MINNEAPOLIS – It can be easy to forget, after the Minnesota Vikings’ messy 21-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals brought them to 5-2 and in the thick of the NFC North hunt, that less than 10 months ago came one of the low points in the history of a franchise used to disappointment.
It was Christmas Eve when Adrian Peterson, the finest running back of his generation, writhed on the ground in a game against the Washington Redskins then was carted to the locker room. The future of the franchise seemed mortgaged on Peterson’s torn ACL and MCL, which had come only months after he signed a seven-year, $100 million contract extension. The Vikings finished the year 3-13, their worst record since 1984. They had a star running back whose future was now in question, an unproven quarterback in Christian Ponder who finished his rookie year with as many touchdowns as interceptions, and, worse, a cloudy future for the entire franchise as it flirted with a move to Los Angeles.
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Now the Vikings are on all the lists of the NFL’s most surprising teams. Now Ponder is proving to be at the very least a serviceable pro quarterback, who despite his awful game Sunday (8 of 17 for 58 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) has still completed two-thirds of his passes this year. Now a new stadium deal is official, with a $975 million stadium opening in downtown Minneapolis in 2016.
And now Adrian Peterson is back to his old pre-injury self.
Which is nothing short of the single most valuable player to a franchise in the NFL, not counting quarterbacks.
“It’s so inspirational for our entire team, to be able to see Adrian battle back from major reconstructive knee surgery and to run the way he ran today,” head coach Leslie Frazier said after the victory. “He’s special in so many ways.”
Consider what Peterson did on Sunday, on a bum ankle and a knee he admitted still isn’t as explosive as it was pre-injury: He ran for 153 on 23 carries, including one touchdown, against a team that hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 15 games. He had five runs of more than 10 yards, including a beautiful 27-yarder in the first quarter where he cut twice to miss would-be tacklers and then rode a group of Cardinal defenders to tack on 10 extra yards. He made cut after cut that made him look like a spry 22-year-old instead of a 27-year-old in his sixth season. He tied the Vikings’ franchise record for 100-yard games with his 29th. He broke into the top 50 of all-time rushers in NFL history less than halfway through his sixth season. He ranks fourth in NFL history in average rushing yards per game with 93.2, behind only Terrell Davis, Barry Sanders and Jim Brown.
And not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but he’s averaging more than 100 yards per season more than Emmitt Smith, the NFL all-time rushing leader, did. (Of course, Smith played until he was 35; Peterson would still need another seven or eight years at the top of his game, unlikely in this league. But still.)
The most relevant statistic as the Vikings head toward a very winnable home game Thursday night against the 2-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers is this: The Vikings, who’ve won exactly one more game than they’ve lost since they drafted Peterson, are 20-9 when Peterson surpasses 100 yards rushing.
“The way we have tried to structure our team and the philosophy lends itself to winning games like this,” Frazier said after the victory. “When you are not completing a lot of balls down the field in a league where so many say that that’s the way you have to win – to be able to play good defense, to be able to have good special teams…and for our running back, Adrian Peterson, who is the premier back, to know that they’re going to be in eight-man fronts, nine-man fronts at times, and to be able to rush for 153 yards, that’s a formula for success.”
“It’s like Madden stats,” one of Peterson’s offensive linemen, Brandon Fusco, said of Peterson. “He’s going to go up there as one of the best running backs to ever play the game… Adrian bailed us out today, he really did.”
“If he’s one on one, probably 90 percent of the time you can’t get him down,” raved Matt Kalil, another of Peterson’s linemen.
“You can never overstate the things that Adrian does for us,” said defensive end Brian Robison, who had three of the Vikings’ seven sacks Sunday. “It definitely allows the time to tick off. It gives us a little bit of a rest. The guy’s a machine. The things he does is unreal.”
And it would be unreal for a Vikings team that was plain awful last year to be a playoff team this year. Remember, though: their second-half schedule is brutal. Two against the Chicago Bears. Two against the Green Bay Packers. Plus playing at Seattle and at Houston. Not to mention Ponder’s play doesn’t exactly inspire playoff confidence.
Of course, other teams have used this formula – ride your workhorse, play physical defense, don’t turn the ball over like Ponder did twice on Sunday – and gone far in the pass-happy NFL. Like the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the Super Bowl on the backs of their defense and workhorse Jerome Bettis, and asked a young Ben Roethlisberger to just not turn the ball over.
Afterward, Peterson took the glowing questions in stride. The Vikings knew the Cardinals were going to stack eight or nine defenders in the box, Peterson said. His mindset was simple: “We were going to be able to run the ball no matter what.”
“I just did what I do,” he shrugged.
For this team to continue its surprising 2012 ways, maybe the formula is as easy as that.