Vikings ship on course
Minnesota believes their vessel is headed in right direction
By Sean Jensen
Knight Ridder Newspapers
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When they lined up on opposite ends of the Superdome before a noon kickoff on December 15, 2002, the Vikings and the New Orleans Saints were at opposite ends of the NFL.
The Saints (9-4) were cast a playoff lock because their final three opponents had won a combined 10 games that season. The Vikings (3-10) were cast the king of the league's cellar because they had lost seven games by seven points or less, including two in overtime.
Later that afternoon, when the dramatic game finally concluded, the result proved to be a tipping point for the Vikings and a turning point for the Saints.
The Vikings ended 2002 with three consecutive victories and started 2003 with another six; the Saints ended 2002 with three losses, failing to earn a playoff spot, and opened 2003 with a 1-4 record.
"I always feel like every year is a new year," Saints receiver Donte' Stallworth said, "but if you look at facts, it might look like that was a pivotal game."
Added Vikings Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, "We definitely turned the corner. That game propelled us to win the last three and gave us some momentum heading into the offseason."
In the fourth quarter, the Vikings appeared on the verge of losing their 18th consecutive road game road after the Saints scored on a third-and-13 play and added a two-point conversion to take a 31-24 lead. When he went into the huddle, with 5:13 left, Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper was 73 yards from the end zone.
With the Saints playing prevent defense, Culpepper dinked and dunked the Vikings down the field, completing 7 of 10 passes on the drive for 69 yards and running twice for 14 yards. With five seconds left, Culpepper zipped a perfect pass to receiver Randy Moss, who slipped between two defenders for a 13-yard touchdown catch.
On the sideline, amid his elated players and coaches, Vikings coach Mike Tice calmly raised two fingers.
"If we were 10-5 and it was the last game of the year, there was no way I would have went for two," Tice said during a conference call Wednesday with reporters. "But we were horrible. We were 3-10, or some (expletive) like that, and you might as well go ahead and try to make a play to win the game."
That the Vikings had aalready lost two overtime games that season also factored into his decision-making, Tice added.
Saints coach Jim Haslett recalled what happened on the two-point conversion.
"The ball popped on the ground and they ran a quarterback power and three of our guys stood there and watched it instead of going to make the play," he said.
Tice recalled thinking, given his team's luck, Culpepper might kick the ball through the end zone. Instead, Tice remembered Culpepper "dribbling the ball into the end zone."
Added Culpepper, "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good."
Vikings safety Corey Chavous said the decision to go for two epitomizes his coach.
"The players always knew that's the type of mentality that Coach Tice has," Chavous said. "That shows he wants to beat somebody rather than trying not to lose. It's something I've always had a lot of respect for him about."
Chavous said that victory might have been the most important of the short Mike Tice era, surpassing the season-opening victory the next fall at Lambeau Field.
"It brought us all together," he said. "We needed a win on the road. Everything we concentrated on came together that week. It was a good team effort."
The Vikings started last season 6-0, including road victories against the Packers, the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons. But they lost the NFC North title and a playoff spot because they lost seven of their last 10 games, including the season finale to the woeful Arizona Cardinals.
That end, however, hasn't had the same kind of impact as their 2002 finish did, which started at the Superdome, Bennett said.
"Ever since then, things have continued to get better for us," he said. "That was a statement game for us, and we've been climbing the ladder ever since."