HOUSTON -- The only NFL game Adrian Peterson has played in his adopted hometown of Houston came on Dec. 23, 2012, when the running back was chasing Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record and the Minnesota Vikings were making a frantic push toward the playoffs.
Peterson had more than 100 family and friends in attendance that day, and while he ran for a modest 86 yards on 25 carries, the Vikings beat a Houston Texans team in the hunt for home-field advantage, using a 23-6 win on their way to earning a wild-card spot.
Were Peterson to play a second game in Houston during the 2016 season, it would be the biggest of his career. Super Bowl LI is at NRG Stadium in February, just 2 1/2 hours south of where Peterson grew up, 40 minutes from where he now lives and less than 20 minutes from the neighborhood near his gym where he's planning to move. A Super Bowl appearance remains the missing piece in Peterson's career -- "I [wouldn't] care if it was in Brazil," he said last month -- but the chance to seize a championship near his home would be even more meaningful.
"When they brought it out like, 'Hey this one will be in Houston -- in 2017 -- I was like, 'OK,'" Peterson said. "Last year I was like, 'OK, wasn’t meant to happen. God, he wants me to come back home to accomplish that.' So that’s been my mindset."
The Vikings would seem to have much of what they need to make it happen. Their defense ranked fifth in the league in scoring last season, and they spent the offseason repairing an offensive line that allowed quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to be pressured on 36 percent of his dropbacks. The Vikings drafted receiver Laquon Treadwell in the first round, and Peterson, at 31, returns intent on leading the league in rushing again while moving beyond his critical fumble in Minnesota's wild-card playoff loss last January.
The 2016 team, Peterson said, has the potential to be as good or better than the 2009 team that lost the NFC Championship Game to the New Orleans Saints in overtime. It was the only year he shared the backfield with a quarterback (Brett Favre) whose passer rating was north of 100. And if this year's Vikings are to take the step the 2009 team couldn't, it will be incumbent upon Bridgewater to take command of an offense that ranked 31st in the league in passing a year ago.
Peterson did not mince words, though, when he was asked whether he thinks Bridgewater can do it.
"When I look in his eyes, I see greatness," Peterson said. "I see a young man who’s -- even now, he’s matured more, and he wants to be great. He has that leadership, he has that leader inside him and it’s coming out even more. He just has a good spirit. He has a good soul, a good spirit. And when you combine that with talent, and the mindset that he has, greatness will come out."
The running back has said he needs to be more versatile in 2016, and Peterson said he's focused on running routes and catching passes as part of his offseason training, working with several Houston-area college quarterbacks and trainers at his gym. Coach Mike Zimmer sounded encouraged by what he'd seen from Peterson in shotgun sets during the Vikings' mandatory minicamp last month, and it stands to reason the Vikings will use part of training camp to ensure a smoother fit between Peterson and Bridgewater than they had at the beginning of last season.
"Offensively, we have a lot of things we’ve got going on, a lot of weapons we brought in, a lot of new pieces we’ve added during the offseason," Peterson said. "It’s got to be more than just guys staying healthy; continuing to put in a lot of the work that I’ve seen those guys put in, and finally just getting it done."