On long drive, Minnesota Vikings' offense showed an enduring formula

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The immediate taste will be bitter, in the hours after a game the Minnesota Vikings played well enough to take from the Arizona Cardinals and could have easily won. The Vikings fumbled three times in Cardinals territory, once on a clumsy reverse and once on the game's final play as Teddy Bridgewater tried to fire the ball out of bounds, and it kept them from going to 9-4 even though they were without three of their best defensive players.

But past the initial sting of the Vikings' 23-20 loss to the Cardinals on Thursday night, there could be a more important, longer-lasting benefit to what happened in the desert. Four days after the Vikings appeared disheveled and discontented in a 38-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, they put up 389 yards of total offense against the league's fourth-best defense by adhering to a formula that might prove workable in the final three games of their playoff push and beyond.

The Vikings handed the ball to Adrian Peterson four times on their first drive of the game, gaining 38 yards on the initial attempts of the running back who stewed about the game plan against the Seahawks. They beat Arizona's blitzes with screens and quick throws designed to give Bridgewater somewhere to go with the ball before he was under pressure. And on an 11-play, 88-yard drive to tie the game in the fourth quarter -- which might rank as the finest of the quarterback's young career -- it was all on display.

Peterson still got the ball four times on the drive, helping the Vikings maintain a sense of balance on offense even though they were down a touchdown and he only gained five yards on the carries. Those plays helped mandate a Cardinals commitment to run defense, and allowed Bridgewater to throw for first downs on completions to Jarius Wright (for seven yards), Peterson (for 17) and Zach Line (for 24) out of personnel groups that included either two tight ends or a fullback, leaving open the possibility the Vikings could still run the ball, even in adverse down-and-distance situations.

Bridgewater found Mike Wallace for 23 yards, too, connecting with the fleet-footed receiver on 3rd-and-9 on a crossing route behind the Cardinals' blitz that gave Wallace room to run after the catch. He found Wallace for a seven-yard score on an out-breaking route, letting the ball go while backpedaling away from pressure. Even though the Vikings weren't hitting deep shots, they found ways to take advantage of Wallace's speed.

There was a coherence to an offense that's seemed at times like an awkward merger of oddly-matched pieces, and the principals in the group -- not least among them Bridgewater and Peterson -- sounded encouraged with how the Vikings went about their business.

"That's going to be the formula for us to have some success moving forward," Bridgewater said. "We have to continue to have balance. I think we took a big step as a unit. We showed we're capable of doing some great things. We shot ourselves in the foot today, with three turnovers, but for the most part, guys did a great job of executing the game plan."

Said Peterson: "[The play-calling] was just diverse -- good plays. It's what [offensive coordinator Norv] Turner is capable of doing. It's not surprising or shocking or anything."

It is noteworthy, however, considering how different things looked on Sunday. The Vikings will return after a 10-day break for a pair of winnable home games against the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants, and they'll likely be in the playoffs if they can take care of those. But among the most important things that could have happened Thursday night was for the Vikings to show they can produce against a top-tier opponent. The last time they did that was back in October against Denver, in a game that finished with the same score and ended under eerily similar circumstances. After that, the Vikings returned from a bye week to win their next five.

It doesn't excuse the three fumbles, and it means the Vikings will have to take care of things at home the next two weeks. To some degree, the Vikings will be compensating for a leaky offensive line the rest of the year. But if Thursday revealed an avenue for how they can do it, it will have an intrinsic value far greater than the final result in Arizona.

"I hope this kind of springboards us like that Denver game did," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "All of our goals are still in front of us. We've got to take this time off this weekend, get healthy and we've got three games left."