Dwight Smith (AP/Bill Kostroun)
The Vikings followed up their 2005 NFL-record performance in the Meadowlands with another big win that celebrated three returns for touchdowns, this time all of them coming on interception returns in a 41-17 rout of the New York Giants.
The recent history between the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants in the Meadowlands is thick despite the two teams not being in the same division. In 2001, the Giants started the downfall of the Dennis Green era with a 41-0 win in the NFC Championship. In 2005, the Vikings set an NFL record by becoming the only team in league history to score on an interception return, punt return and kickoff return all in the same game and won that contest 24-21 despite not scoring an offensive touchdown.
Sunday was another chapter in the bizarre book of games between these two teams in the new century.
The Vikings returned three of their four interceptions of Eli Manning for touchdowns – nearly tying another NFL record – en route to their 41-17 rout of the Giants.
It was a win that had former Giants fans turned Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf smiling on the sidelines and sprinting to congratulate players, it marked the first two-game winning streak since October 2006, and it put the 5-6 Vikings back in contention for a wild card playoff spot – a notion that seemed utterly inconceivable only two weeks ago after a 34-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
The Vikings managed to upend the Giants with interception-return touchdowns of 20 yards by Darren Sharper in the first quarter, 93 yards by Dwight Smith in the fourth quarter and 37 yards by Chad Greenway less than a minute after Smith's, leaving the Vikings one interception return for a touchdown short of the NFL’s single-game record.
In the absence of rookie running sensation Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor ground out 77 hard yards on 31 carries and Tarvaris Jackson completed 10 of only 12 passes for 129 yards, but thanks to early touchdowns on offense and defense and a 24-10 halftime lead, the Vikings didn’t need to get aggressive with their offense.
It couldn’t have started much better for Minnesota. While the offense dusted off a play trying to take advantage of their first play last week, faking the end around to Sidney Rice and then handing off for no gain, the second play was a home run. Jackson looked off the single deep safety to the left and then thew for Rice down the right sideline for a 60-yard touchdown 41 seconds into the game for a 7-0 lead.
However, the Vikings defense allowed the Giants to pick them apart on New York’s first drive. It was the Droughns and Manning show early, with Reuben Droughns rushing five times for 23 yards and Manning connecting with Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey for 20 yards each. But once inside the red zone, it was all Droughns, who carried the ball four times, including the final 1-yard plunge to tie the game with 9:25 to play in the first quarter.
The offense returned to the field to pick up two first downs – one with 9 yards of fumble recovery yardage when Bobby Wade recovered a fumble during an Osi Umeyiora sack of Jackson. Wade picked up another first down with a 9-yard reception three plays later, but the Vikings eventually punted from the Giants 37-yard line to pin Manning on the 10-yard line.
Three plays later, Darren Sharper gave Minnesota the lead with a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:15 to play in the opening quarter, bringing back shades of 2005, when Sharper intercepted three Manning passes, including one that he returned for a touchdown.
The defense went right back out and allowed a 31-yard pass to Amani Toomer before the Giants turned the ball over on the downs in Vikings territory.
Jackson and the Minnesota offense picked up two more first downs, but defensive end Osi Umenyiora ended the drive with a 2-yard sack that forced a punt.
Three plays later, Smith was setting up the offense with an interception that he returned 19 yards to the 8-yard line. It took only one play for Chester Taylor to turn that into a tackle-breaking, cutback touchdown run to give the Vikings a 21-7 lead with 9:49 left in the first half.
The Vikings had struck through the air, on the ground and with their defense, but as the game began to settle down, they needed to sustain momentum. They did that with the defense holding the Giants without a first down for the fourth consecutive drive, and the Vikings offense had another opportunity.
Staring from his own 35-yard line, Jackson handed off to Taylor for 3 yards, then connected with him for an 11-yard screen to get near midfield. Jackson then found Rice for 13 and 9 yards on two of the next three plays as the Vikings moved into the green zone. Former Viking Fred Robbins ended the advancement with a sack, but Ryan Longwell extended Minnesota’s lead to 24-7 with a 46-yard field goal with 3:16 to play in the half, a lead that held up until the teams went to the locker room to the booing Giants Stadium crowd.
The Giants opened the second half showing fewer dropped passes and mistakes. They were able to covert a third down with a 24-yard pass to Amani Toomer and let quicker running back Ahmad Bradshaw get to the edge with an 11-yard run on the next play. Two plays later, Shockey picked up the third and final first down of the drive with an 11-yard reception, but three straight incompletions forced Lawrence Tynes onto the field for a 48-yard field goal to make it 24-10.
But the game would turn dramatically and convincingly in the Vikings’ favor after that.
Jackson’s ability to scramble was a big part of the Vikings’ next drive. On third-and-four, he took off for a 19-yard run. On the ensuing third down, Jackson fired a bullet to Wade for another first down. Two plays later, Jackson scrambled for 11 yards. After an offside penalty on Robbins, Minnesota picked up its final first down of the drive with a 13-yard pass to former Giant Visanthe Shiancoe. New York shut down the running game from there and forced Longwell on for a 26-yard field goal and a 27-10 lead with 1:43 left in the third quarter.
But the Vikings defense poured it on from there. After the Giants picked up one first down, Cedric Griffin was ruled to have an interception, only to have it overturned upon Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s challenge. Manning picked up two more first downs with completions to Plaxico Burress, but on the 11th play of the drive, with Manning firing for Shockey in the end zone, Ben Leber came on a blitz, deflected the ball and Smith made the interception and returned it 93 yards for a touchdown and 34-10 lead.
Only two passes later, Manning was throwing for Shockey again, but this time Chad Greenway stepped in front of the pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown and a 41-10 lead with 12:59 left in the game.
On the Giants’ next possession, Leber nearly tied the NFL record when he jumped high to deflect another third-down pass. Had Leber made that interception, he appeared to have smooth sailing into the end zone. Instead, the incompletion forced a Giants punt and the Vikings were content to work the clock with short running plays.
The Giants responded with a touchdown drive that culminated with a 6-yard pass to Burress to make it 41-17 with 5:54 to play, but it wasn’t enough to spark any sort of a comeback from the Giants as the Vikings used two sacks – including a 26-yarder by Leber – to end New York’s final effort and cruise to an important victory.
With the win, the Vikings jumped back into the wild card race with a 5-6 record and the third NFC win to their credit with a suddenly important game against the 6-5 Detroit Lions next week.