The Minnesota Vikings were well aware of their failures on the road heading into Sunday’s pivotal game at St. Louis.
The Vikings were 1-5 on the road and fighting for slim playoff chances against the Rams, who had won three games in row and were trying to stay alive themselves for the postseason. Minnesota, at least in a dome on the road, made itself at home and put together a complete team effort to win 36-22. Both road wins this season have come indoors.
Here’s five things we learned from the Vikings’ dominating win Sunday:
1. The playoffs are still a very real possibility.
Minnesota (8-6) approached the final four games of this season believing it likely had to win out to have a shot at the playoffs. The Vikings are 2-0 in this season’s final quarter and travel to Houston next week before hosting Green Bay — which wrapped up the NFC North title with a win against the Bears — in the final week.
Minnesota did its part Sunday, but didn’t get much help. Washington won at Cleveland and Dallas was winning early at home against Pittsburgh in a later game. With their win, the Vikings are currently seventh in the Wild Card standings, behind Seattle and the New York Giants, who now trail Washington in the NFC East. Minnesota will need to finish above New York, Dallas and Chicago because the Vikings lost the tiebreaker to the Seahawks, who also have a game in-hand. New York owns the tiebreaker, for now, on Minnesota, but the Vikings have the edge against Dallas and Chicago. The Vikings likely ended the Rams’ (6-7-1) slim chances.
Houston went to 12-2 with a win Sunday and has a chance to win home-field advantage in the AFC, so the Texans should be highly motivated next week.
2. Peterson’s chances at the rushing record might not be that far-fetched.
Adrian Peterson’s late-season run at 2,000 yards and Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards has been captivating. Peterson’s tale of recovery, perseverance and dominance has almost become the lead story for Minnesota’s season, despite the Vikings’ turnaround from last year’s 3-13 record. Needing 400 yards to reach 2,000 and 505 to reach Dickerson coming into Sunday would have seemed a nearly insurmountable task — for anyone but Peterson.
St. Louis, as with all teams, focused on Peterson and held him to eight yards on his first eight carries Sunday. Then Peterson tied his career high with an 82-yard touchdown run, going straight up the middle on a draw and outrunning everyone for a game-turning touchdown, which came on Minnesota’s first play from scrimmage after the Rams had tied the game 7-7. He added a 52-yarder in the fourth and tallied his second 200-yard rushing day in the past three weeks. Peterson finished with 24 carries for 212 yards. Sunday was his eighth straight 100-yard game and leaves Peterson with 1,812 rushing yards this season, just 293 shy of Dickerson’s record. He needs to average 146.5 in the final two games to reach the record. In his eight-game streak, Peterson has 164.1 yards per game. In the past three games, he’s averaged 192 yards per game. Those numbers would suggest Peterson isn’t as far from Dickerson as it seems.
3. Turnovers make the difference.
The key to Minnesota’s season, especially on the road, has been turnover-differential. The Vikings are undefeated when they are even or better in turnover-differential. On the flip side, they were a minus-6 on the road heading into Sunday’s game.
After Peterson’s big run, turnovers were the story in helping Minnesota establish a 33-7 halftime lead against the Rams. On St. Louis’ drive following Peterson’s run, the Vikings recovered a fumbled snap which turned into a field goal. On the next drive, defensive lineman Everson Griffen dropped back and intercepted a pass from Sam Bradford and returned it for a touchdown for a 24-7 lead.
The Vikings also took care of the ball, not committing any turnovers and playing right into their preferred game plan. The defense was able to get after Bradford with a big lead and Peterson was able to churn out yards and keep the clock running.
4. Ponder doesn’t need to do it all, just what he did Sunday.
Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has been under fire from critics, and deservedly so for much of the past two months. But with a strong defense and Peterson carrying the offense, Ponder doesn’t need to do much to keep Minnesota in a winning situation. Ponder needs to hit the occasional pass to keep defenses honest, convert third downs and take care of the ball. Avoiding turnovers is the most important thing for Ponder and he wasn’t intercepted for the first time in four games and just the second time in 10 games after starting the season without an interception the first four weeks.
Ponder was in rhythm for much of the afternoon, connecting with several receivers who had done little to show they could be relied on the past few weeks. He had a possible interception dropped, but kept the offense moving, finishing 17 of 24 passing for 131 yards. Minnesota picked up nine of its 16 first downs via the pass.
5. Blair Walsh isn’t just any rookie kicker.
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein has drawn a lot of attention league-wide this season for his strong leg, but Walsh, drafted four spots later, has been the no-doubt top rookie kicker this year. In the first matchup between the two, Zuerlein missed a 57-yarder, which went way right and short. Walsh, proving he’s no slouch and deserves as much or more attention, kept his strong first season going. He was 5 of 5 on field-goal attempts, hitting three from 50-plus.
Walsh set a team record for most field goals of 50 yards or more in a season and tied the NFL record. He is 8 of 8 from 50 and beyond this season. Overall, Walsh has connected on 29 of his 32 field-goal attempts. He also is one of the league-leaders in touchbacks and added six more on Sunday.