The Minnesota Vikings strengthened their once slim playoff chances with Sunday’s 23-6 win on the road against the Houston Texans, one of the top teams in the AFC.
The win, after Minnesota’s earlier struggles on the road this season, was unlikely, but dominating. The Vikings proved worthy of their playoff status with their most impressive win since 2009. Here’s how they did it:
Pass offense: B
Minnesota has had to rely on the running of Adrian Peterson the entire second half of the season, rushing for more yards than passing in the past eight games. Quarterback Christian Ponder, even in wins against Chicago and St. Louis the past two weeks, was almost an afterthought. Ponder had an efficient game against St. Louis, but it was Peterson’s second 200-yard rushing day of the season. Ponder needed to be more of the Vikings’ success on Sunday with Houston having success against Peterson, and he was up to the task.
Ponder didn’t have a big yardage day passing-wise, finishing 16 of 30 for 174 yards. However, he was confident in the pocket, composed and made key plays when needed, helping Minnesota finish 9 of 18 on third downs. Ponder made the important throws and also had two big scrambles for first downs on third-down plays, one a 21-yarder and later a 29-yarder. Ponder also teamed with receiver Jerome Simpson for a big third down early in the fourth quarter. Ponder said he was trying to throw the ball out of bounds, but his arm was hit and somehow Simpson jumped high for the pass and came down, narrowly getting his feet inbounds.
Simpson finished with four catches for 32 yards. Rookie Jarius Wright, taking on more of the Percy Harvin role with each game, had five catches for 53 yards. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had a 27-yard catch on the first drive to get Minnesota going and finished the drive with a touchdown.
Run offense: A
An ‘A’ for the Vikings with Peterson not at top form? Yes. Minnesota, even with Peterson finishing under 100 yards rushing for the first time in nine games, ran for 174 yards as a team and averaged 4.1 yards per carry. And even though he was bottled up for zero of negative yards on 14 of his carries, Peterson still had three runs of at least 20 yards. He finished with 25 carries for 86 yards. Ponder added 48 yards rushing and backup Toby Gerhart took many of the late carries, rushing eight times for 31 yards.
Few teams have handled Peterson like Houston did Sunday, but the Texans did enter with the fifth-ranked run defense. Peterson went 20 yards on his first carry of the game, but had only 20 yards on his next 12 carries in the first half. Then, reportedly dealing with abdominal pain, he gave way late to Gerhart.
Pass defense: A
Defensively, Sunday’s game goes down as one of Minnesota’s best in several years. It’s the first time the Vikings have held an opponent under seven points since Jan. 17, 2010, a playoff win against Dallas. While Minnesota has held opposing rushing games several times this season, Sunday’s effort against the pass goes down as its best all season. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub was 18 of 32 passing for 178 yards. He was also sacked three times and Houston finished with 153 net passing yards (and just 187 total net yards). Schaub was able to connect with top receiver Andre Johnson seven times for 97 yards, but the rest of the team’s receivers finished with 11 catches for 81 yards.
The Vikings kept Schaub out of rhythm all game and the pressure ended up getting four sacks of Schaub and backup T.J. Yates. Harrison Smith, Antoine Winfield, Fred Evans and Jared Allen had Minnesota’s sacks. With Schaub unable to find his receivers and the running game going nowhere, Houston was only 1 of 11 on third downs, unable to sustain any drives following its opening drive which ended with a 51-yard field goal.
Antoine Winfield, after another week of rest, played another strong game. Chris Cook’s return helped against Johnson, despite limited snaps by Cook and the defensive line was able to apply pressure as the game progressed.
Run defense: A
Arian Foster entered the game fourth in the league in rushing for the Texans. While Houston was able to slow Peterson, Minnesota shut down Foster. The Vikings’ run defense hasn’t been at the same lofty levels it has in years past, but Sunday was a throwback effort against one of the league’s top backs, and a back that finished ahead of Peterson in the fans’ Pro Bowl balloting. Foster finished with 10 carries for just 15 yards. Foster left the game late because of an irregular heartbeat and backup Ben Tate, who’s considered one of the top backups in the league, had four carries for 17 yards. Tate had 13 yards on one carry though.
With Minnesota focused on stopping Foster and the running game, the entire Texans’ offense struggled to find any consistency. With Foster stopped, Houston’s play-action passing game was ineffective. In a game in which the Texans could have secured home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, their offense hardly looked like a unit that was sixth in the league in total offense heading into Sunday. The Vikings defensive game plan had a lot to do with the struggles.
Special teams: A
Rookie kicker Blair Walsh continues to put together one of the most remarkable seasons for a rookie kicker and maybe one of the best seasons ever for a Minnesota kicker. Walsh hit a 56-yarder, tying a Vikings’ record for longest attempt and setting an NFL record for most field goals of 50 yards or more in a single season. Walsh ended up adding field goals of 41 and 39 yards, and is now 32 of 35 on the season. Walsh had two more touchbacks, to extend his team record with 49 this season and Minnesota hasn’t had an opponent return a kickoff past the 25-yard line since Oct. 7 against the Tennessee Titans with Walsh’s long kicks with big hangtime combining with good coverage units.
Punter Chris Kluwe had four punts for a 45.5 net average. Marcus Sherels averaged 27 yards on two kick returns and returned six punts for 50 yards, including a 19-yarder.
Minnesota has played its best football all season in the past three games, closing in on a playoff spot that seemed unlikely after losses at Chicago and Green Bay. After last year’s 3-13 record, the Vikings are one game away from a playoff berth, a testament to the players and coach Leslie Frazier. Minnesota now controls its own destiny for the postseason with a win next week at home against Green Bay. The Vikings put together a nearly flawless, all-around effort for the second straight game Sunday and will have a chance at beating the Packers and finishing off their playoff run if they can do the same next week.