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High-stepping Adrian Peterson powers a Viking revival

Adrian Peterson leaping over Detroit Lions safety Erik Coleman
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Adrian Peterson leaping over Detroit Lions safety Erik Coleman during the second half of Sunday's game.

By the time Adrian Peterson had fought through the spreading wasteland of fallen Detroit Lions’ tacklers, he was running in full stride. You could almost see contrails in his wake.

Right about there, he said later, “I decided to let her rip.”

And when he reached the Detroit Lions 5-yard line, he launched himself into a high-stepping finish. It wasn’t a grandstand act but an announcement of simple exuberance -- to which the great ones are entitled. The play went for 61 yards and a touchdown, and it was the culmination of the Adrian spectacle, again.

This is Adrian Peterson’s game. Nobody does it better. Or maybe he was still burning with the embarrassment of being caught from behind by a defensive back a week ago, when his reconditioned knee was short of full recovery.

The Adrian Peterson who lifted the Minnesota Vikings to a 34-24 victory over the Detroit Lions at the Metrodome Sunday is a self-confessed perfectionist who acknowledges that he one day wants to be linked with the greatest professional running backs of all time -- with Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders  and people in that neighborhood.

En route he foresees a Super Bowl for the Vikings, which one would imagine is unlikely for this year. But Sunday the Vikings celebrated a kind of deliverance from the unsightly mess of their last few weeks; and the especially the rehabilitation of their troubled young quarterback, Christian Ponder.

Hanging jury

When the Vikings came on for the opening kickoff Sunday, the rest of the team viewed it as the normal and excitable crowd of 64,000. For Ponder it might have had the look of a hanging jury.

His last three weeks had been basically a horror show. He overthrew, underthrew, flung interceptions and often had the look of an imposter struggling in a crisis of confidence. One of those games the Vikings won in spite of their young quarterback. The blogosphere demanded his removal.

Coach Leslie Frazier declined the advice and his staff’s offensive guru, Bill Musgrave, programmed a few passing routes Sunday that gave Ponder better odds.  But Sunday his weapons were dramatically reduced when Percy Harvin’s ankle sprain kept him out of the game. So as a starter they gave him a comfort zone for his rehabilitation with a short, behind the line pass to fullback Jerome Felton.

It was a beginning. And a few minutes later in the first quarter the rookie Jarius Wright, playing in his first game of professional football as a stand- in for Harvin, set the crowd roaring by beating the Lions’ corner down field and grabbing Ponder’s perfect throw on a play that went 54 yards. A few moments later it was Ponder to Wright again on a three-yard pass that and thrust the Vikings into 7-0 lead. They never relinquished it.

But on offense it was primarily and unstoppably Peterson, gaining 171 yards on 27 attempts. Having a ball. And for Ponder, it was a redemption, nothing spectacular but professional. And it thrust the Vikings back into the battle for the NFL playoffs, now with six games remaining of the regular season and with the Vikings at six victories and four losses, behind the Chicago Bears at 7- 2 and the Green Bay Packers at 6-3.

For the Bears Sunday, it was absolute misery, a 13-6 loss to Houston in the freezing rain in Chicago in a game that ended with the Bears’ quarterback, Jay Cutler, sidelined with a concussion.

For the Vikings, the victory over Detroit sent them on the upbeat into their bye week and subsequent preparation for the same Bears in Chicago Nov. 25. The Vikings finishing schedule is a brute. It includes two games with the Bears and two with the Packers. For a change of pace it also offers the American Conference’s league-leading Houston, which today may be the best team in professional football with a record of 8-1.The other game remaining for the Vikings is with the St. Louis Rams, who can be troublesome at times but are not going to win the Super Bowl. But it’s a villain of a schedule, tough enough to invite a 12-hour vigil.

Proud coach

But it’s hardly impossible. When the game was over Sunday Coach Frazier went to the Viking locker room and told his team of his pride in their performance, how they had delivered in a crucial game and were still standing in the playoff fight. “Just a great performance” he said.

His relief in the performance of Ponder was palpable. While the young second-year quarterback is uniformly liked  as a teammate and respected for his quick mind and camaraderie, he obviously he has yet to convince most of them that he is the answer in the hunt for stability at the most critical position in pro football.

He gained ground Sunday. Where a week ago his numbers in the loss to Seattle were hideous, against the Lions he completed 24 of 32 passes for 221 yards, including touchdown throws of three yards to Wright and 20 yards to tight end Kyle Rudolph, emerging again as a pivotal player in the Viking passing game with seven catches. Where a week ago Ponder’s quarterback efficiency rating was an ugly 37, virtually off the charts in futility, Sunday it was 114. Which meant no interceptions and practically no misplays. Except …

In one of his less picturesque moments of the first half, Ponder -- under pressure of the Lions’ pass rush -- threw what was intended to be a downfield pass. It barely got launched. Detroit’s Cliff Avril, on the pass rush, broke up the play by batting the ball with a vigorous swat. The ball flew straight to Ponder, who ran a few uncertain yards before being tackled. In the news conference afterward Ponder was in the midst of congratulating his receiver corps and noted approvingly that nine different players had shared in the harvest. He caught himself wryly: “Add one more. Me.”

Yet for all of the Vikings re-discoveries of quality football Sunday, the Lions hung around on Mathew Stafford’s three touchdown throws, to Brandon Pettigrew, Titus Young and the virtually un-guardable Calvin Johnson with 12 receptions for 207 yards.

But the Vikings never trailed, building a16-3 lead in the third quarter on Blair Walsh’s third of four field goals. Defensively they kept the Detroit ground game  to a practically invisible 60 yards, and nobody got very far past Antoine Winfield, with seven tackles, and Chad Greenway’s linebacking corps.

So the Viking drama recesses until Nov. 25 in Chicago. If Cutler is healthy, the Bears are going to be ornery and unpleasant. If Cutler isn’t healthy, the Bears are going to be ornery and unpleasant.

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