After a stressful four days of practice, Vikings wideout Randy Moss and his bum right hamstring took last Friday off. In his place wideout Nate Burleson ran one of Moss's signature routes--a drag pattern across the back of the end zone. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper threw the ball high, and it glanced off the fingertips of a leaping Burleson. From the sideline Moss screamed, "That's right where I want it Sunday! Real high!"
A light moment in a tune-up practice? Not to Moss and Culpepper. Both men knew the heavy-legged Moss, six weeks removed from a third-degree hamstring strain and at perhaps 80% readiness for Sunday's game with the Jaguars, would be back in the lineup. They also knew there'd be a time in the game when they'd try to connect on their favorite play.
That time came with 5:38 left in the third quarter at the Metrodome, with the score tied at 13 and the Vikings facing third-and-goal at the Jacksonville two. Moss lined up wide right in a four-receiver set, covered by cornerback Rashean Mathis. At the snap Moss took a couple of steps straight-ahead, deked each way, then moved from right to left across the back of the end zone. Mathis was in close pursuit, and strong safety Donovin Darius floated over to help. Despite the double coverage Culpepper lasered the ball to the end line. Darius put up both arms, trying to deflect it, and Moss's hands shot up behind Darius. He gloved the ball high, then tightroped along the end line.
It was a daring throw and a remarkable catch. Surely other receivers were more open than the sandwiched Moss. "I'm sure they were," Culpepper said after the Vikings' 27--16 win. "But that's our play. I have total faith in him. We practice it 10 times a week. We call it picking peanuts off the DB's head. That's what he did."
Moss just shrugged. "It was designed to go to me," he said, "so even if the coverage is good, we know we can make the play."
Because he makes such plays, Moss is vital to the Vikings as they battle the Packers for the NFC North lead. Minnesota players and coaches have talked about being able to play at the top of their game without Moss. The numbers suggest otherwise. In the six games that Moss has started or played in extensively, the Vikings are 5--1 and averaging 29.5 points per game. In the three games he has missed plus two others in which he appeared in a total of nine plays, they are 2--3 and averaging 6.7 fewer points per game.
Last week trainers told coach Mike Tice that Moss would be fit to practice hard and play as much as he could handle against the Jaguars. On Sunday, Moss was on the field for 51 of 61 snaps and caught four passes for 40 yards. "You're not going to get a third-degree hamstring injury totally healed till the off-season," Tice said in his office on Sunday evening. "All along we were told it was an eight-week injury, which would mean he'd be close to normal against Seattle [on Dec. 12]. He was sluggish today because he has training-camp legs. He hadn't done anything for so long. He's got to build endurance in the muscle."
As Moss went through elaborate stretching exercises at his locker after the game, he said the words that Vikings fans have been waiting to hear, "Don't worry. I'll be back. I'll be 100." Well, even at 80%, he made the game-winning snag in a meeting between playoff contenders. That's what great players do.
Moss tightroped along the end line for the score that put Minnesota ahead to stay.