The runway from the field at the Metrodome to the Vikings locker room rises in a long, gradual incline, straight at first, then a hard left at the equipment truck. Win, and it’s a swift bouncy jaunt. Lose, and the lengthy trudge leaves you out of breath at your locker.
Veteran safety Darren Sharper took the slow way up, alone, after the Vikings’ 24-17 loss to Atlanta on Sunday. No smile. No bounce. No joy. None of the Vikings’ seven fumbles were his, but he had chance to grab one of Atlanta’s, and his failure to do so haunted him all the way to the locker room.
Third quarter, second and goal for the Falcons from the 5-yard line, with Atlanta leading 17-7. Linebacker Ben Leber’s jarring hit shook the ball loose from quarterback Matt Ryan at the 1, and in that instant Sharper said he saw daylight — a bouncing football, and nobody between him and the opposing goal line. So instead of falling on the ball, Sharper took a chance. He tried to grab it and go.
“If I picked it up, I would have scored,” he said.
But he didn’t. Cornerback Cedric Griffin missed it, too. Falcons left guard Justin Blalock finally fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown. So instead of keeping it a 10-point game, or perhaps cutting the lead to three, the Vikings trailed, 24-7, with 2:38 left in the third quarter. If any more air left the Metrodome at that moment, the roof would have sagged.
“That’s a momentum-changer right there,” Sharper said.
Ten fourth-quarter points by the Vikings made it close, and the Vikings outgained the Falcons on the day, 350 yards to 222. But, in the end, all those fumbles — four of them lost, three in Atlanta territory — proved insurmountable.
“They had every break going for them throughout the game, starting with the punt that we dropped, and then we move up and down on them all day,” said defensive tackle Kevin Williams, referring to Bernard Berrian’s first-quarter fumble on a punt return that led to Atlanta’s go-ahead touchdown. “We get in the red zone, and the ball got slick on us.”
A Vikings victory would have wrapped up the NFC North Division title and rendered next week’s home finale with the New York Giants almost inconsequential. Now, unless Green Bay beats Chicago tonight to do it for them, the Vikings probably need to knock off the defending Super Bowl champs to assure a playoff berth. And if that doesn’t happen, the Vikings must root for a Bears loss next Sunday at Houston.
“It’s not about just winning to get in,” Sharper said. “It’s winning at the end of the season so you go into the playoffs on a positive note. And this was not a positive note for us.”
In many ways, it was alarming. Not only is Pro Bowl back Adrian Peterson turning into an all-day fumbler — his two Sunday were his seventh and eighth of the season. Peterson lost one of the two balls, but quarterback Tarvaris Jackson fumbled three times (losing two of them) and, in one of the day’s more bizarre plays, let a shotgun snap whiz over his left shoulder. (Coach Brad Childress faulted Jackson, who was still checking the right side of the defense when center Matt Birk hiked the ball.) Mostly, though, Jackson played well, throwing for 233 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and running for 76 yards on eight carries. He probably secured himself another start next week.
But Peterson, who also ran for 76 yards on 22 carries, couldn’t have been more distressed about his sudden inability to protect the ball. “I’m hurting inside right now,” he said. “It’s killing me.”
A few lockers away, Sharper understood how Peterson felt. But Sharper wouldn’t second-guess his choice to try to run with Ryan’s fumble instead of diving on it.
“If I have clear sailing and nobody’s around me, and I figured I had it right there, I’m going to try to pick it up,” he said. “He [Ryan] dove, the ball came out, and nobody was around him. wish I would have grabbed it, just got the ball, but I didn’t. It went through my legs.
“Sometimes the ball will bounce that way. A lot of times, when you see things like that happen, you can say it lets you know that it might not be your day. But we had a chance to get it, and that’s the disappointing thing about that. Plus they found a way to get the football.”
Praise for the Falcons, QB Ryan
Sharper praised the Falcons as a whole — “That’s a resilient group they have over there,” he said — and particularly Ryan, whom he called the best rookie quarterback he had ever played against.
“They have a good football team. They came in here and played well,” he said. “But we have a good football team also, and we shouldn’t let anyone come in here and beat us.”
But Atlanta, itself scrambling for a playoff berth, needed to, and did. That leaves Sharper, the former Packer, in the weird position of rooting Monday night for Green Bay, the team that told him to get lost four years ago. “I guess it will (feel weird),” he said. “What do you want me to say?”
Wideout Bobby Wade, the former Bear, needed no prodding about his rooting interest. “We need the Bears to blow it,” Wade said. “Hopefully they will. Where are they playing, at home?”
Yes, he was told.
“Great,” he said. “They’re definitely going to blow it.”