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Superman Peterson finds his cape, and the Vikings are contenders

Adrian Peterson trying to skirt a tackle

REUTERS/Eric Miller

Adrian Peterson trying to skirt a tackle by Arizona Cardinals safety James Sanders on a 17-yard run during the first half of Sunday's game.

Their quarterback was atrocious and the Vikings figured out a way to stop Percy Harvin with a dumb penalty. It was going to be one of those unsightly days and it was time for the resident superman of the Vikings to find his cape. 

Had there been a few a games this year when Adrian Peterson was ordinary? Well, yes. But when a 103-yard run-back of the opening kickoff by Harvin turned out to be a mirage, Adrian came back to the huddle with a hard look and ready hands that needed no translation.

Read: Give me the ball.  

Nobody argued. They gave Adrian Peterson the ball 23 times, which is practically the civilized limit in view of his recent recovery. He gained 153 yards, launched the Vikings on a 21-14 victory over the wounded Arizona Cardinals and kept his team in the vanguard of the playoff hunt in the National Football League’s North Division. Their count? Five victories in seven games.

The Vikings don’t have a whole lot of time to preen. They play again Thursday night with just three days’ rest. The good news is that they play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who now have lost four games out of six. The better news is that they play again at the Metrodome, where Sunday Peterson well and truly returned to the form of his early seasons, the era when he was unanimously proclaimed the best running back in pro football. All of this in the aftermath of an injury that cost him a part of last season and left serious doubts about whether he would ever regain the full range and reckless style of his first years in pro football.

You won’t get any doubts today from the Arizona Cardinals.

But you should know that it wasn’t a fully equipped National Football League team the Vikings were playing Sunday. Arizona’s depletions at quarterback and in both the running and passing games cost them. Minnesota’s own Larry Fitzgerald, under normal conditions the best receiver in pro football, was practically invisible against the Viking coverage. Doubled teamed, he caught only four passes for 26 yards.

And yet the Cardinals were competing hard at the finish and pulled to within a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining on a six-yard scoring pass from John Skelton to Andre Roberts. Arizona’s bid to recapture the ball with an onside kick fizzled.  

Apart from Peterson’s assaults on the ground, and especially in the early going, the Vikings offense was snagged by the remarkably inept and out-of-gear performance of young Christian Ponder, moving uncertainly in the pocket, being sacked three times and throwing for a shockingly low 58 yards. He finished with an underwater quarterback rating of 35.5, practically the lowest rung available on a scale that goes well past 100.

No excuses

Ponder offered no excuses and was suitably contrite. He did mention throwing awkwardly across his body a few times, missing targets, in general playing badly but tactful enough under grilling not to mention the fact that the Vikings did win the game. “I have to do a better job of stepping up in the pocket,” he said afterward, “getting the ball out of my hands quicker.”

You had to offer some consolation to the Cardinals’ harassed quarterback, play after play facing the jailbreak rush with which the Viking defense came at him -- from Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Chad Greenway, Antoine Winfield, Josh Robinson, Kevin Williams and more. They sacked him seven times and probably would have had a few more if they hadn’t run out of gas.

In the early moments you had to wonder whether the Cardinals’ coaching staff had forgotten to read the tapes. There are ways to avoid kicking off to Percy Harvin that don’t violate the usual standards of bravery. But there they were, kicking off to Harvin, and there he was, racing into the Arizona end zone a few seconds later. The touchdown was canceled by a blocking-in-the-back penalty against the Vikings’ Marvin Mitchell. But midway through the first period Peterson took over the game, slashing and banging, once for 26 yards and scoring from 13 yards out for a 7-0 Viking lead after eight minutes.

But the Cardinals had a slasher of their own, a fearless runt of a guy named LaRod Stephens-Howling, who teamed with Skelton to tie the score at 7-7 when Stephens-Howling scored from three yards out after Ponder had thrown an interception.

But here was Adrian Peterson again, storming the Cardinal defenses, and Ponder hit Harvin -- who in this game was not used as a running threat -- with a three-yard touchdown pass. And it was 14-7 at the half. The Viking pass rush by then was scrambling the Arizona passing game, and rookie safety Harrison Smith registered his first NFL touchdown by intercepting Skelton on the Arizona 31 and sprinting in for the score to lift the Viking lead to 21-14.

Without being able to connect with Fitzerald, the Cardinals kept coming, and with a little less than two minutes from the finish, Skelton threw his second touchdown pass, six yards to Andre Roberts, and it was 21-14. The Cardinals tried to regain possession for one more shot, but their attempt at capturing the onside kickoff fizzled.

Surprising contender

Which leaves the Vikings in this position in the battle for the playoffs: At five wins and two losses, the Vikings are now a legitimate if surprising contender.

Ponder will have better days and the Vikings are becoming a quality team. In what way? Adrian Peterson is back. Matt Kahlil has stabilized the offensive line in his first season. Rookie safety Harrison Smith, part of the team’s Notre Dame syndicate that also includes center John Sullivan and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson, has established himself quickly as a bright and suitably ornery addition to the secondary. Smith offers speed, brains, the respect of his teammates and a delight in hammering pass catchers.

Their defensive front can match most in the league. Ponder remains a developing project but a quick learner who mourned his brutal performance in the aftermath but didn’t go crazy over it.

How disjointed was the Vikings’ offense? Arizona rolled up 21 first downs, the Vikings 12. Arizona controlled the ball for more than 35 minutes, the Vikings less than 25. Arizona gained 356 yards, the Vikings 209.

So now the National Football League is totally unpredictable. The Chicago Bears lead the North with four wins and a loss and play tonight against Detroit, once a favorite and now in trouble at 2 and 3 on the verge of dropping out. The Vikings stand at five wins and two losses, and Green Bay is 4-3 after defeating St. Louis Sunday. Only Atlanta, which drew a bye this week, is undefeated after six games.

And the Vikings have yet to play Chicago and Green Bay, twice each. But if you’re a Minnesotan, you want to embrace this team, considering the debris piling up among the other athletic organizations around us. The Lynx lost their basketball championship Sunday. The Gopher football folks are being hammered by their critics for putting up $800,000 of the public’s money to escape two future games with Maryland. The Wild aren’t playing hockey because of a lockout. The Twins finished last. The Timberwolves’ Kevin Love turned masochist and broke his own hand working out in private.

Go easy on Ponder.

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