The difference was so subtle. The swing was so great.
Though Minnesota and Tampa Bay played nearly as equals Monday night, the Vikings’ 30-23 victory widened the gap between them to 2½ games in the NFC’s Central Division.
The Buccaneers were stalled on Minnesota’s 43 yard-line when the game ended. They were left to ponder the two turnovers that led Vikings touchdowns, two long drives that led to field goals instead of touchdowns and a missed opportunity on running back Mike Alstott’s overthrown pass to third-string tight end Todd Yoder.
They were the subtle differences that kept the preseason favorite Bucs (3-3), now losers of three in a row, from getting back in the thick of the NFC Central.
“That’s the difference between winning and losing when you play against good teams,” Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy said. “The last three weeks we have not made them, so we are going to have to go back to work, come out of this bye and get ourselves in the mindset that we start to make them.”
The Vikings (5-0) have yet to beat anybody by more than eight points, but they keep finding new ways to win. This week their defense set up two touchdowns against the Bucs by stripping Keyshawn Johnson of a reception on the game’s first play and taking the ball from Aaron Stecker on a kickoff return.
When the Vikings, trailing 23-20 in the fourth quarter, needed a big play from their biggest star, they got it from Randy Moss. He split Tampa Bay defenders John Lynch and Ronde Barber and scored on a 52-yard pass from Daunte Culpepper.
Best to Come?
The Vikings insist they have yet to play their best game.
“You’d rather be 5-0 and improving,” Culpepper said, “than 4-1.”
The Vikings were outgained 346-322. They allowed Jacquez Green to catch a career-high 11 passes for 131 yards. They allowed a season-high six sacks.
They make a case for having room to improve.
“We can’t get too cocky or too confident and think that we’re unbeatable,” Moss said, “but at the same time when we come to play we’re hard to stop.”
But if the Vikings were ordinary, they had an opportunity to prove it after Gary Anderson’s 52-yard field goal was blocked by the Buccaneers’ Warren Sapp and turned into a 53-yard touchdown return by Donnie Abraham.
Instead, they came right back with the touchdown pass to Moss and held off two fourth-quarter drives by the Buccaneers, who helped matters. On a fourth-and-1, Alstott overthrew a wide-open Yoder on the halfback pass. Keyshawn Johnson, hit by Orlando Thomas, failed to come up with a reception that would have continued the Bucs’ final drive.
“It is disappointing again to lose another lead in the fourth quarter,” Dungy said. “You don’t refocus your goals. You just know it is going to be tough to win the division. We are going to have to play perfectly and hope they hit some bumpy roads.”
The Vikings are two-thirds of the way through a six-game stretch that includes five games against Central Division foes. The Buccaneers’ next game is an Oct. 19 contest against Detroit.
“Every week we’re losing, it gets longer and longer,” Sapp said. “We’ve got to handle our business. This was a tough game, but we can’t do anything about the Vikings until they come to Tampa.”
That comes on Oct. 29.