Vikings coach Mike Tice has done a complete about-face from last year to this year. Last year, Tice didn’t trust his young players enough to go into Chicago with any other game plan than to run the ball early and often, keeping his suspect defense off the field as much as possible.
This year, Tice insisted he wasn’t going to hold back his horses, and no game was referred to more in that context than when his Vikings were going to travel to Chicago. Sunday was the moment of truth.
The Vikings didn’t hold back their offense, but the mistakes made by that more aggressive game plan resulted in three interceptions and several golden scoring opportunities going to waste. The net result was a 24-14 loss in Chicago, a sight that is becoming too familiar in this division rivalry.
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper had little trouble moving the ball, throwing for 279 yards and picking up another 50 on the ground to go with Onterrio Smith’s 79 yards rushing. But Culpepper’s three interceptions wasted golden scoring opportunities and eventually were major contributors in the loss.
Also responsible was the Vikings allowing Chicago’s Chad Hutchinson to pass for 213 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions despite him making his first start since the end of the 2002 season and sacking him five times. A first-quarter ankle injury to star cornerback Antoine Winfield also didn’t help, and neither did the fact that Randy Moss still didn’t make the game-changing plays the Vikings have become reliant on.
The Vikings opened by holding the Bears to only one first down on a 26-yard reverse by Bernard Berrian. The Vikings offense moved the ball more effectively, starting with a 23-yard pass to Nate Burleson, who also picked up the next first down with an end-around for 10 yards. Culpepper then went to Moss for 13 yards and another first down, but one play later Culpepper threw high and slightly behind Burleson and Jerry Azumah wrangled in the deflection and returned the interception 52 yards to the Vikings 37-yard line.
That prime field position allowed a few big third-down plays to break the Vikings defense. On third-and-7, Thomas Jones exploded for 16 yards to the 18-yard line. Once again, the Vikings had the Bears backed up on third down — third-and-16, but Hutchinson found Justin Gage splitting the zone for 19 yards. Finally, on third-and-goal from the 6, Desmond Clark got open in the right flat for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead over Minnesota with 4:47 left in the first quarter.
The Vikings responded with another solid drive, but this one ended with a touchdown, not an interception. Jermaine Wiggins got the chains moving with a 29-yard reception down the right sideline, followed by an 11-yard scramble from Culpepper. One play later, Smith burst between blocks from Bryant McKinnie and Sean Berton for 26 yards to the 2-yard line. However, after two passing attempts yielded an incompletion on a bobbled pass to Moss and a sack, Culpepper connected with Burleson for a 4-yard touchdown to knot the game 7-7 with 1:19 left in the first quarter.
The Vikings sustained two losses on Chicago’s next drive. Besides giving up a score, on the second play of the drive they lost cornerback Antoine Winfield to a left ankle injury. Over the next three plays, Jones ran for a combined 28 yards. Without Winfield, the passing game suffered too. On consecutive passes, Hutchinson hooked up for 19 yards with David Terrell and 11 yards to Gage. But following a 10-yard sack by Kevin Williams, Terrell dropped a perfect third-down pass, forcing the Bears to settle for a 53-yard Paul Edinger field goal and a 10-7 lead.
The Vikings took their third consecutive drive deep into Bears territory, but, like the first drive, an interception ended their threat. Minnesota picked up the initial first down of the drive with an offside penalty, followed by consecutive first downs on a 14-yard pass to Marcus Robinson, a 20-yard run by Smith and a 10-yard run by Culpepper. Just like that, the Vikings were in the red zone, and a 2-yard dive by Moe Williams set them up at first-and-goal on the 4-yard line. Like the first drive, the Bears defense ended this one with an interception when Brian Urlacher dropped in coverage and went high for the pick and a 47-yard return.
After allowing one first down, the defense stiffened and forced Edinger onto the field for a 52-yard attempt, but this time the kicker whom the Vikings pursued in the offseason left it short.
The Vikings quickly took advantage of the good position. Smith picked up 9 yards on a screen pass and, one play later, Moss picked up 9 on third down. On the next play, Culpepper launched a 40-yard bomb to Robinson in the back of the end zone for a 14-10 lead with 2:23 to play.
But even the Bears’ anemic offense could take advantage of the time left and a defense sans Winfield. Hutchinson hit Desmond Clark for 12 yards and Bobby Wade for 31 yards for first downs, as Chicago appeared intent on picking on Derek Ross, Winfield’s replacement. After an 11-yard pass to Clark and a 10-yard pass to Terrell, the Bears went back to Terrell on third-and-6 from the 15-yard line. Ross slipped and Terrell had an easy touchdown for a 17-14 Chicago lead, a lead it would take to halftime 22 seconds later and never surrender.
After an exchange of punts, the game turned hairy. Cornerbck Charles Tillman struck against Moss once again. This year, Tillman stripped Moss after a reception and safety Mike Green recovered.
That put the Vikings defense on a short field on the 14-yard line. But after a sack and, one play later, a strip of Chad Hutchinson by Lance Johnstone and the recovery from Kevin Williams, the offense was back at it.
The Vikings drove 15 plays deep into Chicago territory once again. But for the third time in the game, they got there but couldn’t come away with points. This time it wasn’t an interception but a partially blocked field goal attempt by Marc Colombo that ended the Vikings’ drive scoreless.
The Bears continued to mix it up with Hutchinson, with a 12-yard pass to Bobby Wade picking up the initial first down. After a 19-yard pass to Clark, a heavy dose of power running back Anthony Thomas picked up gains of 6, 5, 3, 17 and 2 yards to the 1-yard line. But after a muffed snap and attempted handoff on second down, Hutchinson found backup fullback Jason McKie on third down for a 5-yard TD and a 24-14 Bears lead with 10:23 to play in the game.
The Vikings offense stalled out before midfield, but facing fourth-and-5 from the 49-yard line, the Vikings snapped the ball to Brian Russell in a form of a fake punt. Russell avoided pressure and scrambled to find an open receiver. After finding none, he ran, dove and came up inches short of the first down.
The Bears settled into the running game behind Thomas to pick up one first down before turning the ball over on downs with 3:41 remaining.
In a game full of errors, the Vikings needed 10 points in short order, requiring an error-free ending. Instead, the theme of the game continued — the Vikings drove into Bears territory and threw an interception. This one came at the hands of Azumah again and effectively iced the 24-14 win for Chicago.
The Vikings fall to 7-5 and created a more crowded playoff scenario. They are still in contention for a division title, but they just reduced their margin for error.