Over the final eight games this season, Minnesota committed only six turnovers, a major reason the Vikings unexpectedly made the playoffs. Today, they made eight mistakes in the second half alone, the major reason they will watch the rest of the playoffs on television
Althoug Philadelphia hardly played well, the Eagles couldn't avoid winning in light of such Minnesota generosity. They rallied from a 14-0 first half deficit, then finally coasted to a 31-16 triumph that put them in the NFC title game next Sunday against the winner of Sunday's Dallas-at-Atlanta game.
This was one of the Eagles proudest moments in years, considering that five seasons ago they were fortunate to win any game, much less dream of being in the playoffs. Still, the Vikings' second half ineptness took some of the luster off the victory. It was hard to imagine any NFL team playing as poorly as Minnesota in the final 30 minutes.
There was noi warning before the Viking collapse. They had beaten the favored Eagles for two periods, and even had gone back in front, 16-14, on a safety after Philadelphia had wiped out the 14-point deficit.
But, starting with Eddie Payton's fumble of Max Runager's wind-buffeted punt with 3:37 left in the third, Minnesota self-destructed right before a national television audience.
During a sequence of 11 plays, beginning with Payton's bobble, the Vikings lost three fumbles, and quarterback Tommy Kramer three three interceptions. Three times, Philadelphia gave the ball right back with mistakes of its own, but finally even the Eagles couldn't avoid putting away the game.
They would up converting three Minnesota turnovers into 17 points, including touchdowns by Wilbert Montgomery (five-yard run) and Perry Harrington (two-yard rush). But no doubt Coach Dick Vermeil will have some harsh words next week for the offensive unit, which hardly distinguished itself against an average Viking defense.
Certainly, the triumph didn't eliminate questions about the way Vermeil pushes his team emotionally all season. The Eagles seemed drained despite a two-week layoff and produced their third spotty playoff performance in two seasons.
"Defense is the strength of this team; there is no doubt about that," Vermeil said afterward. "Sometimes when the defense has lagged, the offense has had a good day, but our No. 1 draft choices have gone to the defense. And they saved us today.
"Yes, I know I thought we'd be fresh and ready for this one, but it didn't seem that way in the first half. I don't know why, but at least the defense got going in the third quarter."
That defense was struggling itself in the first half. Minnesota stung a sell-out crowd in Veterans Stadium with a 30-yard scorings pass from Kramer to Sammy White and a one-yard run by Ted Brown for a 14-0 advantage. The Eagles narrowed the gap to seven just before the half on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Ron Jaworski to Harold Carmichael.
"We were laying back for some reason and they were surprising us with some things," linebacker John Bunting said. "That's not the way we play defense."
But after a spirited halftime lecture from defensive coordinator Marion Campbell and some even angrier words from end Carl Hairston, the Eagles straightened themselves out. They began hitting savagely, pursuing vigorourly and giving Kramer fits.
Payton's fumble was the first major Minnesota blunder. There wasn't an Eagle near him when he misjudged Runager's punt and fell to the ground trying to catch it. Louie Giammona smacked him at the Viking 20 and Reggie Wilkes recovered at the 16. It was Minnesota's first lost fumble in nine games.
Four plays later, Montgomery scooted around left end for what became the winning touchdown. Tony Franklin added the extra point for a 21-16 lead. t
After that, Minnesota found almost every way possible to give away the ball. Kramer, who had been intercepted just six times the final half of the season, fumbled after a 14-yard gain. Then Kramer was intercepted on consecutive series by cornerback Herman Edwards, linebacker Frank LeMaster (at the Viking 15) and Edward again (at the Minnesota 30).
Kramer was so confused that he started throwing almost regularly into the heart of the Philadelphia coverage. And when he was on target, his passes were either being dropped or tipped into the arms of a grateful Eagle.
"We didn't do anything special in the second half except play better," said Bunting."
Edwards ahd an exceptional day, limiting receiver Ahmad Rashad to one catch. "I didn't get that much double coverage." Edwards said. "I just tried to stay close to him. I know I felt I knew everything he would do. I spent a lot of time watching films this week."
Now the question will be whether Vermeil can patch his offense quickly enough to be ready for the conference title game. Wide receiver Charles Smith already is sidelined with a broken jaw and today the Eagles lost another receiver, Scott Fitzkee, with a broken foot. And Montgomery, who gained 74 yards on 26 carries, left with a bruised knee, continuing his season-long injury problems.
Minnesota showed that aggressiveness and the use of six and seven defensive backs could confuse quarterback Ron Jaworski, who was 17 of 38 for 190 yards and two interceptions.
"i don't think we were fortunate or anything," defensive end Claude Humphrey said. "Every day isn't going to be the best one for any team.