Sheer will, determination and some luck brought the New Orleans Saints to the brink of an upset Sunday.
But in crunch time, the Saints luck ran out.
Leroy Hoard's 1-yard touchdown plunge capped an 81-yard, fourth-quarter drive that lifted Minnesota past the gritty Saints 31-24 in an NFL game at the Metrodome.
The Saints (4-5) had only 190 yards of offense - compared to Minnesota's 465 - in losing for the fifth time in their last six games. But New Orleans took the Vikings (8-1) to the wire with help from their special teams and defense.
With the Saints trailing 17-0 in the second quarter, Aaron Craver returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown on a bizarre play. Craver fell down at the 19, got up without being touched and, while the Vikings slowed up because they thought he was down, sprinted for the score.
With Minnesota up 24-17 in the fourth quarter, safety Sammy Knight intercepted a Brad Johnson pass and returned it 91 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 24.
But the Saints were done in by their inability to stop Minnesota's offense, particularly on third down. The Vikings converted 12 of 18 third downs, including 9 of their first 13, while the Saints offense was 0 for 7.
"We kind of hung in there for a while and then we were lucky to make a couple of big plays," Saints coach Mike Ditka said. "But we just didn't make enough plays on third down on offense and to get them out of there on third down on defense."
The defense's problems on third down were a big reason why Minnesota held the ball for 15 minutes longer than the Saints. The Vikings put together an unreal 11-minute drive in the second quarter, ending with a Gary Anderson field goal, and the game-winning drive erased 6:27 of the fourth-quarter clock.
"We were playing pretty solid on first and second down," Saints cornerback Tyronne Drakeford said. "But it seemed like on third down, they were always able to get it. To be successful in this league, you've got to be able to get off the field on third down and that was something we did not do and it ended up hurting us."
Quarterback Brad Johnson, playing his first game he broke his leg on Sept. 13, played well despite suffering a dislocated right thumb in the fourth quarter. After replacing Randall Cunningham (who injured his knee and ankle) in the first quarter, Johnson completed 28 of 38 passes for 316 yards. He was intercepted twice inside the Saints 20.
But after Knight's interception and return pulled the Saints even, Johnson calmly led the Vikings to victory.
On the second play of the drive, lofted a 34-yard pass to tight end Andrew Glover, who was covered by three Saints. Two plays later, on third and six from the Saints 42, he fired a 15-yard pass to Jake Reed.
His ingenious play on third and eight from the Saints 25 with 5:20 to play may have been his best.
With Saints defensive end Wayne Martin about to sack him, Johnson switched the ball to his left hand and tossed a pass to Hoard, who turned it into a 19-yard gain to the Saints 6.
"(Martin) grabbed my right hand," Johnson said, "so I flipped it to my left hand and Leroy made a tremendous catch. It was probably the biggest play of the game considering the circumstances."
Two plays later, Hoard scored the touchdown with 3:43 to play that put the Vikings back in front.
New Orleans reached the Vikings 48 on its final drive. But a Willie Roaf holding penalty and three consecutive sacks - the Vikings only sacks of the game - ended the Saints threat.