressive defense. But when it came down to it, the pass defense still gave up far too many big plays and wasn't able to consistently pressure Miller.
Starting the season on a losing note isn't what the Vikings wanted, but they certainly had the game in hand to win. They simply didn't finish the job when they had the chance.
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