On paper, this one looked to be a possible old-school, low-scoring affair, as two (supposedly) stout defenses met up against two potent offenses.
Instead, it became an Arena League game, primarily in the fourth quarter.
Through 45 minutes of action, the Vikings led 20-10. With little more than 10 minutes to play, quarterback Brett Favre connected with tight end Visanthe Shiancoe for the second time on the afternoon, pushing the score to 27-10.
It was over. And it could have gotten dangerous for Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, with Jared Allen and comrades pinning back their ears and teeing off on the second-year quarterback who was stupid enough to keep trying to lead his team back.
And then something strange happened.
Flacco led his team back.
In less than 90 seconds, Flacco and company cut the score to 27-17, thanks to a quick and efficient seven-play drive capped by a 32-yard touchdown catch that was much more difficult than the pass Mark Clayton dropped two weeks ago with the New England game in the balance.
So with Vikings fans feeling a little nervous but still confident, Adrian Peterson erased those worries with a 58-yard run that took the ball firmly into field-goal range. Sure, the purple people were then nervous for different reasons when Peterson came up limping after a failed third-down swing pass. But the field goal from Ryan Longwell moved the lead to 13 with six minutes to play.
Peterson was moving fine on the sidelines and, more importantly, the game was once again over.
Three plays later, Baltimore cut the margin to 30-24, thanks to a 63-yard catch and run from running back Ray Rice and a 12-yard strike from Flacco to Derrick Mason.
Then came the sudden sense, surely felt by everyone in the Metrodome, that the Vikings were destined to yield the lead to Flacco’s Ravens — with the only question being whether Favre would have enough time to save the bacon with some late-game heroics.
Fortunately for the Vikings, their next-to-last drive ended quickly, with a kickoff return that didn’t make it to the 15 and a fourth-down punt from the six coming after Ray Lewis showed Allen how to properly rope a 40-year-old calf.
The next series of events capping the stunning comeback came with amazing speed: Punt, Ed Reed, muff, return, handoff, Ray Rice, untouched, 34 yards, extra point good, 31-30. The only thing left was for the Ravens to stop the Vikings, take a nap on the plane home, and then hit the tizzown with Andy Bernard.
But as we Tweeted (to the dismay of Rohan Marley), the Ravens left the Vikings with too much time to salvage the wreckage. So down the field went Favre, with another 58-yard play, a catch by Sidney Rice, who somehow caught the ball while giving Frank Walker an unwanted horsey ride.
From the Baltimore 24, the Vikings then turned conservative, to the murmuring dismay of fans who knew that the defense wouldn’t be able to keep the Ravens from reclaiming the lead.
Still, coach Brad Childress was prepared to settle for a field goal, and willing to put the game in the hands of a defense that had collapsed like a Jenga tower over the past seven minutes of play.
And collapse again it did. The Ravens had more than enough time to drive into field-goal range, and the look on Brett Favre’s face as Flacco again led the team down the field sent the perfect “I busted my ass all day and now we’re gonna blow this damn thing because the defense couldn’t make one freaking stop in the fourth quarter” message.
Enter Steven Hauschka. The little-known second-year player who prompted the Ravens to send packing the guy who had done the franchise’s kicking since 1991. A snap that squirted a bit to the right seemed to screw up the timing just enough for Hauschka to pull the kick to the left.
“I feel like I let them down,” Hauschka said after the game. (Though we’re not psychologists, the feeling was likely an appropriate one under the circumstances.)
The good news for the Ravens is that Baltimore apparently has found their next John Unitas in a kid who was rejected not by Pittsburgh’s pro franchise (as Unitas once was) but by its college football team. Flacco is the real deal, and he’ll help keep the Ravens competitive for years to come.
The bad news is that, after starting 3-0, the Ravens are now 3-3 and the margin for error is shrinking. Of the ten games after the bye, they need to win at least seven to make it back to the postseason — and with contests against the Broncos, Bengals, Steelers twice, Colts, Bears, and Packers, it might be more than even the new Unitas can muster.
For the Vikings, Brett Favre can only carry the team for so long, and we can only wonder how much worse than 6-0 the NFC North leaders would be if Favre had decided to stay on his tractor.
Without him, the Vikings would be 3-3 at best — and possibly 2-4.