Vikings coach Mike Tice said that anyone who follows the NFL knows that teams need to make hay after Thanksgiving. The Vikings started their baling process Sunday at the Metrodome with a 27-16 win over Jacksonville.
The game featured the return of wide receiver Randy Moss to the starting lineup and the ouster of center Matt Birk after surgery Friday to repair a sports hernia. Despite playing three backup offensive linemen for much of the game, the Vikings held the lead most of the second half and finally got a big defensive play at the end of the game to seal the win.
The Vikings were holding onto a 20-16 lead late in the fourth quarter with Jacksonville at the Minnesota 19-yard line when rookie Kenechi Udeze sacked Jacksonville QB Byron Leftwich and stripped the ball. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams scooped up the ball and rumbled 77 yards for the touchdown, giving the Vikings a 27-16 win and starting their stretch push for the playoffs.
While Moss returned to the starting lineup, he was limited in how he could be used and finished the game with four catches for 40 yards, but his biggest catch was a 2-yard touchdown in traffic in the back of the end zone.
Onterrio Smith carried the rushing load with 20 rushes for 72 yards, and Daunte Culpepper finished with 19 completions on 27 attempts for 235 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
For Jacksonville, running back Fred Taylor amassed 147 yards on 22 carries, helping ease the return of Leftwich into the Jaguars' starting lineup.
Taylor started moving the chains on Jacksonville’s first drive with an 18-yard run when he put a moved on Udeze and got to the outside. On third-and-7, Jimmy Smith beat Antoine Winfield with a stop move for 9 yards, and on third-and-13 Troy Edwards beat Corey Chavous for 18 yards. But on the final third-down play of the opening drive, Edwards got the first down by one yard, but when he was hit by Brian Williams the ball popped loose and Dontarrious Thomas recovered on the 20-yard line.
The Vikings offense came out with Moss in the lineup, but his presence wouldn’t be felt until the fourth play. On the second play, Jermaine Wiggins had clear sailing in front of him on a 21-yard pass play. On the third play, Kelly Campbell took a reverse 16 yards, and on the fourth play Moss caught an 11-pass on a comeback route. One play later, Onterrio Smith picked up 11 yards and the Vikings were driving with authority. But that was the last first down the Vikings picked up on the drive. Morten Andersen gave them a 3-0 lead with a 25-yard field goal with 6:32 left in the first quarter.
After an exchange of punts, that lead held until the second quarter — at least the second play of the second quarter. The Jaguars needed only five plays to cover 60 yards and take a 7-3 lead with 13:39 to play in the first half. They started with an 11-yard Taylor run and a 13-yard pass to Taylor. After Taylor and wide receiver Jimmy Smith combined for 10 yards on the next two plays, Leftwich and Taylor executed a beautiful play-action fake. Shortly after stopping the defenders, Leftwich pulled up and hit tight end Brian Jones for his first career touchdown, a 26-yarder down the right sideline.
The Vikings continued to let momentum meander in Jacksonville’s favor when Culpepper followed with an interception on the second play of their ensuing drive, and when safety Donovin Darius returned it to the 20-yard the Jaguars were within field position. Three plays later, Josh Scobee delivered a 33-yarder for a 10-3 lead.
This time the Vikings answered. On the second play of the drive, Culpepper saw Campbell had a step advantage on Dewayne Washington down the left sideline for a 48-yard bomb. The Vikings followed that with four consecutive runs to move the ball from the 28-yard line to the 15, where Culpepper rolled out on second down and flipped a pass to Smith for 10 yards. After a 4-yard run from Smith, Culpepper took the sneak into the end zone to tie the game at 10 with 5:08 to play in the first half.
The Jaguars countered with more of Taylor. Starting at the 40-yard line after a kickoff out of bounds, Taylor carried twice in the first four plays for 23 yards. Jacksonville eventually worked the ball into field goal position, and Scobee delivered a 32-yarder to take a 13-10 lead.
With 1:09 to play, the Vikings drove into field goal position. It started with a 20-yard pass to Marcus Robinson, followed by five straight passes — to Wiggins for 7, Smith for 5, Moss for 15, Smith for 3 and Wiggins for 10 to the 25-yard line. From there, Morten Andersen brought the teams to halftime tied at 13 with a 33-yard field goal.
The Vikings took the lead to open the second half. They went on a dominating drive that took 80 yards, went 16 plays and took 9 minutes, 26 seconds. Only one play, a 17-yard pass to Wiggins on third down, went for more than 9 yards, and Moss finished the deal with a 2-yard diving catch in traffic in the back of the end zone for a 20-13 lead with only 5:34 left in the third quarter.
After an exchange of punts, Jacksonville drew to within four points. Once again, Taylor was the chain mover. He started with a 31-yard run, but after that the Vikings allowed only one more first down before the Jaguars settled for a 42-yard Scobee field goal to make it 20-16.
Minnesota was looking for a big answering drive and got into scoring position. Culpepper started with a 12-yard pass to Robinson, then found Moss for 12 more. Robinson moved it across midfield with an 11-yard reception, and Burleson caught a 15-yarder to move the ball to the 24-yard line. However, on third down, defensive end Bobby McCray broke through and blindsided Culpepper to knock the ball loose and Marcus Stroud recovered with 7:46 to play.
After 11 plays, the Vikings came away with no points. But the favor quickly would be returned. After driving 79 yards, the Jaguars turned the ball over as well. On their 11th play of the drive, Udeze chopped down on Leftwich’s arm to force a fumble. Kevin Williams picked up the ball and rumbled 77 yards for the decisive touchdown, giving Minnesota the winning 27-16 score at the two-minute warning.
In a game that featured Moss’ return, it was defense that made the final statement. The Minnesota defense allowed another 100-yard rusher, but it also made the big play at the end of the game when it had to.
Now the Vikings will wait until Monday night to find out if they will continue to share the division lead with Green Bay or if they can go back on top by one game.