It wasn’t enough Sunday that Percy Harvin dazzled and disorganized the Tennessee Titans early, or that the Viking defense smothered all pretense of a Tennessee recovery halfway through. The Vikings also uncovered a promising villain to spruce up their now-energized cast of contenders in the NFL playoff hunt.
Not very deep into the Vikings’ 30-7 Sunday romp at the Metrodome, rookie safety Harrison Smith got crossways with squirming bodies in a pileup near the sideline after a pass interception by Antoine Winfield. Harrison found himself being pulled out of the mess. He pushed back oddly by committing football’s mortal sin — which certainly ought to be understood by all good Notre Damers like Harrison — and grabbed one of the peace-makers, an official.
So they evicted Harrison Smith, whose helmet-first collisions already have become a sometimes scary part of the NFL scene, along with his aggressive pass coverage.
But nothing much slowed the Vikings en route to their fourth victory in five games, which now ties them with the Chicago Bears for the lead in their division and sends them against the Washington Redskins on the road next Sunday.
Only two of the 32 teams are unbeaten, Atlanta (5 and 0) and Houston (4 and 0), which plays Monday night against the New York Jets. Only three others, Arizona, Baltimore and San Francisco (whom the Vikings have beaten) have won as many as four games.
What’s going on here?
The NFL calls it parity, but the Vikings call it Percy and Adrian — and you can add such names as Greenway, Allen, Winfield, Sullivan, the rookie tackle Kalil, and a wiser and more-settled Christian Ponder.
These days, you don’t see internal fractures. Adrian Peterson, once worried about the number of touches he gets as the heart and soul of the offense, admires what he sees and understands Frazier’s concern about keeping him healthy. If Harvin’s emergence as a superstar thrills the team and its suddenly giddy fans, it does the same for Peterson, who marvels at Percy’s versatility, his bravura style and his mastery of the Big Play.
All of this emerges from the ashes of the 2011 season, which was so ugly that it put Leslie Frazier’s coaching job in jeopardy and nearly cost the Vikings a new stadium.
So, remarkably, the opportunity is there for the Vikings in Washington. The Redskins’ acclaimed rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, was removed from their Sunday game with Atlanta after suffering a concussion and lacerations in his team’s 24-17 loss. He will be re-evaluated Monday.
When it was over, Frazier addressed his team with respect. He said it was something they had worked for and deserved. To the media he talked about a team coming together and sacrificing together. So far, his somber sideline presence has not overwhelmed the Viking audiences, but they can’t argue with 4 and 1, and his players know a different Leslie than the fans know.
The Vikings’ domination Sunday was virtually complete against a Tennessee team that had hoped to match Peterson’s healthy revival with its own Chris Johnson, who earlier in his career had been considered Peterson’s equal. It didn’t break that way Sunday. The Viking defensive front and active linebackers smothered Johnson’s every move and left him with 24 yards in 15 carries.
Peterson, meanwhile, was the irrepressible throwback Adrian, powering and changing gears on the fly, running up 88 yards on the ground and grabbing three of Ponder’s 25 completions in 35 attempts.
But it was the Ponder-Harvin battery that overwhelmed the Titans — Percy on the flank or Percy on a screen or Percy going deep. And when it was over, Harvin had caught eight passes for 108 yards and a touchdown to add to his earlier 4-yard scoring burst in the end zone to give the Vikings their early lead.
As the triggerman, Ponder — comfortable and under control with more time to throw – accumulated 258 yards, including 10 yards on a pass to Harvin that put the game out of reach at 23-0 and 15 yards to Kyle Rudolph as a postscript.
En route, Blair Walsh kicked his customary three field goals — from 26, 36 and 42 yards. Jared Allen and Brian Robison delivered sacks against the thinly protected Matt Hasselbeck, the veteran standing in for rookie Jake Locker, the Titans’ hopeful for the future.
Considering the team’s multiple miseries, Hasselbeck is a good and steady professional. But as they are now constituted, the Titans — a quality team a year ago — are going nowhere this season.
Are the Vikings?
You can make the argument now that this is a team to contend with.
Ponder played comfortably under control, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Two of his three scrambles came at important times. They added to the growing impression around the league that this guy is not only bright and gutsy but a growing presence in the NFL and certainly one of the more-capable young quarterbacks to enter the league in the last few years.
So what does all of this portend for the next months?
The Vikings today stand at the top of the National Conference’s North Division with 4 wins and a loss, matching the Chicago Bears. Green Bay, the prohibitive pre-season favorite, blew a big lead and lost dramatically to Indianapolis Sunday against an inspired team playing with its head coach in a hospital with leukemia. Detroit was idle, mired at one victory and three losses.
There are 11 more games to play. The Vikings’ remaining schedule includes two games with Green Bay, two with Chicago and one more with Detroit, which it already has defeated. Its non-division schedule is hardly terrifying. It includes games with Tampa Bay, Arizona and St. Louis but also the undefeated Houston Texans.
Most national rankings now place the Vikings among the top eight or 10 teams in the NFL.
Is that justified?
Right now, it basically may depend on Ponder, who on Sunday played confidently, under control, intelligently and with some bravado. He is gaining respect around the league as a player with smarts and an adequate arm, He buys into the diversified skills around him and is a willing and productive runner when the pass breaks down. The players clearly like and respect him.
Coach Frazier, meanwhile, gives the impression of a man who has weathered the storm. Nothing much about him on the sidelines inspires a whole lot of excitement among the fans. He looks worried and sometimes unsettled. But that’s about par for most NFL coaches. But the fans don’t call the plays, and the fans don’t know what goes on in the heads of the players. Frazier is OK with the players and has their respect as a coach and a man of honor and commitment.
The next few weeks will be the tipping point, determining whether this team is merely interesting or ready to belong with the best.