It's pretty obvious Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper just wants everybody to get off his back. That not only means bickering receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss, who rode their quarterback unmercifully after the team's worst start in 17 years. It apparently also goes for Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland, Marcus Jones, Simeon Rice, Shelton Quarles and the rest of the Bucs defenders who Culpepper wore like a necktie for most of Sunday's game at the Metrodome.
It wasn't enough for Culpepper to shake the criticism of an 0-2 record. He also shrugged away Tampa Bay's 300-pound linemen. After watching the Bucs take their only lead in the fourth quarter, Culpepper capped a 96-yard drive by improvising on a game-winning, 8-yard touchdown run with 1:03 remaining to hand Tampa Bay a 20-16 loss. On the ensuing drive, the Bucs, with only one timeout, moved the ball to the Minnesota 18-yard line. But Brad Johnson's pass to Keyshawn Johnson at the Vikings 3-yard line was broken up and intercepted by cornerback Eric Kelly to end the comeback.
Culpepper completed 30-of-44 passes for 322 yards, with only 10 receptions combined for Moss and Carter. Tight end Byron Chamberlain led the Vikings with 88 receiving yards, including his 37-yard catch and run that set up the winning touchdown. "He's a big strong guy," John Lynch said of the 260-pound Culpepper. "It seemed like all day long we were around him with our D-line but he had the ability to stand back there and just throw to his check-downs. Their backs had a lot of catches and with the style of defense we were playing, they're going to get that. They made enough plays down the field, but we could've lived with it. But they made the plays when they had to."
It was the second straight game the Bucs (1-1) produced just one touchdown, and that came only after receiver Keyshawn Johnson did what some thought impossible -- he kept his mouth shut. A taunting penalty on cornerback Kenny Wright gave the Bucs an automatic first down at the Vikings 6, and they used it to take a 16-13 lead on Warrick Dunn's run one play later with 12:40 left. "He was saying, 'You're supposed to be all that, you can't even catch a pass," Johnson said of Wright. "The ball was thrown behind me. All I could do was walk away. I called him an idiot anyway. I said, 'You're stupid. You cost your team. They ought to cut your a--. He damn near cost them the game."
Dunn, who sprained his right toe on the carry before his touchdown, did not return and will be re-evaluated today. He said he will not miss Sunday's home game against Green Bay. "I guess you give them a lot of credit," Lynch said. "We came in telling them that they've got to beat us checking the ball down, throwing it underneath, and they did that. We didn't feel they had the ability to drive down the field doing that, and they did it, and did it a number of times. In the end it came down to making plays. We had an opportunity to make some plays throughout the course of the game and didn't. This was a tough one. We felt we had a great opportunity to come up here and put ourselves up in front. And I guess our struggles continued up here."
The loss, Tampa Bay's fourth straight at Minnesota, featured collapses on both sides of the ball. Not only did the defense lose while leading in the fourth quarter for only the eighth time in 54 games under Tony Dungy, it allowed 402 yards of offense and 9-of-12 third-down conversions, including the first six. That led to marathon drives, like the 18-play field-goal march in the second quarter that took 10:33, the longest in 16 years for the Vikings. Minnesota held a huge advantage in time of possession (36:15-23:45) and offensive plays (69-51). In fact, the Vikings sat on the ball so long that Tampa Bay's offense had three possessions in the first half.
Meanwhile, the Bucs moved the ball but couldn't get in the end zone. Despite a first and goal at the Minnesota 4, they settled for the first of three field goals by Martin Gramatica. And when the Bucs had a chance to put the game away with another score late in the fourth quarter, they couldn't. Leading by a field goal and with a first down at the Minnesota 35, the Bucs went backward after failing on third and 1 and punted after a holding penalty on rookie tackle Kenyatta Walker.
The Bucs have ventured into opposing territory 13 times this season, including seven inside the 30, but have come away with two touchdowns and five field goals. "Any time you get on the road and have a chance to win twice in the fourth quarter, offensively, you feel like you've squandered a good opportunity to be 2-0 and have a three-game lead on the defending division champions," Clyde Christensen said.
When the Vikings took over at their 4 with 6:21 left, they were staring 0-3 in the facemask. Carter told his team it was the biggest drive of the season. "You have to let them know, not to put more pressure on them, but a sense of reality," Carter said. "We were backed up and you have to make some plays. That was the biggest drive of the season."
If so, the biggest play of the season came when Culpepper bootlegged to his right and, under heavy pressure, floated a pass off his back foot to Chamberlain. Linebacker Derrick Brooks appeared to get a piece of the ball and cornerback Donnie Abraham leaped behind Chamberlain to intercept, but Chamberlain caught the deflection and ran to the 2-yard line before being run out of bounds by safety Dexter Jackson.
An illegal procedure penalty moved the Vikings back. But Culpepper, sensing the Bucs were trying to cover his three receivers with five defenders, decided to make a dash for the end zone. "It's a big win," Carter said. "I think Tampa Bay got a little ahead of themselves. We had the same thing happen down there. We were undefeated, if we beat them, they're out of it and we lost the game. Same thing happened in '98. If we go down there and beat them, they're out of it, but it just doesn't happen that way."
It could've been worse. Just imagine if the Bucs hadn't had three whole weeks to prepare.