Mark Sunday in Dallas as the cruelest and most divisive stroke of a football season that has become an expanding nightmare and humiliation for the Minnesota Vikings, now with growing sounds of player dissatisfaction with their coaches in the aftermath.
They might have been expected to show a little more belligerence earlier in Tony Romo’s final 90-yard drive that buried the Vikings 27-23.
One more stop in the dwindling minutes would have have done it after Adrian Peterson, in an epic return to his native Texas, had willed himself and his team to a 23-20 lead. But the Cowboys rallied in the final seconds behind Romo and his ultimate 337 passing yards.
Reports from the Vikings’ locker room afterward painted an even darker picture of their seventh loss in eight games, defensive players questioning the strategies of the coaches for not being aggressive enough in the face of the Romo offensive.
For a long time it looked and sounded like this was the big stage Peterson covets, and he played himself into virtual exhaustion. He may very well be the most popular athlete in the country today, with a cult following that stretches from ocean to ocean. It’s a role he has readily sought and advanced. It lifts him into combat gear and goads him toward his personal goal — what he considers football immortality as the best running back ever to play the game. He may be. It’s still early. But Sunday he gained 140 yards in 25 carries, sometimes throwing himself into massed defenses, sometimes shifting gears on the fly, but often attacking head-on when there was no opening.
Implausibly, the Vikings came close to winning, for all of their ignominy of the last two months. Wherever the mutual trust stands today in the Vikings’ locker room, there’s not going to be much time to dwell on it. They play Washington at the Metrodome Thursday night and after that Seattle, probably the best team in the NFL, and then the Green Bay Packers, the best team in the NFC North.
Could go either way
Coming down the stretch Sunday it could have gone in either direction. Dallas had already lost four games and spent all week trying to convince the football public that its noisy pass-catching prodigy, Dez Bryant, is actually a nice guy, frequently misunderstood — despite persuasive evidence to the contrary. Dez was back in form Sunday when the Cowboys found themselves within field-goal range, at which point Bryant drew a 15-yard penalty for offensive pass interference; and then to prove it was no fluke, Bryant drew another 15 yards for taking off his helmet to argue with the officials.
Blair Walsh and Dallas’ Dan Bailey had exchanged first-quarter field goals to open the scoring. Bailey hit another early in the second quarter, but Christian Ponder scrambled for a touchdown from six yards out for a 10-6 Viking halftime lead after he teamed with Peterson on a 19-yard pass play.
But Romo connected with Jason Witten on a 26-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter and Nick Hayden recovered Ponder’s end-zone fumble for another Dallas touchdown in the third quarter before Ponder connected with Kyle Rudolph and a 32-yard touchdown to make it 20-17 for Dallas heading into the final quarter.
It was still a toss-up, Dallas barely hanging on in the playoff race and the Vikings quarterbacked by the much-lampooned Ponder.
But suddenly, Walsh became a problem. This was the virtually perfect rookie kicker of a year ago, booming field goals from the next county, the kicking sensation of the National Football League season. But Sunday he added the bizarre to an already unsightly Vikings season by missing an extra point in the midst of their late-game comeback. There was explanation enough. Walsh came down hard on his left or planting foot several weeks ago and it may have affected him Sunday, although he had kicked a field goal and two extra points earlier in the game.
The unconverted extra point played a role in the decision-making by both teams in the final minutes and added to the misery of a Vikings season. It wasn’t as though the Vikings needed excuses.Their current pace rivals the worst in their more than 50-year history.
If there was any surprise, it might have been the tenacity with which the Vikings hung on in the battle. This is a bad team in its present construction, no matter how you line it up. Their pass defense is a basket case and their offense is Peterson. The offensive line is a pale copy of what it was last year, and it got worse Sunday when veteran Phil Loadholt was hurt. Injuries have depleted their roster of defensive backs, the team doesn’t have an established go-to receiver and some of the stronger defensive linemen are showing their years as well as their impatience.
But the threat of Peterson’s touchdown potential kept the game within reach for the Vikings Sunday. Not the least of his value was to open the gates, somewhat, to Ponder’s passing game. The young quarterback tried not to play the game as though he was on probation, but it was hard to avoid. The club openly announced three weeks ago that it is looking to the new import, Josh Freeman, as the probable next quarterback. It then decided Josh needed more time to familiarize himself with the Vikings’ plays, which is a sort of minimal requirement for most professional quarterbacks. This should please the Vikings’ receivers, but the problem there is that there aren’t many established Viking receivers. The number shrank again when Rudolph, the established tight end, was injured catching a touchdown pass.
But in the end, the game came down to the final few minutes, after Peterson had thrust the Vikings into a 23-20 lead and Walsh’s extra point missed.
And here was Romo, bringing the Cowboys down the field in the final minute after surviving an interception by the Vikings A.J. Jefferson. He managed clock skillfully, throwing to Jason Witten and Cole Beasley. With seconds remaining, he found Dwayne Harris slicing into the end zone and it was over.
In the aftermath Leslie Frazier, appearing at the post-game news conference, looked and sounded distraught, close to morose, aware of his career vulnerability but declining to assess individual blame.
His quarterback against Washington, right now, is going to be Ponder. In the shape his team is in today, psychologically and otherwise, the choice makes sense. Not a whole lot does, in this one of the darkest years of their discontent.