Vikings get back to basics -- via the pass

The Vikings refocused on Brett Favre and the passing game against the Giants. Elsa/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota wasn’t playing for a first-round playoff bye Sunday. (It got one, as it turned out. More on that in a bit.)

No, the Vikings were chasing something more ethereal than the NFC’s No. 2 seed. They wanted to recapture the swagger -- “by whatever means necessary,” according to coach Brad Childress -- that launched them to a 10-1 start and spurred rampant talk of a Super Bowl run. Those means, it should be lost on no one, focused centrally on the passing game and pushed tailback Adrian Peterson so far to the periphery that he didn’t touch the ball until the Vikings’ third possession of a 44-7 pounding of the New York Giants.

Let’s acknowledge that the Giants mailed in their season several weeks ago. But no matter how you judge their competition, you have to recognize that the Vikings were at their best -- as they were all year -- when quarterback Brett Favre opened up the passing game and challenged opponents to cover his receivers downfield. Sunday, the Vikings threw on 24 of their first 38 plays and continued the assault until late the third quarter.

“We just wanted to stay on the gas and continue to be aggressive,” Childress said.

So at a time when the Vikings wanted to get back to basics, when they wanted evoke the best of their 2009 performance on the eve of the playoffs, they exposed themselves for what they truly are and for what they can’t pretend to be. This year’s version of the Vikings is a passing team, and it will advance as far as Favre’s right arm can take it.

They might still claim to be an offense built around Peterson, but there was no denying the facts Sunday. Not only did they pass on two-thirds of their plays in building a 31-0 halftime lead, the Vikings also split their limited running plays almost evenly between Peterson and backup Chester Taylor.

Peterson finished the regular season with 1,383 rushing yards, but he averaged 3.5 yards per carry over his final seven games and lost a key fumble in overtime of last Monday’s 36-30 loss at Chicago. He started Sunday’s game as scheduled, but Taylor and rookie Percy Harvin each got a carry before him. Ultimately, Peterson finished with 52 yards on nine carries. Taylor had seven carries (for 12 yards) before Childress pulled his key players late in the third quarter.

Asked to explain the unusual rotation, Childress said: “Just had a little different setup and things that we thought we would start with and work. There is no magic with that. Just luck of the draw -- how we’re attacking the defense.”

Childress also went out of his way to note that “the best team -- T-E-A-M -- wins this time of year.” This isn’t to say that Peterson won’t prove a major factor in the playoffs. But on the day the Vikings made a goal of reestablishing themselves, there was no confusion.

“I think the game plan was pretty much what you saw,” said Favre, who had his best statistical day of the season by completing 25 of 31 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns.

Favre said the Vikings called a fair amount of “run-pass” options and indicated that the Giants, like many opponents this season, chose to defend the run and take their chances with the pass. For his part, Peterson estimated that opponents put at least one extra defender in the box on “98 percent” of the time this season and chose his words carefully when speaking about the reduced role he’s playing in the Vikings’ offense.

“As long as we keep doing what we’re doing and we’re winning, I have no complaints,” he said.

Favre finished the regular season with 4,202 passing yards, the third-highest total in team history, and as a team the Vikings threw 553 times this season. That frequency represents a 19 percent increase from last season and corresponds with a 14 percent decrease in Peterson’s carries.

On first blush, then, it appears the Vikings have realized where their bread is now buttered, so to speak. In the four quarters after halftime at Soldier Field last Monday, the Vikings threw on 55 of 88 plays (62.5 percent).

“It’s generally driven by how they’re trying to play at the line of scrimmage and what they’re doing in the back end,” Childress said. “You don’t wan to put a round peg into a square hole. We’re taking what they’re leaving.”

Would the Vikings suddenly become a running team if a playoff opponent pulls its extra man from the box? If it hasn’t happened yet, should we expect it to happen now?

Peterson admitted he thought Favre’s arrival would spur more base defensive sets. “But it is what it is,” he said while adding he believes he has impacted the offense in other ways.

“Even though … we don’t see the touches like we have in the past few years,” he said, “I feel like we have contributed in a major way. We’ve opened things up for [Favre] in the pass game with the play action and things like that. That really helps with his reads and puts those guys one-on-one and gives them a chance to make plays.”

Which is really what happened Sunday, and throughout the first two-thirds of the Vikings season. Favre found receiver Sidney Rice for a pair of touchdowns, and the pair set up another score with a 50-yard pass connection. Harvin caught seven passes for 84 yards and a score, and overall the Vikings averaged a stunning 9.7 yards per pass attempt.

As the No. 2 seed, the Vikings will play the higher-seeded team of the two that emerge from the wild-card round. Whoever it is -- either Dallas, Arizona or Green Bay -- would be fools not to expect more of the same.