Daunte's inferno: Bucs 24, Vikings 13
A new proprietor sat in the owner's box, surrounded by generations of family members and legions of co-owners. Fresh faces filled the defensive lineup, while a sprinkling of starters and new specialists populated the special teams. Yet there was big trouble Sunday in the sultry Metrodome, emanating from the one source the Vikings have long derived their strength, their hopes and their victories.

Whether or not they had the best receiver in football -- and no matter if they were adjusting to a new offensive coordinator -- the Vikings opened the 2005 season at noon Sunday convinced they would roll up the kind of yards and points that have put them among the NFL's top offenses during the past decade. About three hours later, they were humbled, shaken and scrambling to fix a most unexpected flaw.

"I wouldn't have believed it if you told me," said running back Michael Bennett, echoing the disbelief of many teammates after the Vikings' 24-13 loss to Tampa Bay. In what was the least productive offensive output of the Mike Tice era, and one of the worst games in quarterback Daunte Culpepper's career, the Vikings raised new questions about their ability to compete in the post-Randy Moss era.

Unable to lead his team to an offensive touchdown for the first time since Oct. 25, 2001, Culpepper committed five turnovers -- three interceptions and two fumbles -- and was unable to capitalize on a gift opportunity to steal a victory late in the fourth quarter. Culpepper described the afternoon as "a bad episode of the 'Twilight Zone' " after the Vikings managed two Paul Edinger field goals -- from 53 and 22 yards -- to go with Darren Sharper's 88-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Culpepper, also hit with two delay-of-game penalties, completed 22 of 33 passes for 233 yards, finishing with a career-low 49.2 rating. He was under heavy pressure from the Bucs' interior defense and got no help from his running game. With Moe Williams starting and splitting carries with Bennett, the Vikings managed 26 rushing yards on 16 carries. Penalties negated two touchdown passes to tight end Jermaine Wiggins, but ultimately Culpepper could not finish a fourth-quarter drive as the Bucs held on to a 17-13 lead.

The Vikings twice recovered their own fumbles on the march and got as close as the Tampa Bay 12. But their luck ran out when Culpepper's first-down pass glanced off Moe Williams' outstretched hands and into those of Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly for an interception. Three plays later, Carnell Williams of the Bucs burst through the line for a 71-yard touchdown that clinched the victory. "We have to accept that you're going to have those days," said linebacker Keith Newman, part of a new-look defense that played well enough to win Sunday. We can't expect our offense to go out and put up 30 points a game. Those guys have won games for us, and they're going to win games for us this year. It was just one of those days."

Newman was the featured player in a version of the 3-4 defense the Vikings unveiled in the first half, and the defense put the Vikings ahead 7-0 on Sharper's interception return. But Bucs quarterback Brian Griese responded by throwing touchdown passes of 23 and 2 yards to rookie tight end Alex Smith, and Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal gave Tampa Bay a 17-7 halftime lead. Although it had been on the field for nearly 20 minutes of the first half -- the Vikings' first three offensive series ended in turnovers -- the defense strengthened in the second half, limiting the Bucs to 47 yards before Williams' long touchdown run.

Culpepper, however, could not get the offense moving efficiently enough to take advantage. Buccaneers defensive tackle Anthony McFarland had set the tone on the Vikings' second play of the game, blowing past rookie right guard Marcus Johnson for a sack that clearly rattled Culpepper.

The Vikings eventually benched Johnson in favor of Adam Goldberg, but McFarland and former Vikings defensive tackle Chris Hovan already had made quick work of Johnson and center Cory Withrow. The Bucs finished with just two sacks, but Culpepper never looked comfortable; one of his fumbles came when Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice stripped him from behind, while the other came when he unsuccessfully tried to pull back the ball when a short pass did not materialize. "We knew we couldn't just let him sit back there," said Kelly, the Tampa Bay cornerback. "We couldn't just let him pad his feet, pat the ball and let it go. We had to get some pressure on him, let the front four eat and throw some blitzes at him."

When it was over, the Vikings retreated to their quiet Metrodome locker room, suddenly faced with the daunting task of winning at upstart Cincinnati in order to prevent an 0-2 start. Zygi Wilf, the new owner, promised his team "would learn from this." As defensive players dressed quickly and left, many offensive players sat stunned in front of their lockers. "It's not the way you want to start out at home," Tice said. He was stating the obvious, but dealing with a blow altogether unexpected.

Kevin Seifert, The Minnesota Star-Tribune 12 September 2005