Sometimes you hit the nail on the head and the nail refuses to budge. Such was the case on Monday night. Just as predicted, the Vikings dominated the Eagles on offense, held their own on defense, and were bad on special teams. This should have led to a Vikings' victory. Yet, despite a nearly 2:1 time of possession advantage over the Eagles, the Vikings left Philly 1-1, rather than 2-0.
The Eagles held up their end of the bargain on Monday, scoring 27 points, but the Vikings did not settling for a mere 16 points when the statistics and nearly everything else suggested that the Vikings would have and should have scored closer to 34.
What Went Wrong
The Vikings were done in by the three Bs--bad penalties, bad play, and bad officiating--in that order. The penalties were excruciating for several reasons. First, they inevitably came after Minnesota had driven deep in Philly territory and, on one occassion, after Daunte had strolled into the endzone for a Minnesota touchdown. Second, several of the penalties were committed by inexperienced players who otherwise contributed little to the game. Third, at least two of the more costly penalties--against Randy Moss and Matt Birk--were dubious penalties that cost Minnesota at least 10 points, perhaps more.
Moss' penalty came on a second and 1 play from the Philly 14. Culpepper threw the ball 20 yards out of the endzone, but the official--ever dutiful (except when the home team dropped a pass but nevertheless received credit for a 45-yard TD)--flagged Moss for pass interference even though Moss pushed an obstructing defender, nobody could catch the ball which had sailed far out of bounds, and Moss gained no advantage on the push. This is not pass interference. Why the call? There are several possibilities, but none that justify the call. After the penalty, the Vikings settled for a missed Morton Andersen field-goal attempt (more on this later).
The officials called a second dubious penalty in the second half, this one for holding, against Matt Birk, following Daunte's TD scamper. Replays showed that Birk had control of his man and may have had some jersey, but if that was holding it's time to start fitting NFL players with flags. The standard for holding in the NFL tends to be whether the contact disables an opponent to the point that (1) the offender has clear grasp of the victim and (2) the victim falls to the ground. Neither criteria was met in this case, but the official let the yellow fly anyway, perhaps goaded by one of the Philly fans lurching over the endzone padding. The penalty forced Minnesota to settle for a field goal.
Conservatively, the two blown penalty calls against Minnesota cost the Vikings 10 points. The Vikings lost by 11. But the officials also muffed the TO TD call, when replays clearly showed that TO never had possession of the ball and that the ball even hit the ground at one point. The Vikings could have challenged the play but, come on guys, just get the call right on the field. Several possessions earlier, Tice had to throw the challenge flag to draw the officials' attention to their clear miss of an illegal pass to the QB. Had Tice not thrown the challenge flag--even though such a non-call is not challengeable--the officials would have proceeded without making the proper call. Challenges are intended to serve as a complement to competent officiating, not as a crutch for an overmatched officiating crew. Clearly, this was not a well-officiated game from the Vikings' perspective. And it may have cost the Vikings a victory.
But before we lament the zebras' performance on Monday, a review of the Vikings' own self-inflicted wounds are in order, for had the Vikings not made the mistakes that they did, they still could have beaten Philly without the benefit of a soundly officiated game.
While the officials made some bad calls against the Vikings that cost the Vikings points, the officials also made some good calls that cost the Vikings points. Four of these calls--against Adam Haayer and Jeff Dugan--stalled otherwise promising Minnesota drives and directly contributed to the Vikings' loss.
Haayer, subbing for the injured Mike Rosenthal, looked thoroughly overmatched at right tackle. When Jevon Kearse wasn't beating him like a drum, Haayer was fumbling over his own feet or those of his fellow linemen. But his coup de grace for Haayer, however, were two holding penalties that killed Minnesota drives.
Dugan, starting for the injured Jimmy Kleinsasser, looked even worse. contributing zero receptions, zero rushes, and several missed blocks. To top off his performance, Dugan tossed in two false starts in the same series to kill a promising drive in Philly territory. I had refrained from suggesting that Duggie only made the squad because he and Tice are fellow-Terps, but after tonight's performance....Yeesh. The Vikings may already be searching the waiver wires for a TE.
But penalties were not the only problem for the Vikings, as other factors led to stalled drives. Most notable was the absence of blocking by Minnesota's vaunted offensive line. Daunte was under constant pressure and SOD was virtually silent. This was a lousy showing for all of Minnesota's linemen.
I could continue by noting that Daunte has fumbled the ball 70 times in 60 games--an NFL record--but that's piling on. Plus, Daunte played an otherwise great game. Despite having no time to pass on most plays, and despite the repetitive malfunctions of his offensive line, Daunte played with as much apparent focus as he has in any game since he joined the Vikings. The numbers don't bear it out, but this was a stronger performance by Daunte than his 146-rating game against the Cowboys. And if Daunte continues to perform at the level he performed at tonight--and, presumably, inches across one or two goal-line surges--the Vikings offense will be fine in spite of itself.
The same cannot be said of special teams, however. In a previous column, I suggested that Tice's special teams' decisions may be his undoing in Minnesota. Morten Andersen missed a 44-yard field goal attempt with the wind at his back and Aaron Elling--re-signed exclusively to kick long field goals and kick off--was not called on to kick a long field goal, consistently kicked-off short, and had a horrendous kick late in the fourth quarter--one that more resembled an Elway pass to a wide-open receiver than an NFL kickoff--that dashed any hopes Minnesota had of pulling out a victory. If Elling is in uniform tomorrow, he clearly has some of the pictures that Solomon had of Denny and that Jones has of Gardy. There is no other explanation for such nonsense.
I would be remiss if I did not add my two cents on the Twins' clinching of the Central Division for the third straight season (particularly since I missed the beginning of the Vikings' game to watch the end of the Twins' victory over the Sox).
Prior to the game, our favorite mouth from the South Side, Mark Buehrle, guaranteed that the Twins would not clinch when he was on the mound. First, how pathetic. It has come to this for Buehrle--a promise not to be around for the final humiliation. Second, what did Buehrle mean? Of course he would not be on the mound when the Twins clinched, even if he were the starting pitcher. If the Twins clinched, as they did, the Twins would clinch when the Twins' pitcher was on the mound as the Sox have last at bat at home.
Surely Buehrle understood this and simply meant that the Twins would not win a game that he was pitching. Well, the Twins did win a game that Buehrle was pitching and the Twins' victory was largely attributable to Buehrle's poor performance as four Twins players went deep on little B.
What made the victory over Buehrle even more satisfying was that last week Buehrle had gone out of his way to insult all Twins pitchers not named Santana or Radke. Silva looked pretty good in besting, by far, Chicago's purported ace.
In the end, the Twins got their clinching victory, and Twins' fans--as they have grown increasingly accustomed to--are assured of at least a few more seasons of seeing a Chicago team led by a blowhard with an inflated sense of his own ability, an underappreciation of his opponents' ability, and a fixation on proving himself right rather than playing good baseball. C'est la vie, Chicago, c'est la vie.
Tomorrow: Where's the D? Plus, when the mute button is the best alternative.