A polar performance for Peterson

Adrian Peterson fumbled twice in the third quarter on Sunday. He also scored three times in the game. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

NEW ORLEANS -- About 15 minutes after his season ended, Adrian Peterson emerged from the Minnesota locker room. Still wearing his full uniform and with a rare scowl on his face, Peterson walked out of the Superdome tunnel and stood transfixed. Playing out in front of him was New Orleans’ NFC championship celebration, complete with gold glitter and Will Smith’s ubiquitous “Welcome to Miami” playing over the Superdome sound system.

He stood watching for a full minute before turning his back, shoulders slumped and head down, and returning to the locker room.

“Painful,” Peterson said. “It was painful [to watch], especially the way the game ended. Our guys fought hard. I honestly thought we gave the game away. … It was just to see the feeling of the guys celebrating and dancing around. Just giving myself something good to build off this offseason.”

For me, Peterson’s polar performance Sunday will be the lasting image of the Vikings’ 31-28 loss in the NFC Championship Game. I know many will be blinded by the two-play sequence on the Vikings’ final drive -- one a penalty for 12 men on the field and the other Brett Favre’s final-throw interception in the fourth quarter. I’m aware there were some questionable decisions from referee Peter Morelli’s crew, some of which the Vikings openly questioned in the postgame locker room.

But it was Peterson who best illustrated the dichotomy of a Vikings team that beat the Saints in every way except on the scoreboard. He became the fifth running back in NFL history to rush for three touchdowns in a championship game, and his 122 yards were his highest total in nine games.

But Peterson fumbled twice and caused a turnover on a third play when he botched a handoff in the second quarter at the Saints' goal line. Worse, he was so out of control in the second half that the Vikings benched him in the most critical point of their season. Despite an overwhelming advantage on the stat sheet -- they outgained New Orleans’ explosive offense 475-257 -- the Vikings’ five turnovers denied them a chance to play in Super Bowl XLIV.

We don’t know if Favre will return next season, as my colleague Gene Wojciechowski points out, so it’s difficult to know exactly what the 2010 Vikings will look like. But one thing remains clear: If they’re going to count on Peterson as a primary building block, the Vikings must stabilize his performance from what we saw in the final half of 2009 and throughout the NFC Championship Game.

Peterson put the ball on the ground three times Sunday in a span of 10 minutes in the second and third quarters. One cost the Vikings a chance to score on 2nd-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Over-excited about the prospect of taking the lead before halftime, Peterson was slow to get his arms in a fundamental position to take the handoff from Favre.

“Poorly executed by me,” Peterson said. “Didn’t make a big enough pocket and it hit my elbow.”

Peterson admitted the play stayed on his mind in the second half and played a role in fumbles on the Vikings’ first two possessions of the third quarter. He ran wildly and seemed to break every rule of responsible running -- breaking the ball to the outside to outrun the defense, swinging the ball far from his body and contributing to a frenetic pace that left the Vikings gasping for much of the second half.

I don’t blame the Vikings one bit from playing him sparingly thereafter, but I consider it a pretty critical situation when one of a team’s best players can’t get on the field in the NFC Championship Game because he’s out of control.

“It was all about mindset in holding on to the ball,” Peterson said. “Thinking about it when you’re out there. You have to make sure you hold on to the ball. I’ve been saying it all year. It’s a battle I’ve got to fight. Eventually I overcame it.”

Indeed, Peterson returned to tie the game on a 2-yard touchdown run with 5:03 remaining, but by all rights the Vikings shouldn’t have been fighting to get even in this game. Their defense had played exceptionally well for most of the game, limiting the Saints to 15 first downs on only three of 12 conversions on third down.

“We beat ourselves,” tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said. “We made a lot of plays, but we left a lot of plays out there. Those things happen. I guess it’s too bad it happened in the NFC Championship Game.”

No player singled out Peterson, and I want to be clear that I don’t consider him anywhere close to solely at fault for the Vikings’ loss. Receivers Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin also lost fumbles, and coach Brad Childress said Favre “would be the first to tell you he wished he had those [two] throws back.”

But truth be told, the Vikings entered this game with a plan to rely on Peterson more than they have at any point during a Favre-dominated season. They opened the game with five consecutive passes, but ultimately their plan was for Peterson to help keep the Saints’ offense off the field.

“I think we knew we had to,” left guard Steve Hutchinson said. “The style and capability of the offense the Saints have, we knew we had to control the clock. And it worked, or at least part of it. I think we did that. We just had turnovers and penalties that cost us at inopportune times.”

I think that’s why Peterson was so morose after the game, even after the Vikings ran up their biggest rushing total (165 yards) since mid-October. He knew the Vikings needed him to get to Miami, but he wasn’t able to complete the job.

Although he has led the NFL in fumbles since entering the league in 2007, only a handful have negatively impacted a game. Sunday, however, was different. Peterson has said often that obsessing over fumbles only creates a compounding effect. But I think he has reached the point where he needs to consider a fundamental intervention this offseason to address the issue.

“With my running style,” he said, “it will be something I think about as far as protecting and keeping the ball high. The way I run, the ball kind of gets low. I’ve got to be more cautious of that: Keeping the ball high. That will be something I’m more conscious of in the offseason.”

As we saw Sunday, it can be the difference between watching a championship celebration from the tunnel and participating in it on the field.