For the Minnesota Vikings, the game with Green Bay Sunday began as a referendum on the fitness of Christian Ponder to quarterback the team into the future.
But late in a struggle that ended in a bizarre 26-26 tie, not only was Ponder still standing, but the game had taken on the trappings of some kind of loony and misguided epic.
Loony? How about the underdog Vikings taking and squandering a 23-7 lead early in the fourth quarter after Ponder found Rhett Ellison with a 12-yard touchdown pass and Blair Walsh’s third of four field goals.
Normally that should have been enough. There was no Aaron Rodgers to bail out the floundering Packers. But the Vikings this year are not normal, friend.
It didn’t mean that Ponder flopped again. He didn’t. Although hardly perfect, he finished with a passing rating of 103, close to the gold standard of quarterbacking efficiency.
But there were ominous episodes. One of them involved the Vikings runback scourge, rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, who dropped a highly catchable pass late in the game that could have put the Vikings over the top. The dropped pass became a contagion for the Vikings that included one by the former Packer-turned-loudmouth, Greg Jennings, to the raucous delight of Packer fans.
So the game played out in the frigid 12-degree atmospherics of Lambeau Field and its 77,000 foot-stomping and frosted Cheese Heads. Ponder astonished his armies of detractors back home by playing as though he belonged in the National Football League. There was Adrian Peterson, again, playing in his 100th game, still troubled by a groin injury and running once more as a candidate for the football ages, rolling up 146 yards and a touchdown.
The Packers offered Eddie Lacy, playing himself into near exhaustion, who attacked the Viking defenses with muscle fury. His 110 yards came reasonably close to offsetting Peterson’s production.
So the game deserved some kind of decision. But in a goofy kind of mockery of all this exertion and struggle, everybody went home empty-handed. This, despite the league’s efforts to avoid anticlimax at all costs. But there it was for millions in the television audience, plus the ball players who had been flailing each other for three hours.
Still, the Vikings emerged with one small step toward respectability— a non-defeat against their eight losses in 10 previous games. That record disqualifies them from any playoff illusions. But it doesn’t ostracize them, either, as the hapless patsy in the NFC North. Nobody in the entire four-team division — Chicago and Detroit are the others — won yesterday, which may be a new distinction in itself.
No one likes a tie
But almost nobody loves a tie, especially the National Football League. It chews up television and louses up the commercial sequences. So the league has established new safeguards. The rule that applied Sunday was this: Either team could win the game outright if it scored a touchdown on its first possession in overtime. If neither did, the game could be won with a field goal unless its opponent matched it with its own field goal. If the deadlock was not resolved in one overtime period, the game would go into the books as a tie.
Dismally, that happened. It was an empty finish for both teams because (a) the Packers are battling for their lives as a playoff contender and (b) the Vikings need all the respect a team with eight previous losses can contrive.
They came close Sunday. Their satisfactions were in not totally wasting one more heroic performance by the otherworldly Peterson, who flung himself recklessly at the Packer defense all afternoon, rescuing broken plays with spontaneous shifts of direction, in the open field or in the grunting and scrabbling on the line of scrimmage. He was hardly confined to the running game. The Vikings sent him out on pass routes, and for major stretches of the second half, they seemed to have the game under control.
But the Packers decided at a critical time in the second half that with their all-world quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, disabled for the game, his replacement, Scott Tolzien, was not going to keep them in the fight. He did give them a temporary 7-0 lead with a 6-yard touchdown run. But he looked increasingly out of his depth as the game neared crunch time.
Blair Walsh narrowed the Packer lead to 7-6 with two field goals, and Peterson scored from a yard out to give the Vikings a 13-7 lead at that half. Ponder hit Rhett Ellison with a 12-yard touchdown pass to stretch the Viking lead to 20-7 in the third quarter, and it went to 23-7 with Walsh’s third field goal, from 29 yards out.
And now the Viking bench was aroused. It had Peterson running at full velocity, and Toby Gerhart, spelling Peterson, punished the defenses with his own hard-nose style. It didn’t take the Packer brain trust long to bench Tolzien and bring on Matt Flynn, Rodgers backup of two years, who had gone off in search of his own fortune in the NFL, couldn’t find it and was welcomed in his return to Green Bay earlier in the season. And Sunday he was waiting in the wings.
Flynn didn’t miss a beat. After Lacy’s reckless running had trimmed the Viking lead to 23-13 early in the fourth quarter, Flynn took over the Packer offense and hit Jarrett Boykin with a 6-yard touchdown pass, shrinking the Viking lead to 23-20.
Lacy and James Starks were punishing the Viking defense, and the score went to 23-23 when Crosby, with just a few seconds remaining, kicked a 27-yard field goal that sent the game into overtime.
Shortly after, Crosby nailed a 20-yard field goal to give the Packers the lead. But the Vikings matched it a few minutes later with Walsh’s fourth field goal, from 37 yards, that tied things at 26.
With the respectability they achieved Sunday, what did they learn?
For one thing, that despite his bobble in the second half, they need to find more action for Patterson, the rookie pass receiver and handyman who terrorizes Viking opponents with his threat of taking it to the house with each kickoff return. But the guy should be a strong receiver, and the Vikings need to wind him up sooner rather than later.
“We could have won,” Christian Ponder said afterward. Should have won, he reflected.
His coach, Leslie Frazier, in prior weeks had made himself a figure of odd fatalism in the eyes of his critics with his puzzling loyalty to Ponder. His critics filled the wailing walls, tweets and the rest of the social media by the thousands. They found it infuriating, Frazier’s reluctance to dump Ponder and reluctance to rush back into action with the team’s latest candidate savior at quarterback, Josh Freeman.
Eventually, they’ll probably get their wish. But not likely against the Chicago Bears Sunday at the mercifully warmer Metrodome. It’s the first of their remaining five games, which they now confront with a record of 2-8-1.
After the game, Frazier spoke respectfully of Ponder’s performance and, in answer to reporters’ question,s appeared to see no reason why anybody but Ponder should be starting for the Vikings next Sunday.
Quarterback controversy over?
So is the quarterback controversy momentarily suspended?
Not likely. The Vikings eventually are going to have to take another look at Freeman to make a decision for next year. They have games remaining against the Bears and Lions, both still in the playoff scramble although nobody in the NFC North won a game Sunday.
Frazier is a loyal type of guy, not foolishly loyal, but still a man who is guided by principle in his decision-making about what’s right both for the player and the team. It’s not as though he’s ready to walk off a cliff to defend his choices. But Ponder did nothing Sunday to warrant being benched for the Sunday’s game with the Bears. Or so it appears.
The Vikings are still reeling, and they need something next Sunday better than a tie.