This time, Christian Ponder and the rest of the Vikings provided the necessary balance.
Peterson raced 61 yards for the game-sealing touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, padding his NFL rushing lead with 171 yards on 27 carries for the Vikings in a 34-24 victory over the Lions on Sunday.
"I still can get stronger. I'm still not there, man. I'm pressing to get there," Peterson said, when asked for seemingly the hundredth time whether he's 100 percent healthy. "I'm going to come back stronger and better after the bye."
Peterson had 120 yards in the final 15 minutes, 10 1/2 months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee. This was his third straight game with a 60-yard gain or longer. Ponder bounced back from three ugly weeks with 221 yards and two touchdowns on 24-for-32 passing for the Vikings (6-4), patiently looking for receivers and avoiding the dreaded turnover.
"You could tell he was more confident, got into a rhythm," Peterson said. "He was just playing ball. Playing loose. That's what we need from him."
Rookie Jarius Wright filled in for injured standout Percy Harvin and scored in his first NFL game. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, too. Ponder passed for almost as many yards in the first quarter of this game (57) as he did last week at Seattle (6-3).
"Just going out and playing without worrying about the consequences of your throws," Ponder said. "Go out and let it rip, that's what I did."
But with the Vikings, it always comes back to Peterson. He has 353 yards in the last two games and 1,128 yards already this season.
"He hasn't lost a step at all from that knee surgery. He might even be better," left tackle Matt Kalil said.
Calvin Johnson had 207 yards on 12 catches, including a touchdown that brought the Lions (4-5) a little closer with 1:53 left. But Johnson's lost fumble near midfield on the previous possession put Vikings rookie Blair Walsh in position for his fourth field goal.
"I feel like we didn't play our best. Just speaking for myself: There's a lot more we could put on the field," Johnson said.
Matthew Stafford threw touchdown passes to Brandon Pettigrew and Titus Young to cap quick 80-plus-yard drives in the second half, fueled by Johnson and his ailing left knee that sure didn't look too bad. Their sluggish start, though, was too much to overcome.
"We were backed up and going 80-plus, it felt like, the whole game," Stafford said. "That's something that's going to be tough against a defense like that."
Winning this game was critical for both teams and their quests to make the playoffs, which for the Lions would be their first consecutive appearances since three in a row from 1993-95 and for the Vikings would be their first since Brett Favre's renaissance in 2009.
The rest of the schedule is brutal on each side. Detroit's remaining opponents took a combined 44-16 record into Sunday, and Detroit plays Green Bay and Houston next. The Lions play five of their last seven contests at home, however.
The Vikings face four of their final six on the road, with their only home games against Chicago and Green Bay. Their remaining foes had a 36-14 mark, entering the weekend. To have a fighting chance in this challenging stretch, the Vikings badly needed a boost for Ponder and their sputtering passing scheme.
"If you want to be a good football team, these are the games that you really have to win," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said.
With Harvin unable to play because of a sprained left ankle, Wright made his first career catch count, flying past strong safety Erik Coleman on a post route for 54 yards. After being brought down at the goal line and scooped up in a bear hug by fellow wide receiver Jerome Simpson, the fourth-round draft pick out of Arkansas caught a 3-yard pass in the corner three plays later for the 7-0 lead.
The defense didn't force a turnover in either of the previous two games and allowed four straight 100-yard rushers, so progress was made there, too. Chad Greenway's interception set up Walsh's first field goal. Mikel Leshoure's Lions-leading total was 43 yards rushing.
"We knew it was out there. We just had to go figure out how to do it again," Greenway said.
The Lions haven't won two games in a row at Minnesota since 1990-91. ... The Stafford-Johnson connection was their first this season for a touchdown. Johnson's only other score came from backup Shaun Hill in a Sept. 23 loss to Tennessee. ... Mistral Raymond (right ankle) returned from a six-game absence and rotated with Jamarca Sanford at FS for the Vikings. ... Ponder completed passes to nine different passes plus one to himself that lost 15 yards, when DE Cliff Avril knocked the ball right back into his chest and took him down. ... Lions CB Chris Houston said he'll "be OK" after leaving the game in the fourth quarter on a cart. He hurt his ankle and said a Vikings lineman intentionally landed with both knees on his lower leg. ... The Lions lost Avril in the third quarter to a concussion.
- Pete Morelli