The Vikings called it a game of atonement.
For Adrian Peterson it was a game of ego rehabilitation and a comfort zone restored, a day of running with the same unworldly fury that had propelled him into the elite of the National Football League.
It was also a game of good, hard cash because today for the second straight year the Minnesota Vikings are securely installed in the NFL playoffs with their 30-10 romp through the Cincinnati Bengals at the boisterous Metrodome Sunday.
Peterson didn’t reach his landmark 100 yards for the game, although 97 yards isn’t barnyard litter. He scored two touchdowns, ran his total of rushing touchdowns for the season to 14 and caught 40 yards worth of passes.
But the day’s harvest for the Vikings was not so much one more W. More significantly, they played hack-and-hammer football against one of the better teams in the National Football League, erased the stigma of an embarrassing loss at Arizona the week before, and put themselves squarely in the hunt for the Super Bowl a month down the road.
The NFL doesn’t get serious about championships until the second week of January and now has figured out a way to stretch the season into February, just in time for the tulips of spring and the college draft. It’s the kind of calendar on which the Vikings have been penciled in by most of the accepted oracles of football, and today they aren’t going to get an argument from the Cincinnati Bengals.
With 11 victories in 13 games, the Vikings are now within grasp of home field advantage in the playoffs and a first round bye. Their remaining games are with lower-rung Carolina next week, then the misery-loving Bears in Chicago and, in January, the New York Giants at the Metrodome.
Green Bay is still a de facto possibility for the playoffs, but for the Packers (9-4) to win the North Division title they would have to win all three of their remaining games with Pittsburgh and Arizona, both on the road, and Seattle while the Vikings were losing all three of theirs. If they both finish with four defeats, the Vikings win the title on the strength of their two victories over the Packers.
Nobody was more relieved Sunday than Adrian Peterson, who in this game against a ranking division leader in the American Football Conference cleansed his psyche of the personal demons of the past few weeks. In addition to being one of the best football players of the decade, this is a maturing superstar who, despite the remarkable saga of Brett Favre, had emerged in his third season to be a poster for pro football. It didn’t make him immune to the stretch of bad karma of the last few weeks when he had to deal with the annual syndrome of the fumbling Adrian and the eerie drought of his 19 yards from scrimmage in Arizona last week. Add to this his head-scratching performance on the usually crowded Hwy. 62, where he was clocked at night doing 109 miles an hour, possibly another record that is still under review.
The Bengals had expected to keep it closer Sunday. But if you live in Cincinnati, the temptation today would be to pronounce it The Bungles after a chaotic run of penalties that reached the level of caricature.
For this the bedlam in the Metrodome was not the only villain. The toll included seven penalties in the first 10 minutes of the game, 12 men on the field, and some genuine circus slapstick to close out the first half. There the Bengals launched a bold strategy of trying something tricky with four seconds left and fumbled the ball away. In defiance of all laws of chance, this set up a Viking field goal on the final tick of the clock. That made it 16-7 and it never got closer.
A jazzed crowd
Cincinnati played most of the game in a disorganized trance, unprepared for the racket that the Metrodome crowd valves up so gleefully. It’s always a shock for teams unconditioned to it. But the Vikings were jazzed up by the first appearance in nearly two months of the veteran star cornerback Antoine Winfield, making tackles everywhere, and by the unrelenting pressure by the Viking defensive front.
Winfield, in fact, gave the crowd and his team a spontaneous lesson in the virtues of confession and re-dedication. After blowing an easy interception, he went down on the grass and did a half-dozen brisk pushups between plays. It drew a standing ovation from some of his fans, who gave him an immediate pardon.
This was one game Brett Favre said afterward with quiet irony that he actually managed as a kind of observer. He was referring to speculation in the first days after his arrival as a 40-year-old retread in Viking uniform. They said he wouldn’t have to do much; let Adrian run while he managed the game from his rocking chair behind the center.
Favre, of course, became the story of the year in pro football, galvanizing the team in its first two months’ sweep to the elite of the 2009 season, winning games in the closing minutes, virtually adopting the rookie marvel, Percy Harvin, and establishing a loose and genuine brotherhood in the locker room.
On Sunday he was part of the supporting cast, hitting 17 of 30 passes for 192 yards and one touchdown, while Peterson and the reliable warhorse, Chester Taylor, ran behind that goliath offensive line, forging a combined 154 yards on the ground against a Cincinnati defense that had gone eight straight games holding opponents to less than 100.
In the face of all of these discouragements to fine art, the Chad Ochocinco Revue failed to deliver its heralded breakthrough on the Minnesota cultural scene. His threatened crusade to dehorn the Viking Nordic mascot, Ragnar, mercifully did not materialize. Ochocinco was a model of straitlaced behavior throughout the afternoon and caught one touchdown pass from Carson Palmer without turning it into Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Subdued by the loss, he willingly went arm and arm with Ragnar to the crowd’s delight, a friendly act that not only induced cheers but spared his bank balance another $15,000.
With the Palmer-Ochocinco threat effectively defused, the Viking defense controlled the Bengals’ running star, Cedric Benson, for most of the game. They won with superior play on offense, defense and special teams and the rejuvenation of seeing Winfield back in form, unhinging the Cincinnati defense.
For the Vikings, it was important as a morale boost to see young Jasper Brinkley adapting to the middle linebacker role occupied so vitally by E.J. Henderson, the veteran who was lost for the season with a broken thigh bone suffered last week in Arizona. They got an additional lift with the strong kick return performance of Darius Reynaud, replacing the migraine-troubled Percy Harvin.
Afterward, you had to know that Favre clearly is aware of the growing curiosity about his late season performance, fueled by the team’s struggles last week in Arizona and by the memory of his late season collapse with the New York Jets, when he played the last six games with a lame arm.
He talked about it after the game with what seemed to be just a sliver of annoyance when he mentioned managing the Cincinnati game — instead of winging 50-yard passes to Sidney Rice and dominating the Viking offense when opposing teams ganged up on Peterson.
“I knew we had to run the football because their pass defense is as good as we’ve faced,” he said. “We knew that. Passes that we completed, really all of the plays that we had that were successful, were hard earned.”
Heading into the final weeks, he said “I feel fine. It isn’t as though I’m falling apart.”
No such sighting was in evidence at the Metrodome Sunday.