Ponder, Vikings play clean in all-around game

The Minnesota Vikings talked about the importance of winning Sunday at St. Louis, and the reality of the situation was realized after wins elsewhere Sunday.

A 33-26 win for Minnesota against St. Louis, combined with wins by the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys and losses by the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, means the Vikings own the final Wild Card playoff spot with two weeks left because of tiebreakers. Minnesota (8-6) will need to keep its strong play going next week on the road at 12-2 Houston and at home against the Green Bay Packers in the regular-season finale.

Here’s how the Vikings scored one of their most impressive all-around efforts on Sunday:

Pass offense: C

Minnesota’s game plan again revolved around the running game, understandably. A big early lead also played right into the Vikings’ hands and allowed them to stick with the plan. Quarterback Christian Ponder nearly had at least one pass intercepted when it went through the defensive backs’ hands. But overall Ponder did just what Minnesota needed of him with running back Adrian Peterson controlling the game on the ground. Ponder was efficient and kept the Vikings on the field with nine first downs via the passing game. He also avoided turnovers. It was just Ponder’s second game without an interception in 10 games since starting the season without an interception the first four weeks.

Ponder was 17 of 24 passing for 131 yards and was able to get into rhythm early on Minnesota’s opening drive, which ended with a Ponder touchdown run. In the process, Ponder connected with eight different receivers, many of whom have struggled in recent weeks along with the quarterback. Jerome Simpson caught four passes for 27 yards. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had three catches a week after being blanked and John Carlson caught a season-high three passes. Receivers Stephen Burton, Jarius Wright and Michael Jenkins also had catches. Ponder and the passing game wasn’t gaining big chunks of yardage and stretching the field, but did what was needed for Minnesota to win.

Run offense: A

Another high grade for the running game. It might be time to start grading the running game on a curve. Peterson had his second 200-yard rushing game in three weeks, going over 100 yards for the eighth straight game. Peterson set a record for most rushing yards over an eight-game span with 1,313 yards in the past eight games. St. Louis bottled up Peterson and limited him to eight carries for eight yards early. Then Peterson turned the tide with an 82-yard touchdown run, tying his career high that he set just a few weeks ago. Peterson’s 82-yard run came after the Rams had tied the score at 7-7. Later, Peterson had a 52-yard run right after St. Louis had scored to get within 33-22.

Peterson now has a career-best 1,812 yards for the season and is 293 yards away from Eric Dickerson’s single-season record. He had 24 carries Sunday, averaging 8.8 yards per carry. Peterson even ceded some late carries to Toby Gerhart with Minnesota controlling the game late. Ponder also had two big runs, helping set the tone early. He flushed left and converted a 4-and-1 chance on the Vikings’ first possession and scrambled five yards for a touchdown run three plays later after it looked like he was going to be sacked for a loss.

Pass defense: C

Rams quarterback Sam Bradford ended the game with 377 yards passing yards with three touchdowns. He connected with wide-open receivers often. Yet, it never seemed like Minnesota was in trouble after Bradford had fumbled a snap, which ended in a Blair Walsh field, and threw an interception returned for a touchdown by Everson Griffen. Bradford was 35 of 55 in the game, but he was intercepted once and was sacked four times. With St. Louis trailing by double-digit deficits in the second quarter, the Vikings pass rush was able to bear down on Bradford and Bradford had to resort solely on the passing game, tying a career-high in pass attempts.

Defensive end Brian Robison had a sack before leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Chad Greenway, Christian Ballard and Erin Henderson also had sacks. A lot of Bradford’s yardage came on screen passes, with running back Steven Jackson leading the team with eight catches for 73 yards. Minnesota’s defensive backs struggled at times to cover St. Louis’ receivers. Brandon Gibson had six catches for a team-high 76 yards. Danny Amendola was targeted 12 times for six catches, 58 yards a touchdown and a 2-point conversion. However, after Bradford’s two turnovers, the closest the Rams could get was 11 points.

Run defense: B

Jackson continues to plug along and topped the 10,000-yard mark for his career Sunday, the highest total of any active player. With Minnesota opening up the lead, Jackson’s tough-running style was taken away. He finished with 13 carries for 73 yards, a 5.6-yard average. Backup Daryl Richardson, the speedier of the two, couldn’t get going and the Vikings held a team under 100 yards rushing for just the second time in nine games and the first since Detroit four weeks ago. Minnesota has talked much of the season about the need to make teams one-dimensional and force opponents to throw the ball. Sunday’s run defense and early lead did just that.

Special teams: A

In a matchup of two rookie kickers who’ve burst onto the NFL scene, the Vikings’ Walsh stole the show from Rams rookie Greg Zuerlein. Zuerlein was drafted four spots ahead of Walsh in April’s draft and has received national acclaim thanks to his big leg, including a rookie record 60-yard field goal earlier this season. But Zuerlein missed his only attempt Sunday, a 57-yarder. Meanwhile, Walsh was 5 for 5 (now 29 for 32 this season) and had three field goals of more than 50 yards on Sunday, playing the perfect complement to Peterson’s big game. He also had six touchbacks.

Punter Chris Kluwe, under fire from the special teams’ coordinator for more outspoken comments, had a strong game with a 45.5-yard gross average and 41.5 net average, pinning two of his four punts inside the 20-yard line. The Vikings’ kickoff return game continues to lack much explosiveness with Percy Harvin out for the season. Marcus Sherels did return one punt for 15 yards, darting between defenders.

Overall: A

Sunday was the kind of game that makes coach Leslie Frazier proud. Minnesota played a clean game and avoided mistakes. The Vikings had two takeaways and didn’t turn the ball over and committed only three penalties. Minnesota won with its preferred style of playing solid defense, forcing turnovers and having Peterson carry the offense. It’s just the type of game the Vikings need to play to win on the road.

If Minnesota can replicate the kind of all-around team game it had Sunday in the final two weeks, it could have a good chance of winning a playoff spot a year after going 3-13 and many wondering if Frazier would keep his job. Now, playoffs or not, the Vikings can finish no worse than 8-8 in a season many expected as a rebuilding year.

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.