MINNEAPOLIS — A little over a month ago, the Minnesota Vikings and quarterback Christian Ponder were licking their wounds after a tough loss at Lambeau Field and lamenting a missed chance at a key road win against the Green Bay Packers because of two interceptions thrown by Ponder.
Minnesota spoke then of the necessity of having to win-out to have any hopes of reaching the postseason. Four wins over four weeks, with games against four playoff hopefuls. First was a 21-14 win against the Chicago Bears, followed by a 36-22 win at St. Louis and a 23-6 win at Houston. As unlikely as a postseason run once seemed, the Vikings knew they could finish it off with a home win against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
Minnesota is headed to the playoffs, following last year’s 3-13 record which tied the franchise mark for fewest wins in a season, thanks to rookie Pro Bowl kicker Blair Walsh’s 29-yard field goal as time expired in Sunday’s 37-34 win.
“It’s just another week,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “It was a complete buy-in from everybody, as you can obviously tell from everyone in the locker room, every coach. It was just one game at a time and nobody was ever caught looking ahead. I can never remember talking about, ‘What’s next? What if they lose?’ It wasn’t about that. It was about, ‘We have to win the game.’ We told ourselves we had to win and in.”
The Vikings advanced with Sunday’s win, earning the final NFC Wild Card spot. They will travel to face the Packers on Saturday night in the first round of the playoffs.
No one outside of the organization was picking this kind of a season for the Vikings, a 7-win improvement with Ponder’s inconsistency still rearing its head at the wrong times. But with Adrian Peterson chasing Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record and a single-minded focus on the “next game”, Minnesota did fulfill its playoff hopes.
Greenway said the Vikings didn’t know the results of Sunday’s earlier games with the Chicago Bears and New York Giants winning, meaning Minnesota had to win to reach the playoffs. The players didn’t need to know. It was the same thing they’d been preaching all along – must-win.
“We didn’t know how the scores ended up to be, but we knew we had to win the game, regardless,” Greenway said. “Nobody wants to backdoor anything. You always take it, but. … We knew with the teams, the matchups that were happening, we knew we most likely had to win the game.”
Every team will offer the lip service of needing to focus on that week’s opponents. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has stressed “next game” from the very beginning. It paid off in the final four weeks.
“They really focused in on each opponent and what we had to get done and that has served us well,” Frazier said. “That’s exactly how it’s going to have to be this week. We’ll have to really focus in on Green Bay, learn from this ballgame and do the things that are necessary to focus in and prepare properly. But it has served us well, taking that approach.”
Winfield leaves early: Cornerback Antoine Winfield, who was trying to play with a broken bone in his right hand, had to leave Sunday’s game early and wasn’t able to return. Winfield’s hand was swollen after the game and he felt he had to leave because of the injury.
“I wasn’t effective at all, really couldn’t grab nothing, couldn’t get off blocks,” Winfield said. “I thought it was best if I came out.”
Winfield wore a pad under his glove, but it couldn’t lessen the strain. He feels he could be ready to return for next week’s game after a few more days of rest.
Receiver Jerome Simpson underwent testing for a concussion but later returned. Safety Harrison Smith suffered a shoulder injury but also returned. Frazier said defensive end Brian Robison, back after missing last week’s game with an AC sprain in his right shoulder, “came out pretty good.”
Records galore: As they’ve done all season, Peterson and Walsh continued to set new records.
With 199 yards rushing, Peterson finished with the second-highest, single-season rushing total in NFL history (2,097 yards), falling eight yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s record. Peterson also set a record for most rushing yards in the month of December with 861, besting the previous mark of 672 held by Denver’s Clinton Portis in 2002. It was the most rushing yards in any individual calendar month, beating Chris Johnson’s 800-yard total from 2009. Peterson, who finished one yard away from his third 200-yard rushing game of the season, tied an NFL record with seven games of at least 150 yards rushing in a season. Peterson’s 6.0 yards per carry this season is the third best in NFL history for a running back with at least 250 rushing attempts. Jim Brown had 6.4 yards per carry in 1963 and Barry Sanders averaged 6.1 per carry in 1997.
Walsh added to his own record with his 10th field goal of at least 50 yards this season. He tied the NFL record for most field goals made in a season by a rookie, while setting a record for highest field goal percentage by a rookie (92.1 percent). He finished second in points in a single season in Vikings’ history with 141 points. Gary Anderson scored 164 points in1998. Walsh tied a team record for most made field goals in a season. He added a team-record 53 touchbacks this season.