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Sea of Lost Opportunities Swallows Up the Vikings

Third-Quarter Woes Costly; Moss a Non-Factor

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page D09

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 16 -- Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss led Minnesota to victory in Green Bay last weekend -- with Moss capping the display by pretending to drop his pants and moon the Lambeau Field crowd -- but on Sunday the duo failed to produce in the Vikings' biggest game of the season.

After Sunday's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the conference semifinals, Culpepper said he was angry at the way his team's season had ended, while Moss was as silent in the locker room as he was on the field, declining to speak to the media.

Quarterback Daunte Culpepper marched Minnesota across midfield three times in the 3rd quarter, but each time wound up grounded by the Eagles -- twice because of interceptions. (Rusty Kennedy -- AP)

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Minnesota held the ball for more than 11 minutes in the third quarter and ran 23 plays while Philadelphia had nine snaps. The Vikings gained eight first downs to Philadelphia's two and marched into Eagles territory three straight times but failed to score a point, and their opportunity for another postseason upset slipped away.

Culpepper, the Pro Bowl quarterback, threw two crippling interceptions and took a sack to knock his team out of field goal range, Moss, the star wide receiver who was hobbled by a sore ankle, was a non-factor, and the Vikings could not chip away at a 21-7 halftime deficit before falling, 27-14, at Lincoln Financial Field.

So while the Eagles prepare to face Atlanta in what will be their fourth straight NFC championship game, the Vikings are left to contemplate another confusing season, sneaking into the playoffs with an 8-8 record, humbling their longtime rival in Green Bay, then failing to capitalize on repeated opportunities to knock off the NFC's top seed Sunday.

"Offensively, I felt like we left some things on the field," Coach Mike Tice said. "We made some mistakes when we had a little bit of a rhythm going. . . . We didn't finish anything."

Moss never found his way in the offense, catching three balls for 51 yards and dropping at least as many passes. His bad ankle sapped his explosiveness, rendering him a decoy on most patterns. "He's human, too," Culpepper said. Philadelphia aimed to hit Moss as much as possible, and did so with vigor.

"Our guys challenged him," Eagles Coach Andy Reid said. "And when they had an opportunity to make contact with him, they hit him."

As for Culpepper, he managed to make several eye-popping plays in the middle of the field, spinning away from pass rushers and zipping the ball down the sidelines, but as the Vikings neared the end zone his production waned. He completed 24 of 46 passes -- one for a touchdown -- and posted a 63.3 passer rating, his second-worst of the season (and 47 points below his 2004 pace).

"He's a 70 percent passer," said Tice, who played quarterback at Maryland. "Any time somebody holds him under that, either they've done a good job or we're not as crisp as we need to be. And I think it was a combination of both."

The Vikings could have cut into Philadelphia's lead late in the first half with the ball at the 3-yard line. Tice called for a fake field goal, a play he termed "brilliant" and one the team had worked on for two weeks. Moss was supposed to feign going off the field, then run a route to the end zone, but the Vikings would have had 12 players on the field if Moss had not gone out of bounds, which he did. Officials did not detect Tice trying to call a timeout, and holder Gus Frerotte, a backup quarterback and former Redskins starter, did not realize Moss was off the field and threw the ball out of the end zone, with no one open.

"I pretty much felt sick to my stomach out there," Frerotte said. "I knew that we had a touchdown, and [the Eagles] had no idea that it was going to happen."

Minnesota reached the 28 on its opening drive of the second half, then Culpepper's short pass was intercepted by linebacker Ike Reese, who leaped and tipped the ball to himself. Culpepper was picked off at the Philadelphia 34 on the next possession, inexplicably putting his dump-off right in the hands of linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, a former Redskin who was dominant for the Eagles. ("The ball kind of floated on me," Culpepper said.) The quarterback had thrown 131 straight passes without an interception, then threw two in six attempts.

"You've got to try to play mistake-free football," Culpepper said. "And when you do make mistakes, then you've got to do something to compensate for it. You've got to bounce back from it, and that wasn't the case for us today. We didn't make enough plays."

Culpepper directed the Vikings to the 19 on the following drive, then failed to read the blitz properly and took a 12-yard sack that put the team out of field goal range. The Vikings went for it on fourth and 22, and Culpepper forced a ball to Moss in double-coverage in the end zone, and the Eagles went on to add two insurance field goals. Philadelphia's aggressive and deceptive blitz packages kept Culpepper off-balance -- he said Philadelphia and Washington were by far the best defenses he faced this season -- and threw off his timing when it mattered most.

"We had plenty of opportunities," tight end Jermaine Wiggins said. "But we came up a little short. That's the way the world works, sometimes."

This game, with all its fits and starts, was a microcosm of the Vikings' season. They looked to be running away with the NFC North title after a 5-1 start, ended up squeaking into the playoffs and now will begin the mundane tasks of exit interviews and final medical testing.

"That's the thing about the NFL," Tice said. "When it's over, it's over, and then you're scheduling physicals."

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