Vikings 31, Saints 24
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ The best quarterback situation in the NFL suddenly has become one of the most muddled, and Jay Fiedler might be the only answer for the Minnesota Vikings.
Randall Cunningham and Brad Johnson were injured in the Vikings’ 31-24 victory Sunday over the New Orleans Saints, possibly jeopardizing Minnesota’s status as the NFC front-runner.
Cunningham left in the first quarter when he injured his right knee on a sack. Johnson, the starter until he broke his right leg in Week 2, took over but broke the thumb on his throwing hand on the first play of the third quarter when he hit it on a helmet. Nonetheless, he played the entire second half.
Johnson was to see a hand specialist Sunday night. Cunningham, the backup who became the top-rated passer in the NFL, will have surgery Monday and might be ready for next week’s game against Cincinnati.
If neither Cunningham nor Johnson can go, Fiedler would make his first start at the helm of the NFC’s most potent offense.
Fiedler, a former third-stringer for the Philadelphia Eagles, has played in only two regular-season games in his NFL career, both this year. He has thrown just four passes in his three seasons.
``I think we’ll respond just like if anyone else went down,″ Johnson said, his hand wrapped in a bandage dripping from melted ice. ``The train keeps on moving.″
Cunningham, who missed one game last season because of similar knee surgery, said the Vikings (8-1) should have at least one of their top two quarterbacks for the Bengals. A rematch with Green Bay looms the following week, with a Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas after that.
``I believe that one or both of us will be ready,″ Cunningham said.
The injuries were just part of a wild afternoon. The Saints (4-5) managed just two first downs and 9 yards passing in the first half but were tied 24-24 after Sammy Knight returned the second of his two interceptions 91 yards for a score with 10:10 remaining.
They got there thanks to two scores by Aaron Craver that included questionable officiating.
The first came on Craver’s 100-yard kickoff return to make it 17-7 late in the second quarter. Craver fell at his own 19-yard line, apparently after being tripped by Pete Bercich _ which replays confirmed _ but he got up when no whistles blew and ran the rest of the way untouched.
``I noticed that the referees were still looking at me and I knew they didn’t blow the whistle, so I popped back up and started running,″ said Craver, who had fumbled on his previous return to set up the first of Leroy Hoard’s two short TD runs. ``I’m sure it surprised the Vikings.″
A 61-yard run by Robert Smith put Minnesota up 24-10 before Craver got his second score.
He was credited with a 9-yard TD catch with 3:08 left in the third quarter when an official ruled he broke the plane of the goal line while lunging with the ball. Replays showed the ball bounced loose short of the goal line.
``Things kept happening, weird things,″ Knight said. ``They helped us stay in the game until the very end.″
But Johnson’s toughness and poise allowed the Vikings to rebound from their first loss last week at Tampa Bay and doomed New Orleans to its fifth loss in six games.
Johnson, who broke his thumb on the first play of the third quarter, had the Vikings in position to extend their 24-17 lead by at least a field goal when he threw wide of Cris Carter on third down from the New Orleans 5.
Carter tipped the ball and it bounced off Knight’s helmet before Knight gathered it in and outran Carter to tie the game.
``Sammy Knight can play for me anywhere,″ Saints coach Mike Ditka said. ``Sandlot, NFL, pickup basketball _ whatever.″
But Johnson regrouped immediately and led the Vikings on an 81-yard drive to the winning score, Hoard’s 1-yard run with 3:43 remaining. That included a 19-yard pass to Hoard three plays before the TD, a pass Johnson pushed out with his left hand as he was being dragged down by Wayne Martin.
Johnson finished 28-of-38 for 316 yards with a TD and two interceptions.
``For Brad to come back and do what he did, I think some of us have forgotten Brad can do those kinds of things,″ offensive coordinator Brian Billick said.
Notes: The Vikings lost safety Torrian Gray, a key backup, for the season with a dislocated knee. Guard David Dixon injured his left shoulder in the fourth quarter and did not return. ... When Knight intercepted Johnson’s pass in the end zone with five seconds left in the first half, it marked the first time in 30 chances this season that the Vikings had failed to score inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. ... Mark Fields sacked Cunningham on Minnesota’s second play to give New Orleans a sack in 58 consecutive games. The NFL record since sacks became an official stat in 1982 is 60 by Washington (1984-87).