It got so bad for the Vikings near the finish in Green Bay Monday night that in the Lambeau Leaps seats the exhausted fans, battered and weary of retrieving their touchdown heroes, were raising white flags and ready to call in Medicare.
It started early. In less than two minutes, Randall Cobb sprinted 80 yards with a Viking punt, and it didn’t end until the invisible man of the Packers offense, backup quarterback Matt Flynn, scored from three yards out and then flew triumphantly into the reeling but dead-game reception claque.
When they finished counting, the score was 45-7, and a downcast Leslie Frazier, the Viking coach, admitted afterward it was hard to know what was worst about the Viking performance.
It wasn’t that his team didn’t try. The scary part was that most of the time it played hard. The saddest part was the flailing futility of its pass defenders in the secondary. It’s bad enough when it faces mediocrity but it’s out of its league when the quarterback is Aaron Rodgers.
How deep was the ignominy?
No Viking team had lost this badly to the Packers, and that includes the Green Bay teams of Vince Lombardi, Brett Favre, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor.
It didn’t help when the respected veteran cornerback, Antoine Winfield, went out with a fractured clavicle that probably ends his season. The Packers themselves played as expected, without any evidence of overexertion. The Vikings were that bad.
So here was the unflappable Rodgers, throwing four touchdown passes, hitting on 23 of 30 throws for 250 yards and managing to stay in one piece in the face of the usual pass-rushing menace and melodrama from Jared Allen, who had no trouble creating the spotlight despite the inconvenient score.
For the Packers, the game extended their remarkable mastery in one of the toughest of all competitive venues, the NFL. It meant the team has now won 15 consecutive games reaching back to its against-all-odds run through the playoffs and the Super Bowl last season. And now it counts nine consecutive wins in 2011 with seven remaining before the playoffs.
So, is this potentially the greatest professional football team of all time?
At this point, probably not.
It has struggled against mediocre teams — the Vikings in Minneapolis a few weeks ago, among others, and its running game is ordinary or less. But no National Football League quarterback today surpasses the superb passing gifts, agile mind and leadership that Rodgers brings to the game, nor the versatility of its receiving corps of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Donald Driver and more. Its defense is adequate, and its coaching staff, headed by Mike McCarthy, ranks with the best in football.
It took the Packers less than two minutes to establish the tone. Randall Cobb grabbed a Chris Kluwe punt and took it 80 yards into the end zone. Like that. It went to 14-0 later in the first quarter on Rodgers 24-yard pass to Jennings and 17-0 on Mason Crosby’s field goal. Rodgers 17-yard pass to Nelson made it 24-0 to open the third quarter, Adrian Peterson cut that to 24-7 banging in from three yards out, but John Kuhn and Nelson caught touchdown passes later in the half and Flynn scrambled three yards to finish the scoring.
For Christian Ponder, the young Viking quarterback who has won early admiration for his adaptability in taking command of the huddle in his first exposure to pro football, it was a numbing trip back to earth. He threw reasonably well, 16 out of 34 for 190 yards and one interception. But he was matched against a master, had to battle the Lambeau crowd and was pretty well stripped of a running game once the score mounted.
The Vikings tried to break through early with Percy Harvin in a variety of roles and Adrian Peterson hurling himself at the Packer front. He managed 41 yards in 14 carries, but after the Packers’ lead began mounting, it was too late to run and eventually to do much of anything..
When it was over, Ponder found himself experiencing a new sensation as a young quarterback. The earlier game with Green Bay had been almost euphoric. He’d played exceptionally well as a rookie and, in fact, led a late-game recovery that almost overtook the Super Bowl champions in the second half. And a week later against Carolina, he won his first game, played well and found himself suddenly talked about and admired by pro football oracles around the country.
But last night was Green Bay, in Green Bay, meaning the steel-cold breath of reality.
Afterward, he tried to make an assessment, and didn’t try to hide his hurt or his disappointment.
“We sort of shot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “We made mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes.”
He didn’t talk much about an injury to his hand, which had stepped on during the action. It had been X-rayed, and he stayed in the lineup.
“We have to start getting better,” he said.
Who would argue? The Vikings today find themselves at two wins and seven losses — and at a level of mediocrity that by now has washed out virtually any hope of a respectable season. Nor do they seem capable of doing much for the creditability of the Viking ownership’s expensive public relations pitch for a new stadium on its own terms.
So, is this team now going to be a total washout for the next two months?
Actually, it doesn’t have to be. If the Vikings can figure out a way to keep their defensive backs in eye contact with the pass receivers for Oakland, Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, Washington and the Chicago Bears, they can find redemption.
Don’t look too hard for it when they play New Orleans, Chicago and Atlanta.
Maybe it will begin next Sunday against Oakland, which, like the Vikings, is mediocre but offers nobody like Adrian Peterson. Nothing has damaged the Vikings as grievously or damaged Leslie Frazier’s coaching tenure as badly as its odd inability to find ways to unchain the best running back in professional football.
It might be time to figure out a way to get him in space. Only a crack here and there. He doesn’t need much more.