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'Trailblazing' Vikings defy the odds of a near-guaranteed home win

Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David trying to recover a Vikings fumble during the first half of Thursday's game.

Exhaustive research at the highest levels of learning proves that it’s almost impossible for a home team to lose a “Thursday Night” game in the National Football League.

Enter the Minnesota Vikings, a true trailblazer, defying all odds by making hash of their first appearance of the year on a truly national stage.

It might have been worse than the final score, Tampa Bay 36-17.

Jared Allen tried to turn it into a brawl with mixed results in his slugging match with Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn. The officials decided that since both were still standing at the finish, honor  — if not common sense — had been preserved and left them in the game.

But this was to have been a game of redemption for Christian Ponder, the struggling young quarterback who is now truly dealing with a crisis of confidence. It was closer to a nightmare, despite his 251 yards through the air.

From the beginning, he looked stressed and hesitant. He seemed worried about making a mistake and conscious of the judgment of the crowd at the Metrodome, as well as media and blogging critics who have been hounding him to do more. That — or to get out of the way and let Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson carry the Vikings into the playoffs.

He is still capable of hitting stride. He will be the quarterback again 10 days from now when the Vikings play at Seattle, where — if you think it’s going to be any easier there — consult the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers.

After the game, in his brief appearance before reporters, Ponder was careful not to get too deeply mired in mea culpas amid the echoes of the booing crowd. He did admit the obvious, that whatever he was seeking to hit stride and regain his confidence was still elusive. “It comes down to execution,” he said.  “We have to play better. I  have to play better.”

Jared Allen didn’t bother with explanations, bloody nose and all: “It was embarrassing.”

While Ponder and the Viking offensive line were experiencing a ghastly night, young Doug Martin of Tampa Bay was matching Adrian Peterson yard for yard and quarterback Josh Freeman of the Bucs was doing what Ponder couldn’t accomplish — keeping the attack humming, chewing up the time once they had the game in hand and maximizing the firepower Tampa Bay brought to the game.

There’s no question that young Ponder is in a pretty serious funk, aware that his own contributions have been relatively scant in the Vikings’ rise into contention, resenting the knee-jerk boos of the Viking crowd and the media critics without crying about it.

He’s an attractive personality but right now at a loss to know how to shake his slump.All of which would be deadly serious if you didn’t look up at the standings and see the Vikings well ahead of most of the pack — admittedly with some very tough business ahead in Seattle next week.

The debacle Thursday night is hardly enough to head the Vikings toward oblivion. The NFL is a cannibal league. They all lose, and some of them lose chronically. The Vikings stand 5 and 3 today, better the than 25 teams in the NFL. But their loss at home to an allegedly inferior team still searching for an identity was shocking.

They all lose, but almost nobody loses at home in the odd-fit Thursday night game, which was added several years ago simply to give the NFL more TV exposure — as though it needed more.. The short preparation time almost always dooms the visiting  team, which has to travel, losing another day, and then is thrown into an arena with 60,000 screaming fans trying to louse up their signal calls.

Maybe the fans should have yelled louder, but it’s hard to see how. For the moment, megaphones are banned.

So how did the Tampa Bay do it?

You can’t blame the crowd or the October snowstorm. They play indoors here. The weather obviously didn’t intimidate the experienced Minnesota hardies from showing up. In fact, in the pre-game run-ups, some visitors from the north country let out a shout of approval, reflecting regional pride, when it was announced that Nashwauk on the Iron Range recorded a 4-inch snowfall, which was said to be the deepest of the day.

But in the grappling on the field, it was Tampa Bay, looking better prepared for the action and clearly dominant in the critical fourth quarter, despite Jared Allen’s passionate efforts to start a brawl.

In view of the records the teams carried into the game — Tampa Bay 2 and 4, and the Vikings 5 and 2 and playing at home — the odds against the Bucs were off the charts. Yet Tampa Bay controlled the ball for nearly 38 of the 60 minutes. The disparity was worse than that. Leading by 13 points late in the third quarter, Tampa Bay hogged the ball for nearly nine minutes against a Minnesota defense approaching exhaustion and then clinched it with rookie Doug Martin’s touchdown from the 1-yard line.

Until then, the Vikings were still alive, despite trailing the entire game. Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson kept the Viking offense within range, and Ponder’s 251 yards on 19 completions in 35 throws — including an 18-yarder to Harvin — kept them in range.

But if it was a duel between Ponder and Freeman, it was virtually no contest. After Connor Barth’s early field goal, Freeman tossed for three touchdowns, first stretching Tampa Bay’s lead to 10-0 with a 1-yard toss to Erik Lorig. Then came one to Mike Williams from 3 yards out. And,  finally, the clinching strike of 64 yards to Martin, the rookie running back from Boise State who pounded the Vikings all night.

Ultimately it was young Martin, behind the Bucs’ combative offensive line, that built Tampa’s advantage in possession time, running for 135 yards to offset Adrian Peterson’s 123.

But ball control was critical, and there it was advantage Tampa Bay. Martin dogged the Vikings all night, climaxed with the perfectly executed screen pass from Freeman that went 64 yards and stretched the Tampa Bay lead to 27-10 to open the third quarter. Connor Barth kicked his third field goal to lift the Tampa Bay lead to what seemed an unbeatable 30-10.

Peterson, however, fought on, almost fanatically. He broke loose, slashing and sprinting for 64 yards to reduce the Tampa Bay lead to 30-17 with 7½ minutes remaining. 

But the Vikings scarcely touched the ball the rest of the way, and Martin’s touchdown from the 1-yard line on the end of the Bucs’ clock-killingdrive ended any chance.

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