In the midst of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ run to the Super Bowl a year ago, Coach Mike Tomlin voiced a simple but chilling creed.
“Our goal,” he said, “is to impose our will on our opponents.”
It wasn’t loose rhetoric. And it may explain the uncanny final minutes of the Steelers’ 27-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday when the Steelers’ defense, in retreat most of the fourth quarter, scored two transcontinental touchdowns when the Vikings offense seemed unstoppable and on the brink of taking control of the game.
You want to remember that this is the National Football League, friends. The Vikings lost for the first time in seven games but that hardly qualifies for heartbreak and baying at the moon. There are still more than three months to go and the crises usually arrive weekly after this — beginning next Sunday when Brett Favre returns to Green Bay in his celebrated new persona as the disinherited knight. The several million Packer adherents still strung out by Favre’s defection to Minnesota could not have mourned the Vikings’ fourth quarter in Pittsburgh yesterday when, despite a day when he threw for 334 yards, Favre was the central figure and fall guy in both of the Steelers’ touchdowns that changed the course of the game.
The course of the game translated into a Viking dominance for long stretches of it, although for all of his grit and running fury, Adrian Peterson was limited to 69 yards against and often stacked defense. Favre threw incessantly, 51 times. He hit 34 of them to give the Vikings’ a clear advantage in possession, nearly 37 minutes to 23 for the Steelers.
But it was one of those heavyweight brawls where all that mattered was who was standing at the finish. When it was over, Favre regretted events of the waning minutes against the Steelers and then ironically acknowledged the coming frenzies of next Sunday’s game in Green Bay. “It’s always tough,” he said. “to win at Lambeau (the Packer Stadium),” momentarily forgetting that the big reason it was always tough for visitors win at Lambeau for 17 years was Brett Favre.
But Favre is a 40-year-old football player, not the Wizard of Oz. Twice he drove the Vikings downfield in the fourth quarter in what had all the sizzle of one more Hollywood finish. Both times the ball wound up in the wrong end zone, in the unlikely hands of Steeler linebackers Keyaron Fox and LaMarr Woodley.
Imperfect but intense
Yet there are not going to be many football games this year that will reach the intensity of Sunday’s war between the best in the NFC’s North and the defending Super Bowl champion from the AFC. It wasn’t very scenic. It was highly imperfect football and it was, in fact, fundamentally brutal. It was also touched with extraordinary plays delivered by men performing at outer limits of commitment.
There was the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, throwing himself recklessly but sometimes fruitlessly against the Steeler defensive front; Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu, racing crossfield to head off a Peterson breakout, a half a yard of hair streaming behind him; Favre and Pittsburgh’s quarterbacking man-giant, Ben Roethlisberger, fighting off the blitzers and leading Pittsburgh on a 91-yard scoring drive that took only 75 seconds; the Vikings Sidney Rice catching everything in sight and challenging natural law by keeping his toes in bounds while the rest of his body went south; the Steelers’ receiver Santonio Holmes out-dueling a half dozen tacklers on a 45-yard run to the red zone; the Vikings’ Percy Harvin shifting gears on the fly. And finally the Steeler defense and that communal will.
It came down to the last eight minutes with Pittsburgh leading 13-10 after the Steelers stonewalled the Vikings on the 1-yard line and the Vikings Brad Childress chose a field goal instead of a shot for a touchdown, explaining later the team had to come away with points — and realizing that decision might reap the groans of the Viking nation the next day.
This is the next day, and he will hear the groans. But it wasn’t that call that sank the Vikings. The Steelers managed to blow a touchdown of their own when Rashard Mendenhall did a high dive toward the Viking end zone and fumbled the ball. But now the Vikings’ were driving, again, late in the game, trailing by three points, with Peterson slashing hard and Favre hitting practically everything he threw until Pittsburgh’s Brett Keisel stripped him of the ball to force a fumble. The Steelers’ Woodley, a 240-pound linebacker, picked it up and struggled 77 yards in and out of the Viking pursuit.
So it was over at 20-10 for Pittsburgh, right? It was over for 14 seconds. This was all the supercharged rookie, Harvin, needed to run back the kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown, cross-stitching his way through the Steeler defenders. Those efforts included an embarrassing flop by the kicker, Jeff Reed, who successfully escaped a clear invitation to try to tackle Harvin.
So now it was 20-17 for Pittsburgh with six minutes left and the Vikings once more swept downfield and appeared certain to at least tie the game. Here Favre threw to running back Chester Taylor. The pass had the typical Favre heat. Jostled as he went up for the ball, Taylor couldn’t handle it cleanly and the Steelers’ linebacker, Keyaron Fox, pried it away. Escorted by a relay of blockers, Fox fought of a half dozen tacklers, including an unthreatening Brett Favre, and made it 82 yards to the end zone. By then there was only a minute left, and it was over.
Afterwards Tomlin acknowledged the Vikings, the team he coached as a defensive coordinator under Childress before going to Pittsburgh. “They pounded a couple in on us but we stayed in the fight and guys didn’t blink. And we’re very complimentary of that football team we played today. They’re good.”
Childress was appropriately glum but proud of his team’s fight and sounded ready for Green Bay. He had very little forgiveness for an officials’ call that cost them a touchdown pass to Rice. The call for was tripping by tight end Jeff Dugan, who was blocking against the Steeler rush. Dugan’s block, Childress insisted, was legal. “We’ve run it that way a thousand times,” he said.
So what do we know today that we didn’t know a week ago? We know that New Orleans is the only undefeated team in the National Football Conference, the Vikings remain a clear contender for the Super Bowl, the Chicago Bears are not going to compete seriously for the playoffs, the Packers will, and the Packers face the Vikings at Lambeau on Sunday. We also know that football teams that kick the ball to young Harvin do it at their peril and he is going to score often and spectacularly for the Vikings.
We also know that if you’re looking for a sanctuary this week to calmly consider the chances for peace and quiet in the world today, you probably want to avoid Green Bay, Wis.