MINNEAPOLIS -- Early in the second quarter of the NFC championship game, Randy Moss sprinted and weaved 18 yards with a screen pass. He was killing the Atlanta Falcons.
Moss had five catches for 71 yards at that point, just over 20 minutes into Sunday's game. All five catches had gone for first downs, including a 31-yard touchdown.His nifty catch-and-run on the screen helped the Minnesota Vikings to their second touchdown and a 17-7 lead. Then Moss disappeared, and so did all the oomph in the high-flying Minnesota offense.
Moss let a touchdown slip through his fingers on the Vikings' next drive, and he had just one more catch for 4 yards the rest of the day. That was the biggest reason the Falcons were able to rally for their shocking 30-27 overtime victory.
"They were taking me out of the game, and when you take one guy out of the game, whoever it is on offense has got to step up," Moss said. "I mean, we were driving, we stopped. We would drive, we'd stop. We really couldn't make it happen.
"That overtime, I don't think that our team as a whole really stepped up to the challenge."
Especially on offense, one of the most unlikely twists in Minnesota's unexpected demise.
After scoring an NFL-record 556 points during the regular season, beating Arizona 41-21 last weekend and building a 20-7 lead with 2:45 left in the second quarter against Atlanta, the Vikings fizzled.
They were held to just seven points over the final 44:37, nearly three full quarters. That was an outstanding job by Atlanta's defense, and an astounding failure for the Vikings' offense.
"Everybody's trying to make plays, you press a little bit," said offensive coordinator Brian Billick, who is expected to leave soon for a head coaching job in Baltimore or Cleveland. "There's a lot at stake. It affects everybody."
The disappearance of Moss was perhaps the biggest key for the Vikings, who still nearly held on for their first trip to the Super Bowl in 22 years. Moss led the NFL with a rookie-record 17 TD catches this season, including an NFL record-tying 10 of at least 40 yards.
Respecting -- perhaps fearing -- his game-breaking ability, the Falcons started off with their cornerbacks playing far off Moss at the line. They changed that tactic, with dramatic impact. Moss also was bothered -- he said not slowed -- by a stomach injury.
"We played more aggressively," said Michael Booker, who gave up Moss' 31-yard TD in the first quarter. "It was very important for me to get my hands on Moss. I thought I did a fine job getting my hands on him so he was not able to catch that deep ball like he had been doing. I felt if I could do that, we could win the game."
The Vikings needed other players to step up, and for the first time this season no one did.
Minnesota's only points after halftime came on Matthew Hatchette's 5-yard touchdown catch with 13:41 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Vikings, who were favored by 11 points, led 27-17 at that point.
"Offensively, I think we did all we could do," quarterback Randall Cunningham said. "We didn't have anything left in us."