The Minnesota Vikings had gotten off to a 5-1 start in the 2004 NFL season but had struggled thereafter. By the time they faced the Detroit Lions on December 19 they were at 7-6 and trying to stay alive for a playoff spot. Coached by Mike Tice, the offense featured sixth-year QB Daunte Culpepper (pictured above), adept at running as well as passing, and highly talented – if also temperamental – WR Randy Moss. They had beaten Detroit four weeks earlier.
The Lions, under Head Coach Steve Mariucci, were a rebuilding club with a 5-8 record, having lost six of their last seven games. There was young talent on offense in QB Joey Harrington, WR Roy Williams, and rookie first draft choice Kevin Jones, but Harrington was proving to be inconsistent and the defense was tough but thin on depth.
There were 62,337 fans in attendance at Detroit’s Ford Field. The home team had first possession and drove 59 yards in 13 plays. Harrington completed four passes and Jason Hanson kicked a 32-yard field goal to make it 3-0. The Vikings came right back with a long series of their own, going 85 yards in 12 plays. Daunte Culpepper completed five throws along the way, including two to TE Jermaine Wiggins for first downs and a 36-yard touchdown pass to WR Nate Burleson. It was 7-3 in favor of Minnesota after one quarter of play.
The teams traded punts heading into the second quarter before the Vikings struck with a big play. In a third-and-24 situation at his own 18, Culpepper threw to Randy Moss for an 82-yard TD and, with another successful PAT, a 14-3 lead. The Lions responded with a long, sustained 11-play drive that covered 83 yards. Harrington completed a pass to Roy Williams for 24 yards on a third-and-three play and Kevin Jones carried the ball 6 times for 42 yards that included a 16-yard scoring run. In the final two minutes, Detroit added a 23-yard field goal by Hanson and it was a 14-13 game at the half.
In Detroit’s first possession of the third quarter, and backed up deep in its own territory, Harrington (pictured at left) threw to Williams for another big gain of 37 yards. But the drive ended with SS Corey Chavous intercepting a pass at his own 37. The Lions got a break three plays later when Culpepper was picked off in turn by FS Brock Marion, who returned it to the Minnesota 33. However, three plays after that Jones fumbled and DT Spencer Johnson recovered for the Vikings to snuff out the threat. The teams traded punts for the remainder of the period.
Early in the fourth quarter, Harrington was intercepted by CB Brian Williams and the Vikings proceeded to put together an eight-play, 68-yard drive. Culpepper connected with Burleson for a 37-yard touchdown. Detroit came back with an 83-yard series that featured a Harrington pass to WR Az-Zahir Hakim for 40 yards, who then lateraled to RB Shawn Bryson for another 22 yards to the Minnesota 14 and, three plays later, Harrington threw to Roy Williams for a nine-yard TD. With the successful two-point conversion on a pass from Harrington to WR Tai Streets, the game was tied at 21-21.
There were just over six minutes remaining as the Vikings took over for their next series. Culpepper came out throwing, with the big completion to RB Moe Williams for 28 yards to the Detroit 34. The tenth play of the 73-yard drive was an 11-yard Culpepper pass to Williams for a TD. Morten Andersen added the extra point and it was 28-21 with the clock now down to 1:37.
Now it was Harrington throwing on every down as the Lions took over at their 20 following a touchback on the kickoff. Three consecutive completions got the ball to the Detroit 40 and, after an incomplete pass, Harrington hit Streets for 15 more yards to get the ball into Vikings territory. A 23-yard toss to Roy Williams moved the Lions to the 15 and a penalty on Minnesota took it to the one. From there, Harrington threw to Williams for a touchdown and it appeared that the game was going into overtime.
However, on the usually-automatic extra point attempt, a bad snap by long snapper Don Muhlbach bounced before reaching holder Nick Harris. Unable to set the ball for Hanson to kick, Harris was tackled and the PAT was no good. The Vikings recovered the ensuing onside kick and were able to run out the remaining seconds and win by a score of 28-27.
The game was close statistically as the Lions barely edged Minnesota in both total yards (463 to 461) and first downs (24 to 21). Detroit sacked Culpepper five times, while Harrington was dumped twice by the Vikings, but the Lions also turned the ball over three times, to one suffered by Minnesota.
Daunte Culpepper completed 25 of 35 passes for 404 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Nate Burleson (pictured above) had 5 catches for 134 yards and two TDs and Randy Moss contributed 102 yards on his four pass receptions that included the long touchdown. Jermaine Wiggins had the most receptions for the Vikings with his 6 for 39 yards. RB Michael Bennett gained 51 rushing yards on 13 carries and also had another 51 yards on three catches.
For the Lions, Joey Harrington was successful on 25 of 44 throws for 361 yards and two TDs while two were picked off. Roy Williams, despite suffering from a hip injury, caught 7 of those passes for 104 yards and two scores. Az-Zahir Hakim gained 108 yards on four receptions. Kevin Jones (pictured below) rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown on 19 attempts and also made four catches for 35 yards.
The Vikings lost two close games to finish out the regular season at 8-8, but they still qualified for the playoffs as a Wild Card. They defeated the division-rival Packers in the first round but lost to Philadelphia at the Divisional level. The loss to Minnesota officially eliminated the Lions from postseason contention and they ended up third in the division at 6-10. Still, it was still the club’s best record since 2000.
For Daunte Culpepper, it was a year in which he led the league in passing yards (4717) and completions (379), both career highs, as were his 39 TD passes, 8.6 yards per attempt, and 69.2 completion percentage. He was chosen to the Pro Bowl for the third time. It was also the pinnacle of a career that quickly faded. Culpepper was limited to seven games in 2005 due to injury and never again played in more than eight during a season as he moved around to three more teams and, eventually, the UFL.
Likewise, Joey Harrington never lived up to his promise. He, too, achieved career highs in 2004 in passing yards (3047) and touchdowns (19) but failed to meet expectations in ’05 and was dealt to Miami – where he became a teammate of Culpepper.