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Vikes offense tears up Saints

But questions remain if one-sided Minnesota can make the Super Bowl.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2001


MINNEAPOLIS -- Go ahead and take a look at who remains in the NFL playoffs and you will notice something special about the Minnesota Vikings.

No other team can change a scoreboard so quickly.

The turf may be flat and fast at the Metrodome, but everyone knows the Vikings play on an uneven field.

So what if the Vikings -- who allowed 104 points to finish the regular season with three straight losses -- look like half a team?

There may not be a defense that can stop them besides their own.

That was never more evident than in the Vikings 34-16 win over the New Orleans Saints in Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game.

Quarterback Daunte Culpepper passed for 302 yards and threw three touchdowns -- including strikes of 53 and 68 yards to Randy Moss -- to ignite their explosive offense.

And the Vikings porous defense did just enough to slow the Saints, intercepting quarterback Aaron Brooks twice.

"There's teams that have the best defenses that are not in the playoffs and we're still playing," said Vikings cornerback Robert Tate. "The main thing is if we stick together and believe in each other, they can throw all the records and that stuff out the window."

The victory returns the Vikings (12-5) to the NFC Championship game, where they completely ruined a 15-1 season in '98 by being upset by the Atlanta Falcons 30-27 in the Metrodome.

Minnesota will play the winner of today's Eagles-Giants game in the Meadowlands. Of course, they will be pulling hard for Philadelphia since a win by the Eagles would allow them to host next Sunday's title game. New Orleans, which won its first playoff game last week, finished 11-7.

"It's a great feeling to have that type of opportunity again," said Vikings running back Robert Smith, who rushed for 74 yards on 25 carries.

"Obviously, we wasted our opportunity in 1998. The most important thing for us will be to go out there and play our best game next week and not just go through the motions. I think we did that a little bit the last three games of the year. It's a new season."

Culpepper, who made an amazing recovery from a high ankle sprain, said he felt "revived," when he woke Saturday morning after a bout with a 24-hour virus.

Not only did he finish 17-of-31 passing for 302 yards and the three touchdowns, but he rushed for 51 yards, including a 30-yard dash up the middle to set up his scoring pass to Carter just before halftime.

It didn't take Moss and the Vikings long to shake off the funk of their three-game losing streak to end the regular season.

On their third offensive play, Culpepper hit Moss between cornerback Fred Thomas and safety Darren Perry. Moss outraced them to the end zone for an electrifying 53-yard touchdown.

"That was being into the game. Somebody had to ignite the crowd and also my teammates," Moss said. "Just to start the party, really. Keep everything up.

"The last three games, we'd been kind of lackadaisical. But now it's playoff time and you win or take your a-- home."

The Saints were in the game until two plays -- one just before the half and one after -- enabled the Vikings to pull away.

Carter caught a 17-yard touchdown from Culpepper over the head of cornerback Kevin Mathis.

And on the third play of the second half, Culpepper hit Moss on a quick pass in the flat. Somehow Moss went from a dead stop and accelerated past Mathis and Perry like they were rooted in the Metrodome turf for a 68-yard touchdown.

Instead of trailing by a touchdown in the third quarter, the Saints were down 24-3 less than 90 seconds into the second half.

"We went in all week saying in this certain situation and this look, we want to throw you the ball and you get what you can get," Moss said. "Luckily, Cris' man was off and inside trying to support the run, he threw me the ball, I just had to split two guys and go to the house."

Even Carter, who had eight receptions for 120 yards, was amazed by Moss on that play.

"You're not going to see a lot of people make that play," Carter said. "That is unbelievable to catch the ball in traffic and not on a dead run. He caught the ball and they had the angle on him. He outran the angle. That's why I ran down to the end zone. People have nicknames. His nickname is Super Freak and that's why."

The Vikings didn't know what to expect entering the game. But if ever a team needed a bye week to regroup, it was Minnesota.

The Vikings looked horrible dropping three straight to end the regular season. Minnesota's defense allowed an average of 34 points to the Rams, Green Bay and Indianapolis.

"I really didn't know how we were going to respond after losing to Indianapolis and then coming in here," Moss said. "I was cautious myself on how we were going to play today. I really didn't know. With all the energy we had around the locker room all week, in my mind, I thought we were going to come out here and dominate. I think today we played a heck of a game."

Even against the Vikings suspect defense, the Saints struggled.

They tried to resurrect their once-potent ground game with the return of running back Ricky Williams, who had not played since breaking his right ankle Nov. 12. But Williams was ineffective, rushing six times for 14 yards.

That put a lot of pressure on the 24-year-old Brooks. He completed 30-of-48 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns and had a team-high 29 yards rushing.

But the Vikings did a good job of pressuring Brooks, sacking him twice and forcing a pair of interceptions.

"Aaron didn't play very well today," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "This was his first chance to play in a situation like this and he can do better than that."

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