Ugly, Exciting, Then Ugh

The Vikings offense stunk up the first 50 minutes of a game with a potential playoff spot on the line and two first-half turnovers, then made an unlikely comeback charge in the final eight minutes, only to have a turnover end their mission in overtime in a 22-19 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Tarvaris Jackson's up-and-down season might be summed up in the final 10 minutes of what turned out to be an 8-8 year for the Minnesota Vikings after a 22-19 loss to the Denver Broncos.

After his offense looked completely uninspired through more than three quarters of football that held a potential playoff berth in balance, once it was apparent the Washington Redskins were going to clinch the final postseason spot in the NFC playoffs, Jackson and the offense came alive. Down 19-3 with eight minutes to play, Jackson directed two touchdown drives – each of them capped with touchdown passes to Bobby Wade and two-point conversion runs from the quarterback to send the game to overtime.

And then, with the Vikings receiving the opening kickoff of overtime, Jackson fumbled the ball away on the second snap and the Broncos immediately kicked the field goal for a 22-19 win.

For more than four quarters of football, Jackson was able to avoid a costly interception and stuck with a tough task while others on offense let him down. Adrian Peterson was never given the opportunity to get rolling. Chester Taylor fumbled away a potential touchdown at the pylon and another carry that led to a Denver touchdown. And Troy Williamson dropped two key passes (both easily catchable and one that would have been a sure touchdown).

Jackson endured all of that and managed to finish the game completing 16 of 31 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns, and he rushed four times for 36 yards, but two lost fumbles by Taylor in the first half led to a missed touchdown for the Vikings on the first lost ball and a touchdown for the Broncos after the second one. Taylor finished the game with 83 yards on 10 carries, and the Vikings were clearly interested in having him shoulder the load at the start of the game. Peterson was held out of the first drive and eventually managed only 36 yards on 11 carries.

Without injured wide receiver Sidney Rice in the game and with Williamson's two all-important drops, Wade and Robert Ferguson each had five catches – with Wade gathering 92 receiving yards to Ferguson's 39.

But it was the Broncos who made their own breaks and capitalized on Minnesota's mistakes.

The Vikings defense allowed one first down to midfield to start the game, but two incompletions in the next three pass attempts brought the game's opening drive to an end.

The Vikings offense started rolling from the start, despite not getting Peterson into the game for the first series. After two short runs, Chester Taylor turned a screen pass into a 10-yard gain and a first down. Taylor and Mewelde Moore combined for 8 yards on two rushes, setting up third-and-2, and tight end Garrett Mills made a crossing route become an 18-yard gain and a chain-mover. Taylor followed with a 24-yard run inside the red zone and Moore brought it the doorstep of the end zone to the 3-yard line. Taylor appeared to cap the drive with a touchdown run, but the ball came loose as he stretched for the pylon. Instead of a Minnesota touchdown, the Broncos had the football with a touchback.

The defense sent the Broncos offense backwards on the third drive of the game, and the Vikings offense took advantage of a net gain in field position. Starting at the 40-yard line, Peterson entered the game and gave them a first down to midfield with a 4-yard run on third-and-1. Three plays later, Taylor took a handoff up the middle and made several defenders missed before being tripped up after 22 yards. Mills picked up another first down with an 8-yard reception, but a third-down throwaway under pressure left the Vikings settling for a 22-yard field goal from Ryan Longwell to open the scoring four seconds into the second quarter.

The Broncos responded with a drive that dismantled the Vikings defense. Selvin Young started with consecutive runs of 12, 7 and 20 yards past midfield before Cutler found tight end Tony Scheffler for an 11-yard completion. But the big play came on Cutler's next pass, an incompletion that still gained a first down when E.J. Henderson was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless receiver. One play later, Cutler threw high for Brandon Marshall for a 15-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead with 11:25 left in the first half.

After trading punts, the Vikings self-destructed on their next drive. On the first play, Jackson unleashed a bomb to Williamson, who was wide open on the 25-yard line and simply dropped the ball after it hit off both of his hands for what would have been a sure touchdown. Two plays later, Taylor was stripped of the ball by John Engelberger, a fumble that was recovered by Elvis Dumervil.

The Broncos took full advantage. Marshall opened the drive with an 11-yard reception, but the end of the play showed how a bouncing ball can favor one team. Chad Greenway knocked the ball out of Marshall's grasp while making the tackle; the ball bounced about 3 yards from Marshall and right back to him while he was on the ground for first down. Young followed with runs of 6 and 31 yards, the second which would have been a touchdown if not for a takedown of Kevin Williams that brought it back. But the Broncos overcame the negative yardage with a 15-yard pass to tight end Chad Mustard and a 10-yard run by Andre Hall. Marshall then showed why Brad Childress talked about the receiver's run-after-the-catch ability, eluding several would-be tacklers to turn a wide receiver screen into a 15-yard gain. One play later, Cutler fired a strike to Scheffler for a 2-yard touchdown and a 14-3 lead with1:54 to play, a margin that held up until halftime.

The Broncos weren't only able to extend their lead in third quarter, they significantly shortened the game by taking it right to the Vikings defense with an extended drive. They opened the second half with a 13-play drive that moved from their own 23-yard line to the Vikings 24-yard line. Two pass plays were key, a 16-yarder to Marshall on second down to get to midfield and a fourth-and-1 conversion that Scheffler turned into an 18-yard pass play. When the defense finally stiffened, Jason Elam hooked a 43-yard field just inside the right upright for a 17-3 lead with 7:35 to play in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota offense continued to be its own nemesis. It picked up one first down on consecutive pass to Robert Ferguson, but a dropped pitch to Peterson lost 11 yards and a sack of Jackson brought up third-and-24 that not even a 19-yard completion to Bobby Wade could overcome.

The Vikings' next series would have appeared to seal the game when consecutive false starts from Wade and Jackson were followed by a holding call on Ryan Cook in the end zone for a Broncos safety and a 19-3 lead with 13:04 left to play.

But while the Broncos were able convert two more first downs on rushes by Marshall and Young, they eventually opted to go for a first down on Minnesota's 26-yard line, but a 4-yard pass to Scheffler came up 2 yards short.

Going into hurry-up mode seemed to inject life into the Vikings offense. After converting one first down, Jackson found Wade for 30 yards to the 28-yard line. While the Vikings shut down the Broncos' fourth-down attempt, Denver couldn't return the favor when Jackson found Ferguson for a 21-yard completion on fourth-and-8. On the next play, Wade capped the drive with a 5-yard touchdown reception that Jackson turned into an eight-point drive with a two-point conversion run to cut the deficit to 19-11 with 5:18 to play.

The defense responded by holding the Broncos to a three-and-out series, and the offense completed the improbable comeback. On second-and-5, Jackson took off for a 32-yard run and the Vikings were on the 28-yard line. After a 6-yard Peterson run, Jackson scrambled out of the pocket on third down and found Wade for a 22-yard touchdown to draw within two points. When Jackson rolled to his right for a quarterback run and got into the end zone for a two-point conversion, the Vikings tied the game at 19, but they'd need one more defensive stop.

Cutler started with a 14-yard pass to Scheffler and, one play later, a 17-yard pass to Marshall, who lateralled to Glenn Martinez for another 10 yards. But Broncos coach Mike Shanahan once again decided to forego a fourth-down field goal of about 52 yards in favor of a pass. This time, rookie cornerback Marcus McCauley deflected a pass for Javon Walker and the Vikings took over on downs with 39 seconds left.

They didn't do much with that opportunity, but they won the coin toss to and had an opportunity for the win. However, after Jackson led a fourth-quarter comeback, he didn't secure the ball on the second play of overtime. Alvin McKinley and Jamie Winborn got the sack, McKinley caused a fumble with Jackson's arm in the air and Dumervil recovered the loose ball. Only 48 seconds into overtime, Shanahan finally called on Elam on first down with the wind at his back and the veteran kicker booted through a 30-yard field goal for a 22-19 win.

Strangely, about the same time the Redskins had secured the final playoff spot in the NFC with a big lead and the eventual 27-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys was the same time the Vikings offense came alive. And when it needed it most to complete a comeback win, the third turnover of the game put the final spike through the Vikings' heart and playoff hopes. They ended the season with an 8-8 record, a two-game improvement over last year, but with plenty of personnel questions to answer – and the most important one being with a quarterback whose second season ended with another game full of ups and downs.


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