MINNEAPOLIS -- It must be remembered -- in the account of Teddy Bridgewater's first last-minute rally as the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback -- that the 83-yard drive against the Arizona Cardinals' backups was only made necessary by a convoluted ruling on a bizarre touchdown.
The Cardinals took a 28-24 lead with 1:07 left after third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley mishandled a fourth-down snap that wound up in the hands of running back Zach Bauman after a pile-up, in which it appeared center John Estes shoveled the ball toward Bauman. Officials ruled that no one had controlled the ball, meaning it could be advanced by any player in any direction and was not subject to the rule created after Dave Casper's infamous "Holy Roller" fumble in 1978. A review upheld the touchdown call, and referee Craig Wrolstad said he did not see Estes push the ball toward Bauman, which would have been illegal.
Had the play been blown dead, though, the Vikings would have taken possession to run out the clock, and Bridgewater's first memorable moment as a Vikings quarterback wouldn't have happened.
He capped an impressive night by going 5-of-6 for 75 yards in the game's final 1:07, hitting Rodney Smith on a fade route for a touchdown with 22 seconds left. Bridgewater connected with Smith four times on the drive, including a 37-yard completion to the receiver, and finished the night 16-of-20 for 177 yards and two scores.
It came after Matt Cassel finished an impressive night of his own -- and there's no reason to think Cassel isn't firmly in charge of the Vikings' quarterback race -- but the Vikings had to be encouraged by the way Bridgewater handled the moment.
"I'm very pleased," Bridgewater said. "Last week (6-for-13 against the Oakland Raiders) was a learning experience, getting a feel for the game, and today I knew what it took to game plan and go into a NFL game and play football."
The rookie's touchdown throw to Smith was particularly impressive. Smith, who was on the Vikings' practice squad last year, is making a bid for one of the final receiver spots. Among a group of receivers not exactly known for their stature, the 6-foot-5 Smith adds a unique element, particularly in the red zone. He separated from Cardinals cornerback Jimmy Legree and caught a well-thrown fade from Bridgewater, tapping his feet in bounds for the game winner.
"When we left the huddle, Teddy just told me to be ready," Smith said. "Once I heard the call, I had my mind set, because I knew it was going to be one on one."
Zimmer told Bridgewater this week to play the way he'd grown up playing, and during the final drive, the rookie looked more like the player he was at Louisville than at any other point so far in his brief NFL career. He was poised as he moved the Vikings down the field, never forcing a throw or scrambling into the teeth of the pass rush, and his touch on the final throw was pristine. When Bridgewater is ready to take over the starting job, he'll be counted on to replicate those moments on a regular basis, albeit against better competition than he saw on Saturday night.
The level of competition is why the moment should be judged with perspective, and not treated as some kind of turning point in a quarterback race that appears all but decided. Zimmer said on Saturday night "we still have to keep competing" when asked about Cassel's performance, but added, "I think Matt has a great command of the offense. He is getting better at it all the time." And while receiver Cordarrelle Patterson praised Bridgewater, he said, "[Matt] is our starting quarterback. You can't take that away from him."
No one should be trying to do that right now. Bridgewater playing as well as he did on Saturday, though, represented a step toward what the Vikings eventually want him to become. After a week where the 21-year-old admitted he's been overthinking things, that should be good enough for now.
"I'm a young guy and a lot has been thrown at me," he said. "[Offensive coordinator Norv] Turner and Coach Zimmer always tell me to just do what you do best, and that's play football and have fun. Today I was able to go out and play relentlessly and not overthink plays and trust everything they've been telling me."