Peterson rushes his way into MVP race

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Adrian Peterson’s recovery this season has had many benchmarks since major knee surgery on Dec. 30 to repair two torn knee ligaments.

First came his intensive offseason rehabilitation work. Second was the question if he would be ready to play in the season’s first game just over eight months from surgery as was his stated goal from the beginning. Once he was back on the field, the watch started to become how effective he would be. After showing limited rust, Peterson was squarely in the discussion for Comeback Player of the Year.

Now, after Sunday’s 171 yards rushing and 61-yard touchdown to close out surprising Minnesota’s 34-24 win against the Lions to head into next week’s bye at 6-4, Peterson has elevated himself into Most Valuable Player discussion.

Peterson as the league’s MVP became a talking point nationally since Sunday’s win, and coach Leslie Frazier supports Peterson’s credentials.

“We do have a lot of football to be played, but if you ask me today — and I haven’t seen all the guys around the league — but it’s hard for me to imagine a guy doing more for his football team than what Adrian has done for our team and the fact that he has been so dominant over the course of the season,” Frazier said. “He’s pulling away with his domination as a runner. His impact has been huge for us. It’s hard to imagine another guy having a greater impact on their team, considering where we are and what we have to do every single week to win.”

Peterson leads the league with 1,128 rushing yards, 123 more than his closest competitor, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch. He’s third in the league with 195 rushing attempts on that repaired knee while playing through an ankle injury earlier this year. And even with his standout career numbers, he’s averaging a career-high 5.8 yards per carry this season.

He’s tied for second with seven rushing touchdowns this year to go with a league-leading 1,283 yards from scrimmage. Not only is Peterson on pace for a career-best rushing season, his 29 receptions put him on pace for a career-high receiving too.

“We’re all familiar with stories of guys who’ve had this injury; some make it back, some don’t make it back and if they do come back, there’s not very many who were as good as they were before,” said Frazier, who is on the list of players unable to make it back from the same injury. “There’s some things he’s doing that makes you scratch your head and say, ‘Maybe he will be better than he was before the injury. I’m looking at some things that he’s doing and he has improved. His hands are better. Some of his cuts, his burst, he’s staying more true to his reads, these are some things that he hadn’t done before his injury.

“He was always looking to hit the home run and sometimes that would create negative plays. Now he’s truer to his reads and he’s helping our offensive line be better at what they do. So, he’s a joy to watch.”

Interestingly, one of Peterson’s top competitors for the Comeback Player of the Year Award is also one of the frontrunners in the MVP discussion, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning, who missed all of last season because of neck surgery, leads the NFL in quarterback rating (108.0) and is third in passing touchdowns (21). But Manning is leading a Denver team that was in the playoffs last year.

While Peterson didn’t miss am entire season like Manning — remarkably, Peterson only ended up missing one regular season game — Peterson has helped Minnesota be one of the surprise stories in the league this season after last year’s 3-13 record.

The other top candidates are likely Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who has his team at 8-1, and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who won the award last season.

“He’d be my candidate (for MVP),” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Watching him do what he does, he’s only getting stronger as the year goes on and us being involved in the run game, it’s fun to block for a guy like that.”

The piece that might have held him back, explosive runs, has been a signature the last three weeks. He’s had a run of at least 60 yards in each of the past three games. He leads the league with 13 runs over 20-plus yards, almost double the second player on the list, Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy with seven. He’s rushed for more than 100 yards each of the last four weeks, with 629 yards and five touchdowns in that span.

The Vikings, who also had touted receiver Percy Harvin as an MVP candidate earlier in the year, know that Peterson has been carrying the team’s offense this season, especially recently as the passing game had struggled for a few weeks before Sunday’s strong game.

Peterson’s big shoulders are able to handle the responsibility.

“I think Adrian can carry us as far as Adrian wants,” Rudolph said. “He’s one of those guys that he’s always going to put the load on his shoulders. He wants to be that guy. If you ask Adrian, he wants to carry it every time. So, you have to have a guy like that leading your team.”

You can add inspiration to his many MVP credentials as well.

“Definitely, a lot of inspiration from the work that he put in this offseason,” Rudolph said. “I think that kind of trickled out through our program as a whole this offseason. If Adrian’s working that hard, he’s coming off ACL surgery, why can’t we work just as hard.”

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.