Bucs deny Vikings a shot at division lead in crowded North
By Judd Zulgad
McClatchy News Service s
TAMPA, Fla. — The Minnesota Vikings had every opportunity to return to the Twin Cities on Sunday evening in sole possession of first place in the NFC North. The three-hour flight from the comfort of the south to the chill of the Midwest would be made easier by the knowledge they were a game clear of the Packers and Bears.
There was one problem. As so often has been the case when this franchise visits Tampa, the Vikings failed to capitalize, blowing a seven-point halftime lead and losing 19-13 to the Buccaneers before an announced crowd of 65,278 at Raymond James Stadium. Bucs kicker Matt Bryant’s two fourth-quarter field goals accounted for the go-ahead and insurance points.
Instead of the Vikings benefiting from the Packers’ pasting of Chicago, the three teams are now tied atop the NFC North at 5-5. "It’s tough because we gave the game away," Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said. "Obviously, credit goes to them, but I don’t think they did enough to beat us. Turnovers killed us. ... We had chances to win the game and we just didn’t capitalize on it. We’ve got to start finishing opponents off. We get stuck in these fistfights that come down to the last minute, and it doesn’t need to be that way. We are capable of going out and dominating a team, and it’s about time we start doing that."
The Vikings have six games left in the season to begin showing they can back up Allen’s words. It didn’t happen Sunday because the Buccaneers dominated the second half, while the Vikings made too many mistakes.
"Probably the only positive is that we’ve got a chance to still win the NFC North with everybody at 5-5," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "We don’t focus on the past; we look at the future. Learn from this one. (There’s) nothing wrong with the fight of this football team."
The Vikings appeared to catch a break on Tampa Bay’s first offensive series when the Buccaneers’ top running back, Earnest Graham, suffered an ankle injury that ended his day. But that only opened the door for quarterback Jeff Garcia to become the game’s biggest factor.
Garcia, in whom the Vikings had little interest when he was a free agent after the 2006 season despite his knowledge of the West Coast offense, made plays with both his arm (23 of 30 for 255 yards) and his feet (six rushes for 21 yards), scrambling away from frustrated defenders on numerous occasions. The 38-year-old was sacked only once and kept countless plays alive.
Tampa Bay established the tone for the second half on the opening drive of the third quarter, coming out in a quick rhythm, no-huddle offense and driving 80 yards in 11 plays to tie the score 13-13.
Garcia’s play helped Tampa Bay win the time-of-possession battle 33 minutes, 49 seconds to 26:11 for the Vikings. This included an astounding 12:34 to 2:26 advantage in the fourth quarter when the Vikings ran a total of seven offensive plays. "That was a crazy game," Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte said of the fact his team had 20 offensive plays in the final 30 minutes. "The clock kept ticking, and it seemed like we stood on the sidelines forever."
Tampa Bay’s defense also deserved credit. The Bucs sacked Frerotte five times, tying the most times the veteran has been sacked in a game this season, and stopped the Vikings on two crucial fourth-down situations in the second half. Running back Adrian Peterson had his streak of consecutive 100-yard rushing performances end at four; he was held to 85 yards on 19 carries. "They really got us out of our game in the second half," said Peterson, who was part of an offense that scored points on three consecutive drives in the first half. "We had some opportunities to make big plays. We just didn’t come up with it."
The fact the Vikings were held to 64 total yards in the second half also was a result of two fourth-quarter fumbles. Maurice Hicks lost the ball at his own 26 on the kickoff return after Bryant’s third field goal had given the Buccaneers a three-point lead. That led to another field goal.
The Vikings had a final chance when they got the ball at their own 36 with 1:55 left, but running back Chester Taylor fumbled after an 11-yard reception. "We knew we would have to come down here and play error- free football," Childress said. "The last 12 games, those guys are 10-2 down here, they’ve got 21 takeaways and we knew weren’t going to be able to do that, yet we were going to have to take some from them."
Childress is now 0-1 in Tampa Bay. The Bucs are 6-0 against the Vikings in Raymond James Stadium and have won four in a row in the series overall. They also are 5-0 at home this season, the best such start in franchise history.
The Vikings, meanwhile, will return to Florida next Sunday. The good news for them is it will be in Jacksonville, a city where they have never previously played. With the division seemingly there for the taking, the Vikings can only hope that for their sake the result will be different.
"Sooner or later we’ve got to realize that first place is out there for us and we have to jump on it and quit shooting ourselves in the foot so much and get off that hump," Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "We can’t keep making those excuses about being so close because it is frustrating. We’ve got to get off our butts and do something. We had a chance to take sole possession of first, and we let the game get out of reach today."