With seven minutes remaining, the Minnesota Vikings trailed the Indianapolis Colts by 14 points.
With less than a minute left they trailed by 7.
With 31 seconds remaining they tied the score at 20-20.
So here was young Christian Ponder about to embark on a thrilling new identity as a game-saver in his second year in the National Football League.
Sorry Christian. There is this old crock of a field-goal kicker named Adam Vinatieri who came out of the Black Hills of South Dakota somewhere around the ice age. Adam Vinatieri was kicking last-second field goals when pro football still put the goal posts on the goal line — or so it seemed. He won Super Bowls for the New England Patriots for years, and never mind all those fairy tales about Tom Brady. Vinatieri kicked one in a snowstorm so thick they almost needed radar to verify that it went through the posts.
And Sunday afternoon, rather cruelly, old Adam — now employed by the Indianapolis Colts — broke the back of a Viking fourth-quarter rally, and the heroic play of Percy Harvin, and won 23-20 with eight seconds left. The Colts did it behind Peyton Manning’s successor, the No. 1 draft choice, Andrew Luck
Fodder for cynics
Cynics have a party in the aftermath of pro football’s Sundays. When a team loses in the last minute it’s invariably a choke. Lousy coaching. Shaky secondaries. Game-changing penalties. Sunday offered plenty of fodder. The Viking secondary blew critical coverages. Eleven penalties cost them more than a hundred yards. Erin Henderson bit on a fake and it ended in a touchdown. Jared Allen may have been manic about sacks — but since when hasn’t he and, when you think about, why not? He was shut out again Sunday. He also took a roughness penalty. And the Vikings today offer no serious deep-pass catching threats beside Harvin and won’t until Jerome Simpson returns a from his suspension a week from now.
For the statisticians among the audiences, the story was Ponder and Luck. And in the arithmetic it was close to a draw. Ponder completed 27 out of 35 attempts for 245 yards and two touchdowns; Luck 20 completions out of 31 attempts for 224 yards and two touchdowns. Luck was there at the finish when it mattered most.
But you might want to pause to consider the guts-and-all performance once more of Percy Harvin. Some of his teammates have trouble figuring out his quirky moods, but watching him coming off the field, cramped up, head down, hands on knees, you know nobody plays this game any harder and with more to give.
So neither the Vikings nor the Colts are going to make it to the Super Bowl this year. But the match between Luck and Ponder was fascinating and may offer sequels into the future, granting that Ponder has nowhere near the celebrity of the Stanford star nor the bank account.
Does Ponder have a future in the NFL? The vote here is yes but the day after a loss to last year’s worst team in the NFL is probably not the time to start polling the blogosphere.
Do Leslie Frazier’s Vikings, at their current talent levels, have a chance to be presentable? We’ll know more in a few weeks, beginning Sunday when the Vikings face the San Francisco 49ers, already one of the three or four best teams in the NFL. Right now we know that Percy Harvin is still and will continue to be their most productive receiver, tight end Kyle Rudolph will be a star sometime soon and Adrian Peterson still terrifies every defense in sight.
But their offensive line is again a work in shaky progress. Their best players on defense are piling up the years and they have the 49ers coming to town Sunday, followed eventually by Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago et al.
Finding running room for Peterson
One way or another, the Vikings will have to figure out a way to find reasonable daylight for Adrian Peterson, whose knee surgery seems fully healed and his fervor undiminished. But aside from Luck, Indianapolis is still basically the team that was the worst in pro football last year. When it was over Frazier lamented the failure of the Viking defense to stop the Colts after the Vikings offense — trailing 17- 6 with six minutes remaining– had rallied to tie the score at 20-20.
Until then the Viking scoring was all a reprise of the Blair Walsh field goal dramatics of a week ago. He hit one of 5l yards early and another of 29 but Luck threw touchdown passes of 3 yards to Dwayne Allen and 30 yards to Reggie Wayne for a 17-6 halftime lead. Vinatieri stretched that to 20-6 in the third quarter, but Ponder, Harvin, Peterson and the Viking offensive line brought the Vikings back with five minutes to go. From the Colts’ 7 Ponder threw into the end zone, the ball was tipped but landed in the welcoming hands of wide receiver Stephen Burton.
So now the Vikings were a touchdown away and it was 20-13 for Indianapolis. You don’t want to get the impression that the young quarterback prodigies were in full command of their wits during all of this commotion. Protecting the lead, Luck took a 17-yard sack late in the game and, trying to give Vinatieri enough time for his winning field goal, spiked the ball when a time out already had been called.
But now they were down to the wire. Trailing by a touchdown, the Vikings benefited from a short Indianapolis punt and took over from the Indianapolis 47. With 2 ½ minutes left, the Vikings reached the Colts’ 6 from where Ponder hit Rudolph in the end zone, and it was tied 20-20 with 31 seconds remaining.
Luck needed no more than that. Twice he hit 20-yarders, to Donnie Avery and Reggie Wayne. An offside penalty against the Vikings put the ball on the 35.
With eight seconds left, the summons went out to Vinatieri. There was no snowstorm in sight, but the kick was from 53 yards out, enough to stir Vinatieri’s juices, and with it went Vikings’ one-game winning streak.
When it was over Frazier regretted the inability of his team to play defense after the offense had brought the team back from the brink in the last minutes. It was life in the NFL, he said. You cash in on opportunities, or you lose. “We just have to find a way across the board to play better early,” he said. “I like the way we’re fighting. We have to go back and see what we’re doing early on.”
Whatever it was Sunday, it clearly was not enough. Practicing fire drills might be a start. So next Sunday at the Metrodome, it’s the San Francisco 49ers, who are probably not prepared to offer a whole lot of sympathy.