In sports, you never know when the decisive play or plays in a game will occur. Sometimes it is the first play of the game. Sometimes it is the last. This past Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals visited the Minnesota Vikings and were soundly defeated 30-10. The score, however, did not reveal how close the game was during the critical moments. The Vikings’ win wasn’t a mere reversal of what happened to them the week before in Arizona. Instead, it was the end result of masterful work by Brett Favre — and it didn’t show up in his stat line.
The Bengals trailed 16-7 at the beginning of the second half. Cincinnati committed a whopping 8 first-half penalties and also fumbled deep in their own territory with 4 seconds remaining. Carson Palmer began a drive with 31 seconds to go that had no direction or purpose. Cedric Benson had accumulated 41 yards on his first 7 carries. Rather than run out the clock or take a deep shot against a man, 1-deep zone coverage, the Bengals threw two short passes to fullback Brian Leonard. On the second attempt, Antoine Winfield separated him from the ball. Ryan Longwell connected from 45 yards and the Vikings snatched three “free” points from their guests.
At the opening of the second half, the Bengals kicked off to the Vikings and began a critical drive. With the score 16-7, a touchdown would likely put the game out of reach. The defense had to get a stop. Early in the drive, CBS’ Dan Dierdorf complimented the Bengal defense for its gap discipline and its ability to force Adrian Peterson to down the line of scrimmage in search of a hole. The Bengals were still in the game.
At the 12:46 mark of the 3rd quarter, the Vikings faced a 2nd and 5 from the Cincinnati 45 yard line. Chester Taylor had just made two nice plays in the middle of the field to move the ball into Bengal territory. Prior to the snap, #40, big Jake Kleinsasser jumped early. 2nd and 10. This is an ideal down for the defense. The Bengals took full advantage and defensive tackle Tank Johnson planted Favre into the turf for a 7 yard loss. 3rd and 17.
This is the moment that Brett Favre took over the game for the Vikings. He got up slowly, as he has so many times before, called the next play and brought his team to the line of scrimmage.
That’s all it took to get the Vikings back to a “manageable” 3rd and 12. Dan Dierdorf said: “Marvin Lewis (Bengals head coach) is just beside himself.” Favre’s change in cadence sapped the Bengals momentum from the sack on the previous play, slowed down the pass rush for the ensuing play, and opened up the playbook for Darrell Bevel and Brad Childress. There are many more plays that work on 3rd and 12 than there are for 3rd and 17.
The next play was a little circle route that isolated Chester Taylor on a linebacker. And he was off to the races.
Taylor ran to the Bengal 25-yard line. First down. The next play? Taylor ran a draw down to the 8-yard line. First and goal! The Cincinnati Bengal defense blew a great opportunity to get off the field at the most critical juncture of the game. The drive ended with Adrian Peterson pummeling the Bengal defense for three straight carries and a touchdown. The drive concluded at the 8:50 mark of the 3rd quarter and many Bengal defenders standing with their hands on their hips.
The most critical moments of this critical drive were determined by something that cannot be wholly quantified — but it was a great demonstration of awareness of “the moment.” The eagerness and anticipation of an aggressive Bengals defense was ripped out by an innocuous little play at mid-field. Sometimes, it’s the little things that mean a lot.
The Vikings are going to be a tough out. I said it in the pre-season. Not much has changed.