MINNEAPOLIS — Running back Adrian Peterson lined up in the backfield for the first snap of the Minnesota Vikings’ critical home game Sunday against the Chicago Bears and looked out over a defense focused to stop him.
This Sunday was like any other. Minnesota has the league’s worst passing attack and Peterson is on his way to the best season of his standout career. Teams have been lining up to stop Peterson for years. Nine men near the line of scrimmage, 10, it’s seemingly doesn’t matter in one of the most remarkable seasons for a running back in NFL history.
Just like Sunday, when Peterson started inside and popped off a 51-yard run on the first play, the league’s leading rusher has overcome defensive fronts focused on him, just as he has made his amazing return from major knee surgery at the end of December.
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“It’s all willpower,” Peterson said. “They pretty much know we’re going to run the ball. Offensive line knows it, and the receivers. Everybody’s on me to see what kind of job I’m going to do.”
Peterson did the job Sunday, keeping the Vikings’ slim playoff hopes alive with his seventh straight 100-yard rushing day. Peterson’s 51-yard jaunt on the first play led to a one-yard touchdown run by Peterson five plays later and Minnesota beat Chicago 21-14. Peterson used a team-record 104 yards rushing in the first quarter on his way to a 31-carry, 154-yard, two-touchdown performance, adding to his impressive comeback season from December’s surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments.
Peterson, who had at least 1,298 yards rushing in his first four NFL seasons before injuries limited him to 970 last year, leads the league with 1,600 yards this season and is knocking on the door of his first 2,000-yard season of his career with three games remaining.
Peterson, who attributed his strong season “100 percent” on the work he put in this offseason to rehab his knee, needs to average 133.3 yards per game in the final three contests at St. Louis, at Houston and the season-finale at home against Green Bay to clear 2,000 yards and become just the seventh player in NFL history to reach the coveted mark. In his past seven games, Peterson has tallied 1,101 yards, an average of 157.3 yards per game.
“The guy is unbelievable and I don’t know if he’s human or not,” said quarterback Christian Ponder, who finished under 100 yards passing for the third time this season.
For all Peterson’s heroics, and his amazing tale of recovery, even he hasn’t been able to carry the Vikings by himself. Teams load up on Peterson because of the inability of the passing game. Thankfully, Peterson got the help of Minnesota’s defense Sunday, which had two interceptions by rookie defensive backs, including one returned by first-round safety Harrison Smith for a touchdown.
During Peterson’s six-game run heading into Sunday, the Vikings were 2-4. The losses even wore on Peterson, who was doing everything within his power. Even during a 210-yard performance last week against Green Bay, Peterson was genuinely lamenting he hadn’t done more to equal victory.
He’ll have no such worries on Sunday, even while believing he again left yards on the field. Peterson reached the second level of the defense continually against the Bears and narrowly missed breaking several big runs.
“Oh man, I’m sure you saw my reaction on a couple of them,” Peterson said. “There was like three or four that if I break a tackle, it’s off to the races. But I can sleep good tonight because ultimately we came out with a ‘W.'”
And Minnesota’s chances at the playoffs are still alive thanks to Peterson, whose two touchdowns in the first half — the second after an interception by rookie cornerback Josh Robinson — gave the Vikings a 14-0 lead and allowed the defense to pressure Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler.
An old-school approach led by Peterson, and supported by the defense, is still working for Minnesota in the pass-happy NFL.
“Our offensive line, they really bought into the fact that we’re going to run the football when we need to, to sustain their blocks, because we know if we’re able to do that just a little bit longer than normal, we have a back that can crease the defense,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “The players buying into the importance of running the football and running it effectively is probably the secret to our success. They have to buy into that philosophy, because it’s not across the board in our league.”
The 51-yard run by Peterson, who is drawing more attention by the week for the Comeback Player of the Year and MVP awards, was his fifth of the season of at least 50 yards, the third-best single-season total in league history. It was the 16th such run of his career, which is second all-time behind Barry Sanders’ 24.
Not long after the big run, Peterson remembered looking up at the clock and being amazed there were still eight minutes left in the first quarter.
“I was like, “Wow,'” Peterson said. “So, you’ve just got to stay focused and continue to grind, and we did that.”
Going for 104 yards in one quarter was a big workload for Peterson. It would have been a long day for anyone not named Adrian Peterson.