Work in Sports
What We Learned
Three things we know after the Buccaneers-Vikings game
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
MINNEAPOLIS -- Off to their second 5-0 start in three seasons, the Minnesota Vikings put a little space between themselves and the rest of the NFC Central Division with an eventful 30-23 victory against the slumping Tampa Bay Bucs on Monday night at the Metrodome. Sports Illustrated's Don Banks checks in with three observations from the game:
1. It's a small club, and only the St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings are in it. In matching the Rams' 5-0 start, the Vikings proved on Monday night they are once again a force to be reckoned with.
Just as they did in their record-breaking 1998 season, the Vikings used a fifth-game appearance on Monday Night Football to stamp themselves a legitimate Super Bowl contender. In that game, the 4-0 Vikings upset the defending NFC Central champion Green Bay Packers 37-24, snapping the Packers' 25-game regular-season home winning streak at Lambeau Field.
The similarities with that 1998 statement game are startling. That game, too, lifted Minnesota to 5-0, and altered the balance of power in the NFC Central. Proving Green Bay beatable on a cool, rainy evening at Lambeau, the Vikings elevated their sights and expectations for the rest of the season. Minnesota that season rode the momentum and sheer audacity of that game all the way to a 15-1 record and the NFC Championship Game.
This time, the Vikings again beat the defending division champion on a Monday night, burying the almost unanimously favored Bucs in third place, 2 1/2 games off the lead and three back in the loss column. Just as he did that night in Green Bay, Randy Moss had a major impact in the outcome. Moss had his coming out party at Lambeau, roasting the Packers' secondary and influencing the next two Green Bay drafts.
Against the Bucs, Moss was again front and center, with five catches for 118 yards, including the game-deciding 42-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass from quarterback Daunte Culpepper. Moss' uncanny play-making ability allowed him to outleap Buc cornerback Donnie Abraham for the ball, and absorb a hit from oncoming strong safety John Lynch. Since entering the league in 1998, Moss leads the NFL with 34 touchdowns, three more than Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.
Here's one footnote that can't make Minnesota's NFC Central opponents too comfortable: Of the 14 teams that started 5-0 in the 1990s, 13 went to the playoffs, 11 won division titles, seven reached the Super Bowl and five won it.
2. Here's a memo to the Bucs: Forget Keyshawn. Throw Jacquez Green the damn ball. It worked Monday night at the Metrodome. Tampa Bay's second receiver finished with a game-high 11 catches -- also a career high -- for 131 yards.
And Green nearly pulled off a game-tying miracle, coming dangerously close to catching quarterback Shaun King's game-ending Hail Mary in the end zone. The officials ruled that King's pass hit the ground before finding its way into Green's arms.
King looked much more comfortable throwing to Green than he ever has throwing to the high-priced Johnson. While Johnson struggled early in the game, fumbling away his first reception to set up a Vikings touchdown, and dropping another certain catch deep in Minnesota territory, Green got off to a flying start. His six catches for 67 yards in the first half proved that King had a go-to target on this night, and the Vikings never really found a way to counter him.
"Yeah, it was a good game for me, but it was bittersweet," said Green, who entered play with just 12 catches for 309 yards and touchdown in the Bucs' opening five games. "It was just another close game that we lost late. That's three weeks in a row."
3. Chalk up my vote for the idea of a redshirt season in the NFL. It's time to state the obvious: After riding the bench his entire rookie season, Vikings second-year quarterback Daunte Culpepper is performing at a level considerably above any of his five fellow Class of 1999 quarterbacks. While Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Cade McNown and King all continue to ride the painful ebbs and flows of the NFL maturation process, Culpepper is relatively polished at this point and has avoided the valleys that come with a first-time starter.
Culpepper is 5-0 as a starter, becoming just the second Vikings quarterback to win his opening five games (Jeff George in 1999 was the other). The other five '99 quarterbacks? They're a combined 9-20 this season. Culpepper has eight touchdown passes -- five in the past two games -- more than anyone but McNabb (eight). His 1,222 passing yards trail only McNown's 1,254 yards and his 63.9 completion percentage is behind only Couch's 64.6.
In the biggest game of his brief NFL starting tenure, against Tampa Bay, Culpepper was a coolly efficient 15-of-19 for 231 yards, two touchdown passes and one touchdown run. Yes, Culpepper looked rattled by the Bucs' pass rush in the second half, and overall was sacked six times. But in all the key categories that you measure an NFL quarterback by, namely leading his team to victory, he succeeded where King failed Monday night.