This time as Adrian Peterson battered the Green Bay Packers with 199 yards rushing and two touchdowns - one rushing and one receiving - his herculean performance was not in vain. This time, for the second time in a month, the Vikings punched their arch-rival Green Bay Packers in the mouth, but this time unlike the first time, the Vikings came out on the long end of the score, 37-34. With Sunday's rousing victory in the Metrodome, their near-miss in Green Bay a month ago was avenged, and the Vikings are back in the playoffs for the third time in the past five seasons!
In what will go down as yet another classic confrontation between these two fierce rivals, the Packers and Vikings added one more thriller to their collection of great games. Theirs, a rivalry full of so many dramatic last-second outcomes, it is doubtful whether any other in the NFL matches it for heart-stopping finishes.
With this season's rubber match scheduled for Saturday night in Lambeau Field, it will be only the second post-season match-up in the history of this great series. The other was played at the end of the 2004 season and also took place in Green Bay. The Vikings were victorious on that day, and indeed that playoff meeting was proceeded by a pair of last-minute game-winning field goals in regular season, both games having been won by the Packers.
With Peterson trampling all over the Packers in this year's first meeting to the tune of 210 yards on 21 carries, the Vikings were ahead in the second half and blew an opportunity to expand their 14-10 lead when Christian Ponder threw a horrible interception into the Packers end zone. Then after falling behind, the Vikings still had a chance to reclaim the lead when Ponder followed up the first pick with another ghastly red-zone interception. A hard-fought Viking performance went for-not on that day.
So what is the real reason Sunday's performance turned out with the opposite result from the first contest?
Was it because the Vikings' defense sacked Aaron Rodgers five times? Nope.
Maybe it was because rookie place-kicker Blair Walsh, perhaps the NFL's best, drilled yet another 50+ yard field goal to add to his NFL record for most successful kicks from that distance in a season, and then calmly clinched the game with his last-second kick? Naw, try again.
Ok, how about rookie speedster Jarius Wright's 90-yards, three-catch, one-touchdown performance that demonstrated that the Vikings can go down-field afterall? Uh uh.
Well maybe it was because Peterson, exactly one year removed from knee surgery, capped off - all things considered - arguably the greatest season ever for a running back with his incredible 34-carry (career high) display of dominance? Good try, but not really.
While all of those factors contributed to the biggest Vikings victory in three years, they were not the real reason the Vikings were able to fend off a very pesky Packers team fighting to gain a second seed and first-round bye in the playoffs. The real reason?
The icy-clutch, big-time performance from their second-year quarterback.
While Peterson clearly established himself as this year's obvious choice for MVP - obvious that is for anyone who does not worship at the altar of Peyton Manning - the key to this particular victory was actually Ponder's coming up with the greatest game of his career, in the biggest game of his career. Ponder matched his career-high with three touchdowns on 16 for 28 passing and while his 238 yards total was rather pedestrian for most NFL starting quarterbacks, that total was significant for him. Most importantly what Ponder gave the Vikings though, was balance.
On a day in which the Packers frankly played better than they did in the first meeting in Wisconsin, a great Vikings ground attack merely accompanied by mistake-free quarterback play would not have been quite enough to stave off Green Bay. In their first meeting, yes. This second meeting, no. Playing against most teams, even some playoff teams, Peterson's running being complemented by mistake-free efficient quarterbacking will win. However, when a serious Super Bowl contending team like the Packers "brings it", and their quarterback Aaron Rodgers gets hot, only a powerful balanced attack from the Vikings can overcome them.
On Sunday, Ponder gave Minnesota that balance. Whether it was to convert a crucial third down, whether it was to burn the Packers deep in their secondary, or whether it was to keep a play alive with his feet enabling him to throw a touchdown pass, Ponder threw strike, after strike, after strike. Ever since his terrible game in Green Bay, Ponder has bounced back to be an effective game-managing quarterback.
In those four games since, the Vikings have gone undefeated, and as it turns out, they had to in order to qualify for post-season. Ponder has been in the last quarter of the season, what he was in the first quarter of the season; the promising franchise quarterback that the team thought it had when they drafted him last year. In those eight games, (the first four and the last four) the Vikings have gone 7-1. Unfortunately in the middle eight games of the season, Ponder struggled mightily, but it was Peterson's brilliant consistency that kept the team afloat until quality quarterback play has returned.
Sunday's game was very reminiscent of last year's playoff thriller between the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. Alex Smith of the Niners was the game-manager, Drew Brees of the Saints, the gunslinger. When that game evolved into a late-game shootout, Smith answered the challenge, and out-dueled the future Hall-of-Famer, Brees. On Sunday, ditto for Ponder vanquishing Rodgers.
Now the Vikings move from being a rebuilding project ahead of schedule, to a surging team who is crashing this year's Super Bowl tournament. The Vikings have every right to consider themselves playoff-ready because in point-of-fact, the Vikings have played the last few weeks with their season on the line and have answered the bell every time. The Vikings are already in playoff mode.
The four playoff teams that have first-round byes have to defeat two playoff teams to advance to the Super Bowl. The past two weeks the Vikings defeated the AFC South Champion, Houston Texans on the road, and then of course on Sunday the NFC North Champion, Packers. Both division champions lost to the Vikings attempting to gain a first-round bye with a win. Those two wins by the Vikings were the equivalent of what could have been a team's path to the Super Bowl right there. Given that the Vikings also defeated the 10-win Chicago Bears three weeks ago, there is no other team in the post-season field more tournament-ready.
Yet, the Vikings are still surprisingly lightly regarded. Despite the season Peterson has had - the second greatest single-season rushing total of all-time, only 8 yards shy of Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 in spite of 31 fewer carries than Dickerson - and the gauntlet the team has faced down the stretch, the overall sense seems to be that the Vikings are a nice story, but should be a fairly easy out now that the second season is set to begin. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Prior to Sunday's game, it was pointed out by Rodgers how even with Peterson's 210-yard performance the Vikings still lost that first meeting. How many will point out that even with Rodgers' gem of a performance, what with his 28-40, 365-yard, four-touchdown, no interception, 131 passer rating, the Packers still lost the rematch?
With the phenom known as Adrian Peterson in the backfield, and an improving Ponder rising to the occasion each week, there is not a team in this post-season field that the Vikings are not at least capable of beating. Just ask their ole' nemesis, the Green Bay Packers.