The hot seat for Brad Childress may have cooled just in time, as his offense heated up in the fourth quarter of a 30-27 Vikings win over the New Orleans Saints Monday night.
In a nationally televised game that can only be described as bizarre, the Vikings fell behind 7-0 early but used a series of turnovers, returns, trick plays and big plays to propel themselves to a 20-10 halftime lead. But it wouldn't be so easy. With two punt returns for touchdowns by Saints sensation Reggie Bush, New Orleans roared back to a 27-20 lead with 11:36 to play in the game.
And, just when it looked like it might be over, the Vikings offense came to life. Quarterback Gus Frerotte endured a big hit to complete a 36-yard pass to Bernard Berrian. Three snaps later, Frerotte completed another third-down pass to Berrian for a 34-yard touchdown that tied the game 27-27 with 7:10 to play.
Once again, it looked like the Saints were in a position to win the game when quarterback Drew Brees drove them down the field and used more than 5 minutes of game clock to put Martin Gramatica in position for a 46-yard, go-ahead field goal. Instead, Gramatica pulled the kick wide left and the Vikings had life.
Three plays into his final drive of the night, Frerotte went back to Berrian, who drew an obvious 42-yard pass interference penalty on safety Kevin Kaesviharn that put Ryan Longwell in position for a 30-yard, game-winning field goal. Longwell was true with 13 seconds left and the Vikings improved to 2-3 with the three-point win.
The Vikings endured several special-teams coverage gaffes that included two kick returns of more than 40 yards and Bush's two punt returns for touchdowns that went 64 and 71 yards in the second half. The defense also withstood 330 yards passing from Brees, but limited him to one touchdown and intercepted him twice – half of his season total entering the game.
In a hard-hitting game, the offense also weathered a 21-carry, 32-yard rushing performance from Adrian Peterson with 222 yards passing from Frerotte – who was knocked out of the game for one play in the fourth-quarter, game-tying drive – and Berrian's 110-yard, one-touchdown performance.
Sound strange enough? Not quite.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield continued his big-play season with a blocked field goal return for a touchdown and another sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery that he nearly returned for another touchdown.
So what did it all mean? It kept the Vikings only one game out of first place in the NFC North division, trailing 3-2 Chicago, and may keep the Coaching Turk at bay for at least another week, as Childress has faced mounting pressure to win this season with $63 million in guaranteed money to free agents this offseason.
The down side for the Vikings in this game, obviously, was poor special-teams coverage and it started early.
It was a combination of bad special teams and poor pass coverage that led to the Saints scoring on the opening drive. Pierre Thomas broke contain around the left side of the wedge and returned the opening kickoff 56 yards to the Minnesota 47-yard line. From there, it was vintage Brees. The Saints ran three times, but one of them was an end-around and another was a Brees scramble. It was his arm that led to the touchdown, a 17-yarder to Devery Henderson that hit a seam in the zone between the linebacker and safety Tyrell Johnson.
The Vikings responded with a drive into New Orleans territory, with Frerotte hitting Visanthe Shiancoe for 12 yards and Berrian for 13, but instead of going for what would have been a 54-yard field goal or the first down on third-and-6 at the 36-yard line, the Vikings opted for a punt from the 36-yard line that netted 16 yards when Chris Kluwe kicked it to the 1-yard line and it bounced into the end zone.
Brees and the explosive Saints offense wasn't content to work clock. Instead, he went deep on the first play and completed a 52-yard bomb down the middle of the field, but after getting to the 19-yard line the drive stalled and the Vikings were the benefactor of their first momentum-change play. Kevin Williams blocked Martin Gramatica's 46-yard field goal attempt and the ball flew right into the waiting arms of Winfield, whose legs were ready as well. He brought the ball back 59 yards for another improbable Winfield return to tie the game at 7-7.
The Saints had similar success driving the ball across midfield on their ensuing drive. Brees completed three straight passes for a combined 24 yards, and Bush took a carry 10 yards to the 17-yard line. This time when the drive stalled, Gramatica converted on the 35-yard field goal to retake the lead, 10-7.
The Saints tried to get tricky an onside kick, a move that backfired when Garrett Mills recovered on the 40-yard line, allowing Longwell to convert on a 53-yard field despite the offense failing to pick up a first down. Game tied 10-10.
On the first play of the second quarter, Brees dropped to pass and Winfield waited for tight end Billy Miller to go on a pass route. When he didn't, Winfield blitzed Brees, sacked him and ended up with the ball again, a similar play to the one he executed against Jake Delhomme two weeks ago for a touchdown. This time, Winfield was brought down on the 5-yard line. After going backwards on two consecutive runs, the Vikings got a third-down break when Will Smith was offside before an incompletion. On the next play, Chester Taylor took a carry to the right and pulled up to throw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Shiancoe for a 17-10 Vikings lead.
The Vikings defense created yet another turnover on New Orleans' next drive. After another long kickoff return and two more Brees passes put the Saints in Vikings territory, linebacker Chad Greenway got away with the facemask and punched the ball out of Bush's grasp, a fumble that Johnson recovered.
While the Vikings couldn't score on that drive, the defense set them up again. Yes, the Saints drove into Minnesota territory with completions of 22 yards to tight end Mark Campbell, 18 and 21 yards to Bush and 21 yards to Robert Meachem. But when Lance Moore bobble a pass, linebacker Ben Leber grabbed the ball for an interception, setting up one more chance for the Vikings offense.
Without the explosiveness of the Saints offense, the Vikings were methodical in the final 3:24 of the first half. Frerotte picked up first downs with completions of 9 yards and 17 yards to Bobby Wade. But the Vikings continued to get the breaks when Peterson appeared to fumble the ball after picking up a first down. However, a strange ruling after the review kept Minnesota in possession, and Wade picked up another first down with a 7-yard reception. With less than 30 seconds to go, Frerotte completed another first down with a 13-yard pass to Aundrae Allison. Three plays later, Longwell kicked a 33-yard field goal with four seconds left to give the Vikings a 20-10 lead at halftime.
For all the exciting plays of the first half, the second half started with three punts and no more than one first down on any of the first three drives. But it was the fifth punt of the half – the third for the Vikings – that was a potential backbreaker. Bush fielded Kluwe's punt at the 29-yard line, slipped a Vinny Ciurciu tackle attempt while cutting back to the right, picked up two huge blocks and was gone for a 71-yard touchdown, drawing New Orleans within three points.
One stalled Vikings drive later and the Saints were back in Vikings territory after a 29-yard punt return to the 49-yard line. With a 15-yard completion from Brees to Henderson, Gramatica was in position for a 53-yard field goal, one he knocked through the uprights to tie the game 20-20 with 13:26 to play.
With another three-and-out – the second in a row by the Vikings offense – a punt was in the air to Bush again. This time, he planted his right foot, cut up the middle, slipping a tackle attempt by Erin Henderson, and sprinted 64 yards to tie an NFL record with his second punt return for a touchdown to give the Saints a 27-20 lead with 11:36 to play.
But Frerotte wouldn't let the Vikings die. Taking a big hit while releasing the ball, he got enough on a pass to Berrian to yield a 36-yard gain. While the quarterback was knocked from the game for one play, he returned to turn third-and-17 into a 34-yard touchdown to Berrian to tie the game, 27-27, with 7:10 to play.
Brees wasn't done yet, either, and converted third-and-7 with a 41-yard pass play to Miller. That put the Saints in potential field goal range, but Gramatica pulled his 46-yard attempt wide left to keep the game knotted.
With decent field position at their own 37-yard line, the Vikings mustered two short gains but went for the big shot on third-and-3. Frerotte stood in the pocket and lofted a bomb for Berrian that drew an easy pass interference call on Kaesviharn at the 14-yard line to set up Longwell's winning field goal with 13 seconds left.
It certainly didn't come easy in the Big Easy, but the Vikings escaped with the Big Win.
Win is big, not easy in Big Easy
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