NFL teams often talk about being just a few plays away from a win. In a 12-point, 26-14 loss, the Vikings can count those plays on two fingers.
One, Tarvaris Jackson's first-half interception that was returned for a touchdown. Two, Brian Westbrook's fourth-quarter, back-breaking screen pass in which he wove through rush-hour traffic for a 71-yard touchdown.
First, Jackson's only interception that proved to be a huge one.
On the play, Jackson was facing third-and-4 from his own 35-yard line and the pressure was coming. He needed to get rid of the ball early and made the decision to release it early and softer on a comeback route to Sidney Rice. In retrospect …
"I probably would have thrown it a little harder, but I tried to throw it early and take a little off of it in order to give him a chance to run his route," Jackson said. "I probably should have put it on him a little harder or maybe come back-side. I thought it was the right read, I felt, but I just have to make a better throw."
Cornerback Asante Samuel, who now has an NFL record four interceptions returned for touchdowns in the playoffs, read the receiver and quarterback and made his break on the sideline pass. Once in position, the actual interception was easy. And with only Jackson standing in the way between him and the end zone, Samuel picked up a monster block from DE Trent Cole that lifted Jackson high in the air before being thrown to the ground to add injury to insult.
"Did you see that? That was incredible," Samuel said of the block at the goal line. "I was waiting to see if I had to cut right or left and he just jacked him up and slammed him. He had him about seven feet off the ground. So that was a hell of a block."
On the Eagles offense, Brian Westbrook should know about big blocks and reading them.
While Samuel's interception gave the Eagles a 16-7 lead, their biggest of the first half, Westbrook's screen pass that he took for a score was the touchdown that sealed it for Philadelphia.
"I thought that our receivers and tight ends did an excellent job of softening up the coverage, which led us to be very effective in the screen game," quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "It was the first screen that we ran all game and it exploded into probably the most important play of the game."
Timing was the key.
The Eagles were known for throwing screens Westbrook's way, and up until that point the Vikings had shut him down – especially in the running game. He finished the game with only 38 yards on 20 carries.
The Vikings were finding success in blitzing McNabb, but this time the Eagles used the defensive aggressiveness against Minnesota.
"For the most part, they had been pressuring us the whole game with the linebackers and so we called that play at exactly the right time," Westbrook said. "The offensive line did a great job of getting out and making some blocks and Correll (Buckhalter) threw a great block and my receivers escorted me to the end zone. You have nine, 10 guys blocking like that, you're going to have some success.
"I think a lot of teams have been taking it away. We kind of lulled them to sleep a little bit. We did a good job of getting out there on the screen and executing."
Childress said one of the defensive linemen fell trying to get to McNabb. After that, it was all Westbrook picking his way through a maze of defenders and blockers.
Antoine Winfield, as sure of a tackler as cornerbacks come, couldn't quite reach him early with a diving attempt.
"All I saw was him and three linemen in front of him. He did a good job of weaving downfield for a touchdown," Winfield said. "That's the only way we knew they were going to hurt us, with the passing game and completing those short passes. We didn't really fear their run. We knew they weren't going to try and run against us. He does a good job (and) they set it up well. They made the plays."
Some defenders felt it was the perfect call at the perfect time. Others thought they had a defensive call that would have allowed them to make the play.
"We had the call to combat it," linebacker Ben Leber said. "I think we just have to make the play. I wish we could go back and play it over."
In reality, stopping Westbrook when he has some room to work is a tough task. It was the only time he really got free, but it was enough to propel the Eagles further into the playoffs and send the Vikings home early.
"We needed it. We haven't utilized the screen game much prior to that," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "They were flying up the field and Brian hit that sun of a gun. He got a little blocking out there and then he hit it. He is tough to stop once he gets out there."
Two plays – one interception and one screen pass that went all the way – proved to be too much for the Vikings to overcome.
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