Vikings 35, Cowboys 17
-- In the Twin Cities, there are heightened expectations for the Minnesota Vikings this season. And those figure to rise even higher after quarterback Daunte Culpepper shredded the Dallas Cowboys with a career-high five touchdown passes in a 35-17 victory Sunday over a team that had the NFL's top-ranked defense a year ago.
But the Vikings chose to remember what happened a year ago, when the team started 6-0, then lost seven of its last 10 games, including a last-second defeat in Arizona that kept Minnesota out of the playoffs.
"[Last year's dismal finish] was definitely motivating to us," Culpepper said. "We knew we left a lot of offense on the field that day. We were able to get some of that bad taste out of our mouth with this victory."
Playing a practically perfect game, Culpepper completed passes to nine receivers for 242 yards, was never sacked and threw no interceptions on a day when the Vikings scored touchdowns on four straight possessions and five of the last six times they touched the football.
Culpepper's quarterback rating was 147.1, and he also gained 25 yards rushing, including three third-down runs for vital first downs.
Minnesota also ran the ball with some impunity, even though the Vikings' starting running back, Michael Bennett, will be out for several more weeks recovering from a knee injury. His main replacement Sunday was Onterrio Smith, who gained 76 yards on 15 carries and was the recipient of Culpepper's first scoring pass, a spectacular 63-yard catch-and-run that came when the quarterback audibled into a different play at the line of scrimmage.
Culpepper saw Dallas linebacker Dexter Coakley creeping up from the right side, and decided to step away from center and go into shotgun formation. When Smith slipped out of the backfield past middle linebacker Dat Nguyen, he was running free at midfield. Culpepper hit him in full stride, and no Cowboy was within 10 yards of Smith when he crossed the goal line for the Vikings' first touchdown. Minnesota never trailed again.
Smith may not be around much longer. He reportedly has violated the league's substance abuse policy, and is appealing a possible suspension. Minnesota Coach Mike Tice said he had no idea if or when that may occur, saying, "that's up to the league office. If you find out, let me know."
The Vikings had an early setback in warm-ups when starting cornerback Ken Irvin apparently suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury in a routine back-pedaling drill. He was replaced by former starter Brian Williams, initially scheduled only for nickel back duties because he was coming back from a knee injury. Williams performed admirably, including several solid hits on receivers.
Minnesota's defense held Dallas to 71 rushing yards and only two touchdowns, with two recovered fumbles. The Cowboys did gain 423 total yards, but 75 came early in a 21-play drive that ended with a botched field goal attempt.
Punter Mat McBriar was penalized for intentionally grounding the ball, giving the Vikings possession at their 28. Three plays later, on a third and one at the 37, Culpepper hit Smith with that first touchdown pass, and the Vikings were on their way. Two touchdown passes went to Randy Moss, and a 37-yard pass completion from Moss to running back Moe Williams off a fake reverse set up Moss's own one-yard catch for a 28-17 Minnesota lead with 6 minutes 1 second left in the third quarter.
Moss clearly was a major concern of the Cowboys, as he is for every defense the Vikings face. He often faced double coverage and only caught four passes for 27 yards, but also was effective in other areas, including several critical downfield blocks for his fellow receivers and running backs.
"We focused on Randy. That left some guys singled up," Cowboys safety Roy Williams said. "But big plays and penalties [nine for 119 yards] hurt us. They'll kill any team. We've got to some how, some way find some defense, because that number one stuff from last year is out the window. That was last year. We're probably number thirty-one now. We've got a motivator now, something to keep a fire under our butts."
The Dallas offense operated efficiently at times, with 40-year-old quarterback Vinny Testaverde completing 29 of 50 passes -- many thrown in desperation in the final period -- for 355 yards. Veteran running back Eddie George started for the Cowboys, but gained only 25 yards in eight carries and didn't play in the second half. And offseason acquisition Keyshawn Johnson had nine catches for 111 yards, but no touchdowns.
"It's a frustrating loss," Johnson said. "When you turn the ball over, make mistakes, make penalties, that's what happens when you lose. We played a football game. We've got 15 more to go. That's as positive as you can get. I am just not into losing football games."