- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- After all, it's just a game played by kids. Pro football may be sophisticated enough now to have game plans prepared by Powerpoint computer programs with a head coach and 20 assistants to run around teaching the fine points.
But Randy Moss once again proved it's just a game. Sandlot rules. Every Saturday, Moss, Daunte Culpepper and the offense practice the improbable. Culpepper will heave the football as long as he can throw it. Moss usually maneuvers to catch it. And then, watch out. If Moss isn't in the end zone, he's looking to toss the ball backwards to a teammate. That's right, the old "Hook and Ladder."
On Sunday, Moss climbed the ladder and delivered the "hook" that left the Vikings the only unbeaten team in the NFC. His 59-yard over-the-shoulder, no-look, hook-and-ladder lateral to halfback Moe Williams with no time left on the first-half clock produced the go-ahead momentum that propelled the Vikings to a 28-20 victory over the Broncos.
"It was a once in a lifetime thing that happens every so often," said Moss, who burned the Broncos for 10 catches and 151 yards. "We're just lucky we scored before the half."
But the Vikings are lucky and good. They really do practice these wacky plays toward the end of Saturday practices for fun. Coach Mike Tice hates it because, like most coaches, he hates to waste practice time. Still, Moss and Culpepper love it.
"Sandlot football is for the street, but sometimes you get away with a sandlot play and that's what that was," Tice said. "It was great improvisation by two heads-up players. It takes a great throw by the quarterback who took a big hit on the play. But it was a lot of fun."
The play summarized where the Vikings are during their 6-0 start. Some of their play is sloppy. After dominating the Broncos in the first quarter, the Vikings offense hit a wall in the second quarter. The Broncos tied the score on a 4-yard Clinton Portis touchdown run with 1:51 left in the first half, so the Vikings needed a few big plays before getting a stern lecture from Tice at halftime.
Culpepper went shotgun and drove the ball to the Broncos 45-yard line. Then, as they did a few more times than Tice would like, the Vikings offense made mental mistakes. With 45 seconds left in the half, Culpepper was sacked on first down. A false start by Moss followed. And then Culpepper was sacked on second down.
What play do you call on third and 24 from the Vikings 41 with 12 seconds left? Culpepper tried the sandlot. Moss ran a deep post, and Culpepper scrambled to his right to buy time. Culpepper has 70-yard range to his arm, but this pass was underthrown.
Moss came back and caught the ball at the Broncos 15. Safeties Nick Ferguson and Sam Brandon tried to pull him down. Normally, in practices, Moss tries to dish the ball off to a trailing teammate, and most times cornerback Denard Walker either grabs it or picks up a fumble.
In fact, this Saturday in practice, Walker did that and center Matt Birk told Moss, "Way to go Randy, you just cost us the game."
Well, this time Moss won it. Williams was the trailing halfback. Because Ferguson and Brandon had Moss low, the Superman receiver had his arms free to toss the ball.
"I was yelling, 'Moss, Moss, Moss,'" Williams said. "I made eye contact. It's just like one of those plays at the end of practice."
Williams trotted 15 yards into the end zone untouched to put the Vikings ahead, 14-7. A replay challenge from the booth upheld the call on the field, and the Vikings stunned the Broncos.
"I knew that I was going down," Moss said. "I thought that I was able to get it off because they had my legs and waist, but they didn't have my arms. I don't want to call it luck because we work on that play."
Moss admitted he didn't recognize that Williams was the player he was tossing the ball to, but he recognized the purple jersey. That's all that was necessary. The Vikings opened the second half with 71-yard touchdown drive capped by Onterrio Smith's 5-yard run. That was followed by a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown by Lance Johnstone. All of a sudden a close game was turning into a blowout. The three unanswered scores put the Vikings ahead, 28-7 midway through the third quarter.
"It's true when it rains it pours, and when you're winning, everything seems like it works," said Culpepper, who was 19 of 26 for 277 yards and two touchdowns. "It happens like that. But the main thing is we stuck together. We didn't fall apart. We had a couple times where we went three-and-out back to back (the first two possessions), but we stuck together. I think that's what puts us over the hump."
Over the hump? The Vikings are in the stratosphere. At 6-0, they are three-and-a-half games ahead of the Packers, and their next two games are in the loud Metrodome against the Giants and Packers. Because the Packers have a bye week before coming to Minneapolis, the Vikings have the chance to open a five-game lead with eight games left.
"We have a confident football team," Tice said. "I think you can tell that. Just go in the locker room and spend a couple minutes with them. They're a pretty confident group, but they are very young. At times, they don't do the right thing and aren't smart enough. We continue to grow as a team and the confident is there. I think we need to continue to get better. We've got a ways to go."
The Vikings have a few issues Tice will harp on in practice all week. They take a lot of dumb penalties, something Tice thought he had cleaned up early in the season. But the Vikings were flagged 14 times for 108 yards. There were false starts, personal fouls and some holdings. The Broncos defensive line was the first to physically challenge the overpowering Vikings offensive line, and it created protection problems and some difficulty running the football.
Moss and Culpepper, though, can make up for a lot of deficiencies. Expect for Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, the Moss-Culpepper union is the best in football. The Broncos defense had to focus a lot of energy covering Moss.
The Broncos main strategy was to put 6-foot-4 Lenny Walls in some man situations when Moss would line up wide to the right side of the field. Walls gave Moss a 10-yard cushion most of the time, and Moss caught seven of his 10 passes in those situations for about 121 yards.
"When they give me that cushion, it gives me and the offense different options of not throwing deep," Moss said. "You have the underneath routes. We can work some over the middle routes. I don't think they were going to try to give me anything deep."
And they didn't. To Walls credit, he didn't get embarrassed. Where things broke down, though, were on the broken plays when Culpepper scrambled to his right. In the first quarter, the Broncos jumped on a potential sprint screen pass to Moss, so Culpepper scrambled right and hit Kelly Campbell with a 47-yard touchdown pass.
Then there was The Moss "Hook and Ladder," which just shows how well the two work together.
"He has a lot of faith in me to catch the ball," Moss said. "We've been together since 1999."
Culpepper admitted that the Vikings wouldn't have won this game a year ago. He didn't have as much confidence as he has now. He's coming off a 23-interception season, but he's throwing the ball without fear and hasn't thrown a pick this year in 95 passes.
"I don't particularly like it that much," Tice said of the Vikings Saturday improvisational play. "But you can't take all the fun out of the game. I roll my eyes and cringe when they do it, but I guess I'll let them keep doing it."
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
4dEric D. Williams
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