Through grit, determination, and yes heart, the Minnesota Vikings have played themselves into control of their own playoff destiny. At last, their playoff fate now rests within their own hands. The Vikings' 23-6 win over the Houston Texans Sunday was not just an "on any given day" upset, the Vikings absolutely manhandled one of the league's premier teams in that team's own house. For other game in which the Vikings absolutely manhandled one of the league's premier teams, see also San Francisco 49ers.
This past Sunday, the Vikings were the more physical and determined football team, and even without getting a huge day from Adrian Peterson, the Texans were simply no match. The Vikings defense on the day? Dominant. The kicking game? Flawless. The running game? Solid. The passing game? Solid. Coaching? Impressive.
These are the ingredients to winning football. Winning playoff football.
All season long, the Vikings had struggled mightily on the road. In order to make the playoffs, Minnesota's margin for error had decreased to nil. In very impressive fashion, the Vikings rose to the occasion. In Saint Louis and in Houston, the Vikings' defense overwhelmed their opponents. The pass rush got consistent pressure on the opposing quarterbacks and registered eight sacks. The suddenly very stout run defense was stifling, only allowing a combined 121 yards rushing.
While Peterson ran crazy against the Rams, the Texans did an excellent job of keeping him under reasonable control. Nonetheless, the Vikings' coaching staff stayed with the run, grinding out tough yards all game long, eventually wearing down Houston's defense by game's end. As far as the passing game, Leslie Frazier's decision to stick with the inconsistent Christian Ponder at quarterback has paid off for now, as Ponder was the efficient game manager on the road - as well as the recent home game against Chicago - that he needs to be. Rolling Ponder out of the pocket and giving him safe passes to throw seems to have allowed him to regain his confidence and the quarterback has returned to the form he displayed in the first part of the season. Accurate passing, good decision-making and timely running have returned to Ponder's repertoire, and the offense has benefited greatly from it. In these last two road games, Ponder did not throw an interception, while passing for a touchdown and rushing for a touchdown. Ponder's one turnover, a lost fumble, was cleaned up by the defense with a three-and-out.
The poise the Vikings displayed on the road, was a refreshing departure from what they had shown previously. With their backs against the wall, the Vikings finally played with the intensity and purpose that they have normally only played with at home this season. Poise and composure were not exclusive to the veterans however.
In this year of the rookie - 2012 may go down as producing the greatest rookie class ever - the Vikings have perhaps the greatest rookie place kicker in history. Blair Walsh easily nailed a 56-yarder against the Texans giving him the all-time single-season place-kicking record for making nine field goals of 50 yards or more. Even more impressive is the fact that Walsh is a perfect nine-for-nine from fifty yards or longer! Also remarkable, is Walsh's ability to drive his kickoffs to the back of, or out of the end zone with great regularity. When returners have ventured out of end zones this year, the Viking kick coverage unit has been outstanding. The coaching staff has done a fine job of transforming this team from an embarrassment last year into a team that will finish this season with a winning record.
What a far cry from a year ago. This time a year ago, the Vikings also completed a road win in their last road trip of the regular season. Last Christmas Eve, the defeat of the Washington Redskins garnered just the Vikings' third win of the season, and the face of the franchise was going to miss the home finale, facing the prospects of very major knee surgery.
Now, a year later, the road win over the Texans garnered the team's ninth win of the season, and the face of the franchise is not only going to play in the home finale, he faces the likelihood of topping the 2,000 yards rushing mark, and even the possibility of topping the NFL record 2,105 yards rushing mark. Oh, and by the way if the Vikings do defeat their most bitter rival, the sixth seed in the NFC playoff field will be the reward for downing the dreaded Green Bay Packers.
From the early 1990's until a couple of season's ago, the Vikings/Packers rivalry was as hot as any in the NFL. Their Monday Night Football Broadcast in 2009 drew 21.8 million viewers and was the most watched cable television broadcast in history. That October 5, 2009, game also marked the last home win by the Vikings in the series. While that viewership record has since been replaced by the 2011 BCS Title Game as the most watched cable television broadcast in history, there is no better way to revive this great rivalry than by having the stakes be so high on the final day of the regular season.
When the opening kickoff in the Metrodome takes place, the Chicago Bears will have already played in Detroit and the Giants will have already hosted the Philadelphia Eagles. If either the Bears or Giants win, the Vikings will only make the playoffs by defeating the Packers. If the Bears, Giants and Dallas Cowboys - who visit the Redskins later that night - all lose, the Vikings would still squeeze in with a loss to Green Bay but that would be an awful lot to count on.
The Packers could move up to a second seed with a victory over the Vikings, and avoid a first round playoff rematch with the Vikings altogether. Therefore there is ample incentive for both teams to win in this Sunday evening's contest. The Vikings need to muster up all of the grit, determination and heart that they have shown on their current three-game winning streak, because it will almost certainly require a four-game winning streak in order for them to gain the post-season. Having to defeat the Texans who - going into their game - had the best record in the NFL one week, and then the very next week having to defeat the Packers who have won nine out of their last ten, the Vikings have been placed under enormous pressure.
The same pressure that a playoff team faces.