From the beginning there was something perverse about the arithmetic of the Viking offense in Green Bay Sunday. It was never intended to be a game of one man against 11.
But it almost worked.
There was Adrian Peterson, running recklessly with the weight of his team on his shoulders, piling up an astronomical 210 yards while the Packers were struggling with the psyche of a slumping field goal kicker who lost his karma.
But when it all got sorted out, it was 23-14 for the Packers at the finish, turning December in the Vikings’ NFC North Division into a battle of survival for the playoffs ahead, with the team’s chances shrinking by the day.
In the midst of all of the melodrama at Lambeau Field in Green Bay Sunday — including the Vikings’ Kyle Rudolph doing a kind of mock Viking Vault into the stands after catching a touchdown pass — were the continuing miseries of the Vikings’ young Christian Ponder, who is fully aware of the quarterback’s fundamental rules of survival in the NFL.
Chapter One reads something like this: “At all costs, don’t throw across your body if you can avoid it.” Chapter Two begins: “Whenever possible, plant your feet before you throw.”
At critical stages Sunday, Ponder violated both rules and had the presence to acknowledge it in the postgame confessionals. But he and the rest of the team also understand that the Vikings playoff chances are on life support.
At that, the Vikings’ prospects looked good early, propelled by another other-worldly performance from Peterson, who bolted 82 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to give the Vikings a 14-10 lead while the Packers were experiencing some serviceable trauma of their own with new injuries.
And in spite of Ponder’s renewed struggles, it looked for a long time as though the Vikings were ready to break through into the league’s upper crust in the critical final weeks. Peterson looked like somebody freshly arrived from outer space. To add to his touchdown breakaway, he unreeled a 45-yard run that ultimately raised his day’s output to a number — 210 yards — that for most running backs is the stuff of fiction. With Percy Harvin gone for another game, Peterson knew in advance he would have to be the guy, if not all the time, then any time when it mattered.
For the Packers, it was beginning to look like a horror show. Although they were fortified by the return of one of Aaron Rodgers primary receivers, Greg Jennings, they lost another when Jordy Nelson went down, followed by an injury to one of their offensive line dependables, T.J. Lang.
But the Vikings’ offense was flawed on the margins. They needed some serious help in the passing game, but it wasn’t there. Ponder isn’t a bust but he seemed to be moving in that direction Sunday, conscious of his vulnerability and worried about interceptions, a state of mind that ironically can lead to interceptions — of which he had two Sunday.
Did he lose the game all by himself?
Hardly. The National Football League is not set up that way. There are more than a dozen teams coming down to the final four weeks of the NFL season with chances to make the playoffs.. The Vikings are still mathematically part of the chase, which moves back to the Metrodome Sunday for a return match with the Chicago Bears.
So here is how the playoff picture looks as it affects the Vikings’ dimming chances:
After today, there will be four games remaining for each of the league’s 32 teams, spread among two conferences. There are four divisions of four teams in each conference. The eight division winners qualify for the playoffs automatically. Added to these are the two best teams, based on their records, who did not win division titles. The Vikings play in the north division of the National Conference. Their division opponents are Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit.
This is how they stand today: Chicago lost to Seattle Sunday and now stands at 8 wins and 4 losses. Green Bay has the same 8 and 4 record after defeating the Vikings, who now are 6 and 6. Detroit, the fourth team in their division, lost to Indianapolis and is out of the running.
The Vikings’ remaining games are with Chicago at the Metrodome Sunday, at the St. Louis Rams Dec. 16, at Houston of the American Conference Dec. 23 and at home against Green Bay Bay Dec. 30.
Houston, at 11-1, has the best record in the National Football League. St. Louis at 5-6-1 is mediocre. The Viking home games with Chicago and Green Bay are the critical ones. At the moment, the Vikings are still in the picture, but it’s a picture rapidly shriveling at the edges. To be blunt, they’ll have to win all of their remaining four games to have a chance.
How close were they in Green Bay?
Almost home. One deep receiver away, perhaps. Percy Harvin? Yes, but he wasn’t there. What would have done it was a Christian Ponder less conscious about making bad throws, less worried about making a mistake and acting more like the take-charge quarterback the Viking talent scouts saw two years ago.
They almost had it in the second half. Peterson tore off another run of 45 yards early in the third quarter. But Ponder, forced out of the pocket, threw a misguided pass from the Green Bay 12 that wound up in the hands of Green Bay’s Morgan Burnett.
Rodgers had the experience when he needed it, and so did his coach. At a significant time late in the game, Coach Mike McCarthy found himself torn between (a) the hard evidence that his field goal kicker had developed an aggravated case of the yips and (b) the hope that some show of confidence — not quite heartfelt — would bring Mason Crosby back to normalcy.
The dilemma played out in full view of the public. Early on, Crosby caromed a field-goal kick off the goal post before it went through and then later missed wildly on a long field-goal attempt.
But now it was crisis time late in the game with the Vikings still leading 14-10. The Packer brain trust seriously considered ignoring Crosby in favor of a play from scrimmage to get the necessary first down. After a time out, they reconsidered and let Crosby kick. Thus rescued from his probation, Crosby kicked 47-yarder that put the Packers back into the game, trailing only by a point.
The Packers took the lead for good when James Starks charged 22 yards for the crucial touchdown, the first Packer rushing touchdown in nearly two months.
Now the Packers had regained most of their comfort zone, but Jared Allen kept the Viking defense aroused and clawing. Allen was non-stop energy. He was never very far from Rodgers, and there were times when he came close to willing his team to win.
But it’s still not over for the Vikings. The Packer folks will be back at the Metrodome in late December. The game still might matter. If you’re Adrian Peterson, you know it will.