Their offense was listless and error-prone, going nowhere for the first time this season even though it was matched against the NFL's worst defense.
So Minnesota's defense took over, proving once again that the Vikings' best season in 23 years is about a lot more than flashy receivers and high-scoring games.
Dwayne Rudd's 63-yard fumble return late in the third quarter awoke the Vikings and sparked their tougher-than-it-sounds 24-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
Rudd's score, set up by a John Randle sack, gave the Vikings (9-1) a 14-3 lead. The defense allowed just four first downs the rest of the way and set up 10 more points in the first 3:34 of the fourth quarter.
Although Randall Cunningham showed no signs of last week's knee surgery, running for a TD and throwing for another, the Vikings' underrated defense made the plays that mattered most.
"In a tight ball game it doesn't take but one play, and (Rudd's TD) was that play to get us going," said defensive end Derrick Alexander, who had both his sacks after Rudd's score. "After that, everything just started clicking for us. It was just a spectacular game."
Off to their best start since the 1975 team was 10-0, the Vikings protected their two-game lead in the NFC Central and maintained their one-game lead over surprising Atlanta in the race for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
After blowing out Green Bay at Lambeau Field last month, the Vikings know they can all but clinch the division title by sweeping their interstate rivals.
"Huge week. Huge week," said cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock, whose fourth-quarter interception led to Randy Moss' clinching 61-yard touchdown catch. "I'm going out now and get Green Bay on my mind right now."
The loss was the seventh in eight games for Cincinnati (2-8), which took advantage of eight Minesota penalties in the first half and the first two interceptions of rookie Altrell Hawkins' career to keep the game close.
The Bengals also did one of their best jobs of the season stopping the run. Robert Smith had only 58 yards and Leroy Hoard 52, the first time in seven games an opposing back failed to top 100 against Cincinnati.
But Cincinnati averaged just 3 yards per play, its worst production of the season, and wilted when the Vikings made their move.
"I'm frustrated. There are a lot of frustrated people in this locker room," said Neil O'Donnell, who threw for 28 yards in the first half and 77 total before Jeff Blake relieved in the fourth quarter. "No one is giving us a chance except the people in this locker room. This is all we've got."
Once again, it wasn't enough.
The Vikings' lead was 7-3 in the third quarter when Hawkins' second interception started one of Cincinnati's best drives of the day. At the Minnesota 36, O'Donnell dropped back to pass. Randle, starting from right end, beat left tackle Kevin Sargent to the outside and lunged at the ball just as O'Donnell was about to let it go.
Randle knocked the ball free and Rudd scooped it up. He only had to beat a pair of offensive linemen on his return for a 14-3 lead.
"That killed us," Sargent said.
Cincinnati went three-and-out on it's next possession, and David Palmer's 19-yard punt return helped set up Anderson's 32-yard field goal to make it 17-3.
Hitchcock intercepted on Blake's third play, and the Vikings needed just one play -- Cunningham's perfectly thrown 61-yard TD pass to Moss -- to put the game away. The rookie beat Thomas Randolph 1-on-1 for his first score since he had two in the Oct. 5 victory at Green Bay.
"I like where we're at," said Vikings coach Dennis Green. "I don't think many coaches have ever been 9-1. We feel good about it, but we don't feel like we've accomplished any great thing."
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