For reasons neither known nor apparent, the NFL smoothed out what typically is a Sunday afternoon schedule with too many early games and two few late ones.
The problem, of course, is that the six games that started at 1:00 p.m. ET (with the other five beginning at at 4:05 p.m. or 4:15 p.m. ET) featured four snoozers, one blowout that became a close game, and one compelling, playoff-atmosphere, Heinz Field-record crowd, perfect October football afternoon battle between the defending NFL champs and a team that has loaded the cannon (but for Darren Sharper) in the hopes of finally getting back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years — and winning it for the first time in 44.
The 10-point victory margin matched the same difference from the day these two franchises met nearly 35 years ago in New Orleans. And while the Vikings’ offense was a lot more effective on Sunday than it was when the team’s only points came from a blocked punt and a failed conversion, there was a similar sense of inevitability throughout most of the afternoon.
No matter what the Vikings did, they wouldn’t win the game.
But they sure as hell tried.
The game started sluggishly, with two strong defenses forcing an exchange of punts in a field-position battle that the Vikings eventually lost, thanks to a couple of shanks from Chris Kluwe. Still, the damage wasn’t serious, with the Steelers leading 3-0 after the first quarter.
And then the Vikings’ offense woke up, putting together a methodical 13-play drive that gave Minnesota what would be its only lead, 7-3.
After trading punts again, the Steelers got the ball on their own nine, with 1:39 to play in the half. And the Minnesota defense played like it was the fourth quarter, allowing the Steelers to move down the field and score a touchdown that game them a 10-7 lead at the half.
Pittsburgh seemed to be poised to put the thing out of reach on the first drive after intermission, with a couple of personal fouls from the purple people putting the Steelers inside the 10 in little over three minutes.
Somewhat amazingly, the Vikings’ defense stiffened, holding the Steelers to three points and keeping the score to a manageable margin, 13-7.
Minnesota responded, with a gutsy call on fourth and one from the Pittsburgh 35 turning into a 34-yard catch-and-run to Brett Favre’s new favorite target, Sidney Rice, giving the Vikings first and goal at the one. But after one run and two failed pass attempts, the coach known as “Chilly” got cold feet, opting for a field goal instead of going for the lead. 13-10.
After two more punts, the Steelers cobbled together another good drive, one that seemed to be destined to finally extend the margin to the final outcome of Super Bowl IX. But Rashard Mendenhall fumbled inside the five, on the second play of the fourth quarter.
After the game, coach Mike Tomlin said that Mendenhall got “a little careless,” but Tomlin added that Mendenhall’s spot as the starter isn’t in jeopardy — even though at one point late in the game Mewelde Moore was getting the reps.
After the fumble, the Vikings embarked on an epic 18-play drive, fueled by a remarkable toe-tapping sideline catch from Rice on third down and nearly 20. The official looking right at the play called it incomplete, and he was overturned via replay.
Then, the Vikings seemed to take the lead on a 10-yard pass from Favre to, fittingly, Rice. But a phantom tripping call on tight end Jeff Dugan wiped the score off the board.
And it was a horrible call, the kind of call that reinforces the suspicions of those who think that the league wants to see the Steelers win.
“I didn’t like it because Jeff Dugan is sitting there with a knot on his
thigh on a tripping penalty,” coach Brad Childress said, explaining that Dugan (as the video clearly indicated) was merely executing a cut block.
Two plays later, defensive end Brett Keisel applied a cut block to Favre’s arm while he was setting up to throw, and linebacker LaMarr Woodley turned in a slow-motion version of James Harrison’s touchdown run from Super Bowl XLIII.
The 10-point lead finally had been achieved. And with less than seven minutes to play, this one was over.
Enter Percy Harvin.
The rookie with a bad shoulder that probably got a little worse worse thanks to a jarring hit earlier in the game from safety Ryan Clark, which prompted Brett Favre to run down the field like the mom that jumped into the pool during the volleyball game in Meet The Parents, went 88 yards for a touchdown. The play featured a lame tackle attempt from Jeff “Beer Muscles” Reed and Jeff Dugan’s revenge. (As we observed at the time, Twitter style, it probably does make sense when playing the Steelers to block the officials, too.)
Then the Vikings defense played like it wasn’t the fourth quarter and the Vikings got the ball back and embarked on another memorable drive that ultimately would be remembered for a very different reason.
A play that seemed to turn the sense of inevitability toward the Vikings came from Minnesota’s 45, with a short pass from Favre to Adrian Peterson and a crushing blow delivered by Peterson against cornerback William Gay en route to a 26-yard gain that put the Vikings in position to at least force a tie — and possibly to win in regulation.
A play later, the Vikings were inside the Steelers’ 20, thanks to a seven-yard gain from Chester Taylor on a short pass.
But on the next play, with 1:15 on a rolling clock, Taylor let a short screen pass slip through his hands. Linebacker Keyaron Fox caught the ball, and embarked on another slo-mo saunter all the way to the end zone.
Finally, it was over. Pittsburgh 27, Minnesota 17.
So in a game where a suddenly shaky Vikings defense held up their end of the bargain (except in the last 99 seconds of the first half), it was the offense that moved the ball but, ultimately, handed 14 points to the Steelers in the fourth quarter.
For the Vikings, the 6-1 record is still impressive, especially with the Giants and Falcons losing on Sunday. But with a trip to Lambeau for a game against the two-loss Packers on the horizon, the hammerlock that the Minnesotans previously had on the NFC North suddenly is in jeopardy.
The Steelers have a full 15 days until their next game, a Monday nighter at Mile High. And it’s followed by a visit from the surprisingly 5-2 Bengals. So while the defending champs should be happy with their move to 5-2 (especially after starting out 1-2), there’s still a lot of work to be done in order to get back to the top of the conference — and they can’t rely every week on two 75-plus-yard defensive touchdowns in the last half of the fourth quarter.