When it seemed the Minnesota Vikings were one big play away from missing their best chance to make the playoffs, Cris Carter made two big catches that saved them.
Carter made a falling sideline catch to keep a fourth-quarter drive alive and then finished the 99-yard march with a 36-yard touchdown catch to clinch a 21-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
After winning for the fourth time in five games, the Vikings (9-6) clinched a playoff spot when Washington lost at Arizona.
Minnesota could thank Carter--along with Leroy Hoard and a swarming defense--for its chance to return to the playoffs after missing out last season.
"It was a typical Cris Carter day," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "It was just an average day for him, which is great for anyone else."
Carter, picked last week for his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl, finished with eight catches for 89 yards and the clinching touchdown with 1:54 remaining. Hoard ran for 101 yards and Minnesota's first two touchdowns, and the defense gave up only eight first downs--one in the first half--and 169 yards.
It was only the second loss in six games for Tampa (5-10) and it spoiled Tony Dungy's return to Minnesota, where he served as defensive coordinator for four seasons until taking over in Tampa this season.
Trent Dilfer, who threw two interceptions in Minnesota territory--one of them in the end zone with 8:48 to play--took full blame for the defeat. He finished 13 for 32 for 104 yards.
"It comes down to the intangibles a quarterback has to have in order to execute in the fourth quarter," Dilfer said. "That's where I really failed today. I out-thought myself."
The Vikings sacked Dilfer three times and harassed him throughout the game, continuing a trend that started at Oakland on Nov. 17 when Minnesota ended a four-game losing streak and began its playoff push.
Minnesota seemed content to protect its lead, and its defense made the conservative game plan work. Even after Dilfer's second interception, the Buccaneers got the ball back at the Viking 42 with 6:44 left. But they were forced to punt and it was downed at the Minnesota one-yard line.
Hoard nearly was tackled for a safety on the first play by Chidi Ahanotu, and Minnesota needed Carter's sprawling sideline catch for a first down to keep the drive going.
"Maybe the greatest catch, at least for the time and situation, that I've ever seen," Coach Dennis Green said.