In the end, the Vikings (6-10) finished with one more win in the 2002 season with a younger roster and revised coaching staff than they did in the 2001 season. But it wasn't easy … at least on defense.
Minnesota ended the season with a three-game winning streak on a 38-36 win in Detroit, but it was a game that saw four touchdowns in the first quarter and, although slowing up slightly, the scoring continued for the rest of the game.
Daunte Culpepper finished with 312 yards passing, connecting on 19 of 28 passes, including two passing touchdowns and an additional 2-yard run. The Vikings also added an interception for a touchdown by Corey Chavous and two other interceptions.
But when they weren't intercepting the ball, the defense did yield yards to replacement quarterback Mike McMahon. And some of the same issues that plagued the Vikings much of year continued to rise up. They didn't manage the clock well in the end, kicking a field goal with 1:09 to play but failing to take the final 15 seconds off the play clock. It would prove decisive when Detroit scored with 13 seconds remaining. And the Vikings did fumble, one coming on a pitch to Michael Bennett, another on a pitch to Randy Moss and the most hurtful a fumble by Culpepper in the end zone that Detroit recovered for a touchdown.
Through it all, though, the Vikings managed to shut down the Lions on four consecutive downs on the Minnesota goal line and batted down two two-point conversion attempts by McMahon, spelling the final margin of victory.
The biggest fear of facing a desperate coach is that he'll take chances he might not normally be inclined to risk. The Vikings took some chances in their last couple wins, going for it on fourth downs and going for a two-point conversion instead of an extra point to send the New Orleans game to overtime.
With Marty Mornhinweg likely looking for employment in a week after two seasons with Detroit, he was so inclined to take chances against the Vikings.
He did that on the Lions' first drive of the game. Facing fourth-and-1 at midfield, Mornhinweg not only went for the first down but he also called for a reverse, one that kick returner-wide receiver Eddie Drummond took 23 yards. After McMahon, starting for injured rookie Joey Harrington, picked up a first down with a 6-yard draw, McMahon set up a nice screen pass to Aveion Cason, who took it to the end zone from 23 yards out.
The Vikings answered with an extensive drive, 14 plays, for a touchdown, converting three third downs with the longest play an 11-yard run by Culpepper for the final first-down conversion. The quarterback capped the drive, too, with a beautiful fake toss to Bennett to the left. Culpepper hid the ball on his hip for a second and took off running right for a 2-yard touchdown to tie the game, 7-7, with 3:53 left in the first quarter.
But that would only be half of the first-quarter scoring.
On Detroit's second play of its next drive, McMahon threw to Rafeal Cooper, who had the ball hit off his pads. Cornerback Brian Williams tipped the ball and Corey Chavous executed the tip drill to perfection, catching the ball in stride and running 42 yards untouched for a 14-7 Vikings lead with 3 minutes to play in the first quarter.
McMahon, however, was undeterred. He started the ensuring drive with a 46-yard bomb to Bill Schroeder, one that looked like it could have been intercepted by Jack Brewer, who wasn't looking for the ball. Three plays to James Stewart put the ball on the 16-yard line, and, facing third-and-11, McMahon found Schroeder over the middle for a touchdown and a 14-14 tie to close out the first quarter.
The Vikings continued the streak of touchdowns on every possession to that point with a more explosive drive. Needing 12 yards on third down, Culpepper had plenty of time in the pocket and found Randy Moss deep down the left sideline for 55 yards. From there, Bennett did the rest, reeling off runs of 14 and 9 yards before a 2-yard dive put the Vikings on top 21-14 with 11:49 left in the first half.
Detroit drove to midfield, but the Vikings eventually forced the first punt of the game and wouldn't let the Lions' slowdown on offense affect their own offense. Minnesota again dug an early hole after Bennett fumbled a pitch from Culpepper, but, needing 17 yards on second down, Culpepper found D'Wayne Bates cutting deep across the middle of the field. By the time Bates was done weaving through the defense he had picked up 59 yards. On the next play Culpepper found Moss for 19 yards, and the Vikings were on the 13-yard line looking for their fourth touchdown of the first half. After a 3-yard run by Jim Kleinsasser, Culpepper fired a missile to Kelly Campbell, running a drag route behind Moss, and the Vikings had a 28-14 lead with 5:54 left in the half.
With Detroit looking to make a statement behind McMahon, the Lions killed themselves for the second straight drive with a costly penalty on a play where Schroeder picked up huge yardage (this time it was a 37-yarder called back, on the previous drive a 43-yarder was called back). Even so, facing thiird-and-12, McMahon found Schroeder for 32 yards, getting the ball to the Minnesota 36-yard line. After passes to of 12 yards to Stewart and 7 yards to Cory Schlesinger, the drive stalled — forcing Detroit to settle for the final points of the first half in the form of a 37-yard Jason Hanson field goal. With that, the teams entered halftime with the Vikings leading 28-17.
The Vikings opened the second half with a controlled, effective drive starting at the 26-yard line, but after four positive gains, Culpepper got greedy and underthrew Moss down the left sideline. As the ball floated to the inside to the middle of the field Andre Goodman came down with the interception at the 5-yard line.
The Lions drove the length of the field behind two receptions by Schroeder and three rushes by Stewart, but the big play came when McMahon went for Schroeder and Tyrone Carter held his arm for a 20-yard pass interference penalty to the Vikings 20-yard line. McMahon scrambled to the 3-yard line, and after encroachment the Lions were sitting with the ball on the 1-yard line on first down. It took four downs for Detroit to prove why they haven't been able to win games this season. They went like this: incompletion to Larry Foster, no gain for Stewart, incompletion to John Owens and incompletion to Matt Murphy.
With that, the Vikings took over on the 1-yard line and promptly gave the Lions defense the touchdown their offense couldn't come up with. When Culpepper's throwing arm was hit in the end zone on first down, he fumbled and Robert Porcher pounced on the ball for the touchdown, bringing the Lions deficit to 28-24 with 5:41 left in the third quarter.
But after throwing an interception and fumbling in the end zone on back-to-back offensive plays, Culpepper rebounded. He picked up 18 yards on a pass to Kleinsasser on third-and-12. On second down, he found Kleinsasser again for 11 yards to the Detroit 43-yard line. Then Culpepper scrambled for 16 yards and, despite a bad decision to pitch to Moss for a fumble (one that Moss recovered), the quarterback showed the highs and lows of his game. On the next play, he hit Campbell in stride in the back of the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown pass — Campbell's second of the game — and a 35-24 lead with 58 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Detroit got near midfield, but Brian Williams ended the Lions' drive when he jumped on a pass route and intercepted the ball.
The Vikings couldn't capitalize, however. After a 17-yard pass to Moss and a roughing call, the Vikings were on the Detroit 19-yard line. But when Corey Harris came through for a 6-yard sack and Gary Anderson attempted a 43-yard field goal, it was blocked. That was just the start of a wild play between two losing teams. Lyght picked up the ball at the 25-yard line and ran 75 yards for a touchdown. The play was called back because of a called chop block by Jimmy Wyrick on holder Kyle Richardson. Mornhinweg was incensed and spike the red flag to challenge the call. Although unreviewable, the officials huddled and overturned the call, saying Wyrick went to start the block high and fell low. That decision allowed the touchdown, but Mornhinweg was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for his adamant throwing of the challenge flag. Trailing by five points, the Lions went for two points and failed when Brewer knocked down the pass, keeping the Vikings in the lead, 35-30, with 10:56 to play.
Minnesota got to midfield, but this time it was forced to punt. Detroit followed suit, getting to midfield, but Eric Kelly ended that drive with an interception at the 27-yard line with 7:49 to play.
The Vikings took over and realized an extended, time-consuming drive could give them the win. They nearly executed it to perfection, but there were two stumbling blocks at the end of the drive. They got across midfield with a 24-yard pass to Campbell and got in scoring position — to the 9-yard line — with a 26-yard cutback run by Moe Williams. They continued to keep the ball on the ground, with Williams running three times, but on the last attempt he needed 1 yard for the touchdown and got none. That was the first stumbling block. Then came the field goal. Although Anderson knocked the 18-yarder through with 1:09 to play, the ball was snapped with 15 seconds left on the play clock.
The Vikings had a 38-30 lead, but the Lions quickly moved the ball. After two incompletions, McMahon scrambled 22 yards to the Minnesota 39-yard line. The Lions spiked the ball with 36 seconds left, then McMahon found Scotty Anderson for 20 yards with 18 seconds remaining. On the next play, McMahon hit Anderson with 13 seconds left for a touchdown, bringing the Lions within two points. But either a bad pass route or a bad throw fell harmlessly to the ground, and the Vikings had their third straight win, 38-36, to close out the 2002 season.
Ahead of them are numerous coaching and player personnel decisions to be made before Feb. 28's start to free agency. But at least they have a positive feeling heading into the offseason — with $25 million to spend and a young, emerging nucleus to build around.
Season-Ending Streak Comes With 38-36 Win
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