PHILADELPHIA - Randy Moss had an excused absence this time.
Minnesota’s star receiver was mistakenly pulled off the field for a fake field goal, and the Vikings misfired when it counted most on Sunday, squandering their chance to advance to the NFC championship game with a 27-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“That’s how football goes,” quarterback Daunte Culpepper said. “You’ve got to be able to play mistake-free football, but if you do make mistakes you’ve got to be able to make up for it.”
With all the pressure on their opponent in this divisional playoff game, the Vikings didn’t take advantage of all the opportunities provided by an Eagles team that looked very beatable.
Culpepper threw two interceptions in Philadelphia’s end of the field, and the defense committed four costly penalties, befitting the team’s up-then-down, mostly disappointing season.
And then there was the botched fake, a crazy play sure to be remembered for a while by Vikings fans.
Trailing 21-7, Minnesota faced fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line with less than five minutes remaining in the first half. As the offense awaited word, several players motioned to coach Mike Tice to go for it.
The kicking team ran out, though. Moss — who caught flak two weeks ago for leaving the field in frustration as the Vikings lined up for a desperation onside kick in Washington — jogged toward the sideline perpendicular to the goal line.
He stopped just before going out of bounds, however, and was ready to line up as an eligible receiver without anyone covering him.
Backup center Cory Withrow was on the field, unaware of plans for the fake, and coaches and teammates had to yell for Moss to come off to avoid a penalty for too many men on the field.
“I didn’t hear the call,” Withrow said.
Holder Gus Frerotte — Culpepper’s backup — took the snap, jumped up, looked left to where Moss would’ve been, and had nobody open. Frerotte was forced to throw the ball out of the end zone, and the Eagles took over on downs.
“We’d love to have a chance to do it again,” Frerotte said. “They probably didn’t even know it was coming. If we’d have thrown a touchdown, it would’ve been 21-14 and we would have had all the momentum. It’s just one of those things.”
Moss declined to comment after the game.
Minnesota, which started 5-1 before stumbling in the second half and finishing 8-8, began the season with high expectations. This talented team was in just about every game, including a 27-16 loss to Philadelphia on Monday night in September.
But whether it was a withering pass defense, ill-timed turnovers or just plain dumb mistakes, the Vikings always seemed to find more ways to hurt themselves than their opponent. This game was no different.
Dontarrious Thomas, Willie Offord, Ralph Brown and Antoine Winfield were called for penalties that totaled 83 yards and led to first downs on Eagles scoring drives.
A holding penalty on Thomas gave the Eagles a first down at the Minnesota 31 midway through the first quarter after an incompletion on third-and-6. Philadelphia took a 7-0 lead four plays later.
Pass interference calls on Offord and Winfield helped the Eagles drive 46 yards in just 29 seconds to go up 21-7 early in the second.
Then Brown was flagged for pass interference on Todd Pinkston early in the fourth quarter, a 46-yarder that set up a field goal by David Akers that stretched the lead to 24-7.
Culpepper, who set team records with 39 touchdowns and 4,717 yards passing this season, was flawless in last week’s 31-17 win at Green Bay — throwing for four TDs without a turnover.
Against the blitz-happy Eagles and their defense laden with Pro Bowlers, Culpepper was off his game — throwing interceptions on consecutive possessions in the third quarter when the Vikings still had a chance to come back.
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