Vikings get more than a victory in London

REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
Matt Cassel threw two touchdown passes in the Vikings’ hairline 34-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Suddenly London wears a new identity. Today, it’s not the cradle of poets or the godfather of the English speaking world. Today, in the wake of the Minnesota Vikings’ recovery Sunday from the ignominy of three season-opening defeats, call London the world’s most unlikely therapy spa.

Count among the recovering patients armies of Minnesota Vikings fans back home who are convinced they saw the future at Wembley Stadium Sunday, and the future is named Matt Cassel. If not the future than certainly a temporary cure.

The new quarterback threw two touchdown passes in the Vikings’ hairline 34-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, conducted the Vikings’ offense professionally and without visible falter, revealed a big-league throwing arm, an absence of panic, an off-the-charts efficiency rating and cool decision-making skills.

This is not an overnight rival to Peyton Manning as the quarterback of the year. He is or was an NFL journeyman, but to the Vikings clans he became an in-the-flesh and overnight savior.

Clearly impressed, Coach Leslie Frazier was still professional (and kind) about not joining the frenzy for the immediate eviction of the wounded Christian Ponder as the Vikings’ starting quarterback. Frazier isn’t constructed that way. Principles matter to him. Quietly he told reporters afterward, “if you’re asking, our quarterback is Christian Ponder. We’ll discover a lot after we come out of the bye. We’re going to enjoy this for a little while at least.”

So enjoy. As a bonus in the Vikings’ victory over the Steelers, the National Football League rewarded Wembley Stadium’s 85,000 onlookers with what may have been the most gripping of all games in these American pro football invasions of a land unconditioned to hearing language like lead options, back-shoulder passes and hurry-up offenses.

Facing doom

It was a spectacle of two teams mutually trying to escape doom. With both of them looking at a potential fourth straight loss to open the season, they came down to the wire in the final seconds. Pittsburgh trailed but stood just six yards from the Vikings’ goal line and a touchdown that would have tied the game. But it was here where the Vikings stopped the wounded and gutty Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ Super Bowl-winning quarterback. The Vikings’ defense came on in waves. Everson Griffen got there first with help from Chad Greenway and stripped the ball loose. Veteran Kevin Williams recovered, the clock ran out and it was over.

What was unheard were the gasps of relief — all right, amazement — from the hundreds of thousands of Vikings fans here in the former colonies thousands of miles to the west.

While other thousands in the London audience were waving Vikings flags and Brunhilde horns and Pittsburgh’s copyrighted Terrible Towels, the English clientele could not have been totally aware of the desperation in the air. They couldn’t know that back in Minnesota campaigns were gaining strength to call the season a public disgrace. Out with Christian Ponder and/or Leslie Frazier. And that with both teams entering the game with three losses to open the season, they were pretty much dead fish in the playoff picture.

But on further review came Sunday in London, not far from the Thames, Parliament, the Tower of London and soccer-loving millions who never heard of fair catches. When it was over a relieved Frazier joined many of his star players — including Adrian Peterson, with his 111 yards and two touchdowns — in saluting Cassel, who was thrust into a starting role after a rib injury to Ponder last week. That turned out to be genuine and not the suspected excuse by Frazier to bench him.

So what the Vikings found in London during the week and on Sunday was a kind of thank-God relief from the sound and fury back home. Out of sight, out of mind, sages will tell you.

Chalk one up for sages.

What the Vikings’ brooding television watchers in Minnesota saw Sunday was a football game that elevated a cool handed journeyman, Cassel, into what may be a primary role in the rehabilitation of their football team. What they got also was the revival of Jared Allen as a menace to all registered quarterbacks

What they got further was a Vikings team somehow relieved to escape from the daily indictments by swarms of bloggers, unlicensed swamis and miscellaneous headhunters who called them a public disgrace and a feeble mess after losing their first three games. And what the Vikings got beyond all that was a week of peace and quiet, Cassel’s poised professionalism and Peterson, finding himself in a fair fight again and pretty much taking charge when it mattered.

The Vikings’ revival cut across both sides of the ball. Allen, raging and grappling with the blockers, sacked Roethlisberger twice and assisted on a third. Greenway and Brian Robison on defense were everywhere, and Greg Jennings, the former malcontent in Green Bay who fled the Packers, experienced his best day as a Viking with two touchdown receptions.

Under scrutiny

But it was Cassel who was under scrutiny from start to finish. Insofar as decisions were his to make, he managed the game with poise and savvy. He hit 16 of 25 passes for 248 yards and a rare quarterback efficiency rating of 127.1 against the Big Ben’s 210 yards and 83.3 rating. But Ben was hurting, and his protection was not especially robust. One way or another, he got the Steelers within six yards of the the Vikings’ goal line in the final moments. Trailing 34-17, the Steelers had cut it to 34-24 in the fourth on Roethlisberger’s 15-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery and then, fighting the clock, settled for a field goal by Shaun Suisham to get the Steelers within a touchdown of tying.

The Vikings misfired trying to control the ball and Big Ben had more shot, heroically bringing the Steelers within touchdown range and a first down at the 6 with seconds left. He spiked the ball to save seconds, then sent Cotchery once more into the end zone on the pass route.

Cotchery was momentarily open. Roethlisberger, tiring but ready to deliver an against-all-odds touchdown, overthrew his receiver. He had one play left. But the Viking defense took the ball away and it was over.

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Before then, Blair Walsh opened with a 54-yard field goal for the Vikings, Cassel connected with Jennings on their 70-yarder, Le’Veon Bell reduced the Vikings’ lead to 10-7 with an eight-yard run, Peterson raced 60 yards for a 17-7 Vikings lead. Suisham’s field goal reduced it to 17-10. Walsh matched that from 37 yards to make it it 20-10. Bell scored his second touchdown to cut the Vikings’ lead to to three points. Peterson went in from seven yards to restore a 27-17 Vikings lead, and Jennings caught Cassel’s second touchdown pass from the 16. Then down the stretch they came, ending in the Roethlisberger comeback and fumble at the finish.

And what do the Vikings take away, mercifully on their bye weekend coming up? Cassel can play. He does it with an even temperament, a seasoned intelligence and an awareness of some limitations. He gives the impression of a man who makes smart decisions, when to throw, where to throw. His arm is NFL strong and he had a spectacular season in New England years ago as a replacement for the injured Tom Brady (but was largely unimpressive in a couple of years in Kansas City). He’s been seen basically as a No. 2 quarterback and is careful not to promote himself at Ponder’s expense despite the fans’ sour opinions of Ponder. In other words, a quality professional. Sunday his passes were crisp and he gave no impression of a man on trial.

But things change. And so does the schedule, and possibly the coach’s choice. Out of respect for Ponder and his injury, Frazier declined to name a starting quarterback for the next game.

The Vikings’ bye this week should be a relief to the team, their shaky fans, the coaches and possibly the friends of peace and quiet. Ponder should be healing. For the record, he is still Fraizer’s No. 1 quarterback, but that may be a courtesy. After the weekend off, the Vikings come back to the Metrodome to play Carolina, hardly the most robust team in the National Football League. Sunday, the formerly unbeaten Chicago Bears were hammered by the Detroit Lions. So everybody in the Vikings’ North Division has now lost at least one game, and the NFL this year is less predictable than ever.

So you’re not going to convince professional football players that they can’t rally after an ignominious start and win again, because clearly there are no super teams, although Denver is making noises in that direction.

So the question then re the Vikings quarterback becomes: Who gives the Vikings a better chance to acquire respectability and even challenge for the playoffs? Ponder, whose ribs may be healed two weeks from now, or the newcomer who won in London and looked self-contained with a very strong arm and the sound of a chivalrous teammate who speaks well of his rival?

The coach says Ponder is the starting quarterback when healthy. Frazier may or may not have a change of heart trying to stretch their winning streak to two games against Carolina at the Metrodome Oct. 13.

It could turn out that Christian may need, well, at least one more game off to heal.

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