The second coming of Adrian was the stuff of old-time morality plays. The mid-game rehabilitation of Christian Ponder was a bonus. And the new super-leg kicker, Blair Walsh, defied his draft day critics with four field goals, including a gargantuan 55-yarder that that lifted the Minnesota Vikings into a fourth-quarter tie with Jacksonville and then won it with a 28-yard kick in overtime.
Until then, it was basically an embarrassment.
But it can’t escape your notice that on this day in September of 2012, the Minnesota Vikings, of all people, are tied for first place in the National Football League North after their 26-23 overtime victory Sunday at the Mall of America field.
You have to appreciate the enormity of that. A year ago the Vikings franchise was widely predicted to be a candidate for deportation to Los Angeles.
We don’t want to be rash about all this. The Vikings have company today in Detroit and Chicago where the Lions and Bears both won. On the other hand, that group from the Lake Michigan outpost of Green Bay is in last place.
This will change. For all the drama Sunday, the Vikings were few inches away from losing a game that would basically have been a disaster — a home loss on opening day against a team almost unanimously dismissed as one of the worst in football. But Walsh saved it with his 55-yard field goal that sent the game into overtime.
Which lifts us back to the player draft last spring when Walsh was chosen on the sixth round out of Georgia, the 175th player taken in the draft. What puzzled the country’s drafniks was that in his senior year, Walsh had missed 14 out of 35 field-goal attempts, a wretched number for some high school kickers. Nobody had adequately explained that strange deviation from his earlier successes at Georgia. But Rick Spielman, the Viking general manager and mastermind of the draft, was enamored of Walsh’s previous success and his powerful kickoffs that Spielman was sure would clear the end zone most of the time. He dismissed Walsh’s field-goal miseries in his senior year as an aberration and insisted he would make fans forget the departed Ryan Longwell.
So on Sunday Walsh kicked one of 20 yards to open the fourth quarter, another of 42 yards, then his 55-yard monster in the closing moments of regulation time to send the game into overtime, and finally his fourth from 38 yards to win the game.
Maybe they should have given the game ball to Spielman.
Or to Adrian Peterson or to Percy Harvin, for his slashing runs after catch and his predictable grit.
But the truth was that the Vikings were all but dead in the closing minutes of regulation after the Jaguars scored on a touchdown pass from Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts. But here Ponder gathered the offense and with bullseye passes, including a critical one of 26 yards to the often overlooked Devin Aromashodu that got the Vikings close enough to bring on Walsh, who hammered his 55-yarder on the final play of regulation. From there, his winning kick of 38 yards in overtime was practically a gimme.
Not that it wasn’t filled with drama. The Vikings won the overtime toss and now Ponder played it with confidence. It helped to have a guy named Peterson running the ball, which he did for 20 yards on one play and 10 on another. Toss in a 17 yard pass to Aromashodu, and one more time they summoned the guy from Georgia. His 38-yard field goal made it 26-23 for the Vikings.
But the new league rule provided one more crack at the ball for Jacksonville because the Vikings hadn’t scored a touchdown on their first attempt. But on fourth down the Viking defense forced Gabbert to rush his throw, and it was over.
So how much else changed for the Vikings from the morass of the 2011 season?
Ponder, in his second season, looked more comfortable as the game wore on, sometimes took his sweet time when he might have fired earlier, but in the end completed 20 out of 27 passes for 270 yards. None went for touchdowns and he essentially played Gabbert even, which might not have been enough to win. But he managed the game competently and threw crisply. And when there was trouble there were always Peterson and Harvin, who added nearly 200 yards himself running and catching.
But one thing that is never going to change is the other-worldly ferocity with which Adrian Peterson plays football. The crowd thundered when it realized that the cat and mouse game surrounding his availability was over Sunday and the Vikings were going to waste no time handing him the ball. Eight months after he suffered a fracture of his left knee, Peterson was the same warhorse, slashing and pounding, running for 87 yards in 17 carries and scoring two touchdowns. In the process he became the all-time Viking leader in rushing yardage, surpassing Robert Smith.
The euphoria among the Viking clans, however, probably should be sprinkled with strong doses of reality. If there were many teams as inept as the Vikings in 2011, Jacksonville was one of them. Their quarterback, Gabbert, was popularly described as the worst in the National Football League, branded by some critics as “timid in the pocket.”
But he didn’t play that way Sunday. Or it may be that the Vikings and the Jaguars were evenly matched, which, if true, might be scary. It might be a little scarier that Jacksonville, widely regarded as one of the NFL”s worst teams going into the season, had a 10-minute advantage in time of possession, partly attributable to gutty running of Maurice Jones-Drew, whose 77 yards nearly matched Peterson’s, just days after he joined the team at the end of a long holdout. It may also be that the new Jaguar coach, Mike Mularkey, once a Viking player, has invested the team with a new and respected leadership.
All that aside, the Vikings had no business losing the game at home, and they did manage the closing crisis more professionally in Leslie Frazier’s second season. And now with a dose of confidence to play the Indianapolis Colts, who without Peyton Manning managed to win one game in 16 a year ago. Their No. 1 draft choice, quarterback Andrew Luck, couldn’t take them past the Chicago Bears Sunday (41-21). But Luck is going to be a star — and Jared Allen is looking for his first sack.
The Vikings? Their own No. 1 draft choice, Matt Kalil, blocked an extra point and handled himself well on offense in his pro debut. So there is hope. There is also Peterson and Percy, which is even better.