Darren Sharper is used to making big plays, but on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, his biggest opportunity slipped through his hands … and between his legs.
With less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter and Atlanta leading 17-7, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan dropped to pass from the Minnesota 5-yard line and scrambled to his left, looking for the end zone. As Ryan dove for the goal line, linebackers Chad Greenway and Ben Leber converged and Ryan fumbled the ball at the 1-yard line.
Sharper, the NFL's active interceptions leader with 54, saw the ball come out immediately and, as it crossed the goal line, he looked to scoop it up on the run.
"If it's around me, I should make (the play). It spit out. I was running to it, just didn't get it," said a dejected Sharper after the game.
The ball bounced past his hands, through his legs and further into the end zone.
"The ball bounces funny, but that's still no excuse. If I can get my hands on it – done it before, should have picked it up and would have scored," said Sharper who had just scooped up a fumble the previous week in Arizona and returned it 20 yards.
Instead, after Sharper's miss, cornerback Cedric Griffin dove for the ball and he missed it, too. Falcons offensive lineman Justin Blalock ended up with it for a touchdown and a 24-7 lead.
"The ball just seemed to gravitate toward me," Blalock said. "I have strong hands and no leverage. You get down there and just start leaning on people and good things happen.
Sharper was confident that if he had recovered the ball, he would have been on his way to a 101-yard touchdown.
"If I have clear sailing, where nobody's around me, then I figured I had it right there, I'm going to try to pick it up," he said. "Nobody was around it. He dove and the ball came out. No one was around him."
Vikings coach Brad Childress said the team was talking about getting a turnover at that point. They had their opportunity, but Sharper and Griffin failed to come up with the recovery.
"We had a chance to fall on it. And we were talking turnover there. We weren't talking holding them to three. We were talking about getting the ball turned over," Childress said. "Once again, an opportunity, but you have to make the most of that opportunity there and fall on that ball. That's a huge swing right there."
Sharper didn't seem to regret trying to "scoop and score," as he so often talks about. He does regret whiffing while attempting the "scoop" portion of the task.
And he's fully well aware what a Vikings touchdown in that situation might have meant – a three-point deficit instead of a 17-point deficit.
"Big difference. Momentum swinger. That's a momentum changer right there," he said.
Instead, the Falcons maintained momentum – and a big lead – heading into the fourth quarter.
By that time, the Vikings offense and special teams had already fumbled the ball six times, losing four of them. The defense lost out on its best opportunity to force on Atlanta turnover.
"We need to do more things to create turnovers. If our offense has a game in which they turn the ball over, we need to match and turn the ball over from their offense," Sharper said.
That didn't happen, and the Vikings' four-game winning streak came screeching to halt.
"It's not about just winning and getting in," Sharper said. "It's about winning at the end of the season so you go into the playoffs on a positive note. This was not a positive not for us."
Sharper blames himself, but not approach
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