Once again, the Minnesota Vikings are quieting all those jokes about the weak teams in the NFC Central Division.
After three weeks, every team in the division was 1-2 and the chances of any of them finishing with a winning record seemed remote. Now, with Tommy Kramer playing as well as any quarterback in the league, the Vikings have won five straight games, including today's 35-23 victory over previously unbeaten Philadelphia.
In the last two weeks, the Vikings have scored 33 points against San Diego and five touchdowns against Philadelphia's top-ranked defense. The Eagles had not given up more than 14 points in any of their first six games and had allowed just two touchdown passes all season.
Kramer threw three touchdown passes in the second quarter when the Vikings built a 21-9 halftime advantage and finished with 24 completions in 46 attempts for 257 yards and four scores, despite throwing only five times in the fourth quarter.
"I haven't played this well since I've been in the league," said the five-year veteran from Rice. "I'm getting great protection and I'm making better reads (of the defense). My experience is starting to pay off."
Just how important Kramer is to Minnesota's title hopes was obvious when his knee was injured in the exhibition season; he sat out the first two regular-season games. The Vikings were limited to 23 points in losses to Tampa Bay and Oakland, but since his return have averaged 30 points a game.
As usual, stoic Coach Bud Grant was restrained after his team's best performance of the season, quickly pointing out the Eagles' four turnovers in the second half.
"When you play a good team like the Eagles, it means a little more to win," he finally admitted. "I don't know how good we are right now. None of us are super. All you can hope for is to be a contender, then if you get the breaks, get some turnovers and stay healthy, you can win. Oakland was a perfect example of that last year."
Led by all-pro linebacker Matt Blair, who had 14 tackles, five assists, an interception, a fumble recovery and a blocked extra point, the Vikings limited Philadelphia to nine points until letting down in the final period.
"We've always had a tradition of winning here," said Blair. "We had a little transition the last two years, but we're back now. What helps our defense so much is that we have a great offense that can control the ball."
Although the traditional way for a team to maintain ball control is through establishing a running game, the Vikings prefer short passes to their back, specifically tailback Ted Brown.
Brown, a 5-foot-10, 200-pounder from North Carolina State, caught 10 passes for 82 yards and now ranks first in the NFC with 43 receptions. He also gained 92 yards in 22 carries, despite losing 13 on the game's first play when he fumbled a pitchout.
"There's always a weakness in everybody's defense," Brown said when asked how he could continually be open on short passes in the flat. "We had it set up where I was going to be a primary receiver today."
By throwing often to Brown on first down, the Vikings rarely faced second and long and therefore kept Philadelphia's pass rushers and nickel defenders on the bench.
"We played a lot of zone," said Eagles' linebacker Frank LeMaster. "When you play these guys, you have to concede the short pass. Their outside receivers (Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White, who each caught a touchdown pass) are so good that if you come up and let them go, they can burn you.
"They run a lot of 15-yard patterns, and you have to protect against them and just try to come up and separate Brown from the ball after he catches it. You'd rather give up a five-yard gain than a long one."
Philadelphia scored first, driving 59 yards in five plays late in the first quarter. The big play was a flea flicker with Ron Jaworski (30 of 45 for 345 yards) throwing to Harold Carmichael, who was dragged down at the one after a 38-yard gain. Wilbert Montgomery got the final yard, but Blair blocked Tony Franklin's conversion attempt, ending the barefoot kicker's streak at 63.
The Vikings went in front when they drove 80 yards in nine plays. Kramer teamed with Brown for a 38-yard gain, then completed a 21-yard pass to tight end Joe Senser at the 19-yard line and after a seven-yarder to Brown, found Senser in the middle of the zone zone with an 11-yard pass.
After Franklin's 30-yard field goal put the Eagles back on top, the Vikings scored twice in the final two minutes of the half to gain the momentum they never lost.
The first score came on a 50-yard pass from Kramer to White, who split defenders Randy Logan and Roynell Young, caught the ball at the 25 and raced the rest of the way for his first touchdown of the season.
Following an Eagle punt, the Vikings drove 67 yards in 1:06 with Kramer getting off five plays from inside the 11 in the last 22 seconds. Grant gambled on the final play, disdaining a field goal and calling a pass to tight end Bob Bruer on third dowm from the one.
"We thought we had a play that could score," Grant said. "We worked on a play this week for that situtation. We thought the tight end would be open and he was."
"Our touchdown at the end of the half was the key to the game" said Kramer. "Scoring 21 points against them in the first half really gave our confidence a boost."
The Eagles never were able to come back because they they had two fumbles and an interception on their first four possession of the second half and fell behind, 28-9, after three periods.