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With Adrian Peterson, who needs a passing game?

The Vikings today are back among the living in the congested race for the playoffs.

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler getting sacked by defensive end Everson Griffen during the first half of Sunday's game.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

In the old days of outdoor football the first snowstorm was usually the Viking ticket to salvation. The snow piled four feet high in midfield and the visiting teams were totally demoralized.

On Sunday, the first snowstorm of the season came to the land of lutefisk and long johns. Football here has now moved indoors and the Vikings no longer use blizzards as their intimidator. So on the first series of the game, they gave the ball to Adrian Peterson — which everybody in the Metrodome, including the Chicago Bears, knew was coming.

The Bears  never recovered from the shock.

Adrian — the registered Viking intimidator —  bolted 51 yards, running like the agent of wrath that characterizes all of his runs whether one yard or 100. And after defeating the Bears 21-14, the Vikings today are back among the living in the congested race for the National Football League playoffs in January.

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Pause to consider what this extraordinary football player produced in the opening moments on a day when his team needed him the most:

After his long run he scored from the 1, he then he scored again a few minutes later after Josh Robison intercepted a Jay Cutler pass. Ultimately, Peterson gained 154 yards against a team that spent a week getting ready for him. What he did was to keep the playoff grail in sight for a team whose recent pratfalls had put it on the brink of elimination.

That coveted goal is no longer a vanishing dream for almost anybody in the league with a winning record, although the casualties will begin piling up like pulpwood in the next week or so with three games of the regular season remaining. Today the Vikings stand at seven wins and six losses, one game behind the Bears and two behind Green Bay. If they win out — at St. Louis and Houston on the road and Green Bay at home — they finish 10-6 and at minimum would contest as a wild card. Playoff mathematics are always a little nutty, and today the if- and- but season gets serious.

Peterson and the defense

Yet Sunday was not so much for the league mathematicians as it was for (a) Adrian Peterson and (b) Viking defenders like Jasper Brinkley, rookies Josh Robison and Harrison Smith, the inexhaustible Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield and more. Add Leslie Frazier, the solemn and frequently harassed coach who clearly had his team prepared for a game. If lost, it would have pretty much blown a season after an attractive and surprising start.

And did Christian Ponder —  the young quarterback who has been under siege by regiments of bloggers, tweeters, media gurus and ticket-holders for weeks of increasingly erratic play — belong in that roll call of winners?

Not so much.

From the beginning he bought into the Sunday scheme against the Bears: that if the Vikings were going to beat an injury-depleted team that included the star linebacker Brian Urlacher, it would have be Peterson’s show. Run all day. Do it not only because Peterson is the best there is in that business. The running game was also inevitable because Ponder’s performance for the last month has been shaky to the point of chronic indecision. It reflected the increased harassment of his critics and his subsequent lack of confidence. It had made the Viking passing game unproductive at best and a potential season-killer at worse.

And so it played out. Ponder mainly stayed out of the line of fire, throwing only 17 times for a Lilliputian 91 yards while the battered and angry warrior of the Bears, Jay Cutler, and his successor, Jason Campbell, combined for 320 yards. Cutler is never going to apologize much for his less-than-drawing-room attitude or behavior. He played under fierce pressure the whole game, carrying his history of concussions, and had to be removed late in the game Sunday when they recurred.

The Bears played with the added handicap of losing their all-star field goal kicker, Robbie Gould, to a muscle injury before the game started. It changed the Bears’ strategies in field-goal territory but was not used as an alibi when the game was over and Gould did manage to kick the extra points. 

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So after Peterson scored twice in the early going, the Bears recovered behind  Cutler and reduced the Vikings halftime lead to 14-7 on Cutler’s 23-yard  touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery. But  Harrison Smith, the aggressive rookie safety from Notre Dame, stepped in front of one of Cutler’s sideline throws and  raced 56 yards to restore a two-touchdown lead before Campbell, relieving Cutler at quarterback in the late minutes, threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall with less than two minutes left.

When it was over Frazier marveled at Peterson’s performance in the face of a still-strong Bears’ defense that had no illusions about what was coming in the opening minutes.

‘Amazing feat’

“When you play the Vikings,” he said, “you know you are going to have to stop Adrian Peterson. For him to come and gain 100 yards in the first quarter….just an amazing feat by him.”

And Peterson? It was another of his big days, yes, and afterward he was enjoying the 154 yards and the touchdowns, but his eyes were on the next three weeks. A few days ago, he said, the team had made a commitment. “We’re all dialed in, we’re looking ahead at the next four games,” shooting for a sweep.

The Bears game was the first. So what is reality for the Vikings in the next three weeks?     

The coach, while respectful, didn’t seem all that terrified by the weeks ahead, although he recognized that one more loss will almost certainly disqualify his team. The Vikings are on the road next week against a St. Louis team that itself is still in the playoff scramble after beating Buffalo Sunday and now stands 6-6 plus an odd tie. What comes after St. Louis — beside the Packers at the Metrodome in the last game of the regular season Dec. 30 — is Houston at Houston Dec. 23.

It’s getting tense, folks. If you want to do some scouting and home work, it’s available tonight. Houston at 11-1 plays New England (9-3) and Tom Brady in a game matching two teams that have already won their division titles. Does that mean they’re going quietly and politely tonight to protect the future?

How long have you been watching the NFL?