HOUSTON -- The Minnesota Vikings learned a valuable lesson during what was the worst game by star running back Adrian Peterson in the past eight weeks. They really can be more than just a one-man team. Their quarterback is capable of stepping up in big moments, particularly with a playoff bid on the line. Their defense can't be forgotten, either. On the road and facing a potent offense, the Vikings proved they could shut down an elite team.
So Sunday's 23-6 victory over the Houston Texans wasn't merely a reason for the Vikings to rejoice and look forward to next week's season finale against Green Bay. It also was evidence of legitimate hope. A week ago, this team's chances of making the playoffs seemed to hinge on the phenomenal talents of Peterson, a man who is chasing the NFL's single-season rushing record. After Sunday's win, the Vikings only have to keep doing the same thing that earned them a crucial road victory -- play as a team.
That sentiment could be felt as the Vikings hooted and hollered in their locker room after the game. "This was a great team win," said quarterback Christian Ponder. "The defense played extremely well when you think about them holding an offense like that to six points. We were big on [converting] third downs [on offense]. Even though we knew what was at stake, we played consistently and relaxed. It was a big win, but it also won't mean anything if we lose next week."
If you're going to start with positives coming out of Sunday's game, start with Ponder. He'd been maligned for his inconsistencies all season as a second-year quarterback whose only tangible asset seemed to be handing off to Peterson and stepping out of the way. Ponder's numbers won't suggest he's on his way to elite status (16-for-30, 174 yards and one touchdown) but he made plays with his arm and with his feet. He scrambled for 48 yards, including a 29-yard, fourth-quarter jaunt which set up the Vikings' final touchdown.
It's an understatement to say Minnesota needed such an effort against Houston. The Texans stacked the line of scrimmage and stalked Peterson at every last turn. After averaging 164.1 yards over his past eight games, Peterson managed just 86 yards on 25 carries. That performance gives him 1,898 yards this year, which is 208 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's NFL single-season rushing record. While Peterson dismissed the notion that he was disappointed by the statistics -- "Of course I care about the record, but I'm not going to let it overwhelm me," he said -- his presence did open up other possibilities for the Vikings' offense.
"When [Peterson] doesn't run for 200 yards, teams feel like they've done a good job," said Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier. "But that was a tough defense we faced, and Adrian kept running it up in there. The things we were able to do on offense were predicated by our running game."
That physical nature also carried over to the Vikings' defense. Minnesota knew the only way it was going to win was by banging with the Texans, a team that features an offense as diverse as any in the league. The Vikings ultimately held Houston to 187 total yards, one third-down conversion (in 11 attempts) and virtually no big plays from quarterback Matt Schaub (who was sacked four times). It was as if Houston had lost all ability to generate the explosiveness that had earned it 12 wins in the season's first 14 games.
Now to be fair, there was a noticeable difference in motivation here. The Texans still have a shot at a first-round bye, but they've already clinched the AFC South title. The Vikings were fighting for their postseason lives, especially since they've run hot (4-1 start to the year) and cold (they dropped five of seven games at one point) all season. From the moment this game kicked off, it was obvious that Houston wasn't ready for that kind of mismatch in intensity. While the Vikings played every possession as if the Lombardi Trophy hung in the balance, the Texans sleepwalked through most of a contest that slowly got away from them.
It would be easy to call that type of effort a gift for Minnesota if the Vikings weren't so deserving of this victory. They may not be among the glamour teams fighting for a playoff spot -- that stature is reserved for squads such as the Giants, Cowboys, Redskins and Bears -- but they definitely proved they belonged in the mix. Now 9-6 on the season, Minnesota controls its own destiny next Sunday. A win over Green Bay at home means the Vikings will be on their way back to the postseason for the first time since 2009, when Brett Favre was the quarterback.
As Ponder pointed out, Minnesota already has tripled its win total from last season. The Vikings also are finding this time of year far more enjoyable than last December, when they lost Peterson to a torn ACL. That was supposed to be the start of a somber period for the Vikings, a team that presumably would be preparing for a rebuilding process at this juncture. Instead, they've joined the Redskins as one of the biggest surprises of the second half.
Much of the credit for that revival goes to Peterson and his offensive line. He's been as dazzling a runner as the league has ever seen over the past two months, and his weekly explosions have given the Vikings plenty of hope when little seemed possible. But now there's a different sort of excitement blossoming within the Vikings franchise. It's the type that comes with knowing a team has moved tantalizingly close to accomplishing a difficult goal.
As Peterson said, "We are staying on our game. We're not focusing on getting this many yards [in order to set the record]. We're focusing on what we have to do to win games."
The Vikings did just fine with that strategy on Sunday, and it should be just as beneficial next week. The Packers may very well be in a position to rest starters in the season finale, meaning Minnesota might be facing even less of a challenge than Houston offered. Regardless of how it plays out, the Vikings deserve to be as thrilled as they were in the wake of this victory. For the first time all season, it looked as if their playoff destiny didn't solely reside in the hands and legs of the league's most extraordinary runner.