Passing game a welcome addition for Vikings

Sunday’s 37-34 win against the Green Bay Packers perhaps wasn’t the most dominating win of the season for the Minnesota Vikings, but it certainly was the biggest. Beating NFC North champion Green Bay was Minnesota’s most important victory since the 2009 season.

A 37-34 win, thanks to a time-expiring 29-yard field goal by rookie kicker Blair Walsh doesn’t qualify as a “convincing” win, but it should convince the team’s remaining doubters that it is playoff worthy. Sunday was a must-win for Minnesota against one of the hottest teams in the league, and it outlasted Green Bay in a shootout.

A look at how the Vikings (10-6) secured their playoff berth:

Pass offense: A

Minnesota’s offense isn’t built around the passing game, of course, as its No. 31 NFL ranking indicates. So, expecting or grading based on 300-yard passing games isn’t fair to the Vikings or quarterback Christian Ponder. What Ponder did Sunday isn’t measured solely in big yardage totals. Ponder had his best game as a pro, in the biggest game of his career to date and was the perfect complement to Adrian Peterson’s running. Ponder was clutch on third downs (8 of 11 passing for six conversions) and in the red zone (three touchdowns, all within the 10-yard line).

Ponder posted the highest single-game quarterback rating of his career (120.2), finishing 16 of 28 passing for 234 yards. He also was sacked just once and avoided turnovers. In perhaps the biggest play of the game, facing a third-and-11 with two minutes left, he found receiver Michael Jenkins for a big first down along the sideline that led to Walsh’s game-winning field goal. Jenkins, making up for an earlier drop in the end zone, had a diving grab for a touchdown and the big third-down conversion. Receiver Jerome Simpson came through with two clutch third-down catches, and Jarius Wright surprised the Packers and had one of the biggest plays of the game, a 65-yard catch on a good throw by Ponder to set up Jenkins’ touchdown.

The Vikings won a shootout against the Packers’ explosive offense because of Ponder’s clutch throws and the much-maligned receivers coming up with big plays.

Run offense: A

So there was no record for Peterson in the end. But there’s no shame in what Peterson and Minnesota’s running game did this season. Peterson’s 34 carries for 199 yards rushing Sunday left him eight yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record. Peterson finished with 2,097 yards, the second-highest, single-season total in NFL history. Sunday was Peterson’s one-year anniversary of his surgery date to repair torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, and he finished one yard away from what would have been his third 200-yard rushing day of the season.

Green Bay did bottle Peterson up at times. But without the benefit of a real big run, Peterson still nearly reached 200 and the record by grinding out some tough runs and with four carries of at least 20 yards. In two games against the Packers this season, Peterson ran for 409 yards. On Sunday, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry, finishing the season with a 6.0-yard average, the third-highest total in NFL history for a back with at least 250 carries. Peterson’s biggest run Sunday came one play after he nearly fumbled. A replay review showed Peterson was down before losing the ball and gave Minnesota the ball back but facing a second-and-27 after a taunting penalty by tackle Phil Loadholt. Peterson ran for 28 yards on the next play, gaining a first down and setting up a touchdown from Ponder to Peterson five plays later.

Pass defense: D

It’s hard to believe Minnesota won a game against Green Bay in which Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers passed for 365 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions and had a 131.8 quarterback rating. Rodgers was his usual dominant self against the Vikings. He and his receivers made things seem easy against Minnesota’s secondary, which lost veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield in the first half because of his broken hand. The Vikings were also without A.J. Jefferson for part of the game because of an ankle injury. Minnesota would have had a tough task against Rodgers completely healthy. Rodgers didn’t even need to try throwing to cornerback Chris Cook’s side because he was able to expose Jefferson, rookie Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels.

Rodgers finished 28 of 40 passing. Greg Jennings had eight receptions for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Jermichael Finley had eight catches for 72 yards. James Jones and Jordy Nelson also caught touchdown passes and had at least 62 yards receiving in a game in which Green Bay was playing without leading receiver Randall Cobb, who could return for Saturday’s rematch in the first round of the playoffs.

Run defense: C

Minnesota held the Packers to 72 yards rushing, but Green Bay backup DuJuan Harris provided a spark. After starter Ryan Grant had two carries for two yards early, Harris entered and had 14 carries for 70 yards. Of course, with Rodgers so efficient in the passing game, the Packers only moderately tried to run the ball.

The Vikings did later adjust, but Harris’ speed helped keep the defense off balance a bit. Harris averaged 5.0 yards per carry and at least gives Minnesota something to think about in the backfield in preparation for next week’s game. In all, Green Bay ran 16 times for 72 yards, a 4.5-yard average.

Special teams: B

It’s hard to find much fault with the Vikings’ special teams lately, particular with Walsh and the coverage units. But in filling in for Cobb, Packers returner Jeremy Ross showed some big-play ability. He had a 32-yard punt return that helped set up Green Bay’s first touchdown. He also added a 44-yard kickoff return, marking the first time a Minnesota opponent started a drive past the 25-yard line following a kickoff since Oct. 7.

Walsh was his usual reliable self, racking up four touchbacks and going 3 of 3 on field-goal attempts. Walsh finished 10 of 10 this season from 50 yards or more, setting an NFL record. His 54-yard field goal started the scoring Sunday, and his 29-yard field goal won the game. Walsh won the season opener with a field goal in overtime and ended the regular season with another game winner.

Marcus Sherels displayed more juice as a returner than he had in recent weeks. He had a 41-yard kickoff return and a 25-yard punt return.

Overall: B

The Vikings needed Sunday’s win and stuck with the Packers in the type of game few people thought they could win against Green Bay. Minnesota got the fast start it needed, scoring the first 13 points, and was plus-1 in turnover differential. All season, the Vikings have tried to control games by running Peterson on offense and taking care of the ball, and that led to a playoff berth. Most important on Sunday, each time the Packers seemed to seize the momentum, Minnesota answered. Now the Vikings will have to see if they can translate their play (wins in the final four weeks against playoff or playoff-hopeful teams) into a win on the road at Lambeau Field.

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