Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
The Vikings-Packers game time Sunday has been changed to 3:25 p.m. by the NFL. If the Vikings win, they will make the NFC playoffs as a wild-card. They can also make the playoffs, if they lose, if Chicago, Dallas and the N.Y. Giants also lose.
The NFL also flexed the Dallas-Washington game, which will decide the NFC East title, to 7:20 p.m. and moved the New England-Miami game to 3:25 as well.
Of course, if the Vikings beat the Packers, the teams could very well meet in the first round of the playoffs, at Lambeau.
Here is the updated look at the playoffs.
NFL playoff picture
• Atlanta (13-2) has clinched the South title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
• Green Bay (11-4) has clinched the North and can clinch a first-round bye with a victory over the Vikings or a loss by San Francisco.
• San Francisco (10-4-1) has clinched a playoff spot. Can clinch the West title with a victory over Arizona or a Seattle loss to St. Louis. Can clinch a first-round bye with a victory and a Green Bay loss to the Vikings.
• Washington (9-6) can win the East by beating Dallas.
• Seattle (10-5) has clinched a wild-card spot; can clinch the West with a victory over the Rams and a San Francisco loss.
• The Vikings (9-6) can clinch a wild-card spot by beating the Packers on Sunday. The Vikings also can make the playoffs, with a loss, if Dallas, Chicago and the N.Y. Giants lose.
• Chicago (9-6) can make the playoffs with a victory at Detroit and a Vikings loss.
• Dallas (8-7) can win the East by beating Washington.
• The New York Giants (8-7) can make the playoffs with a victory against Philadelphia and losses by the Vikings, Dallas and Chicago.
The six-team field is set but not the matchups.
• Houston (12-3) is the South champ and can clinch No. 1 seed with a victory over Indianapolis or a loss by Denver.
• Denver (12-3) is the West champ and can clinch first-round bye with a victory or a New England loss; can clinch No. 1 seed with a victory and a Houston loss.
• New England (11-4) is the East champ and can clinch a first-round bye with a victory and a Denver loss. New England also can clinch No. 1 seed with a victory and losses by both Houston and Denver.
• Baltimore (10-5) is the North champ.
• Indianapolis (10-5) will be the No. 5 seed as a wild card.
• Cincinnati (9-6) will be the No. 6 seed as a wild card.
Postgame snapshot from Reliant Stadium, where the Vikings beat the Texans 23-6.
Good news: The Vikings delivered a complete game, playing well in all three phases. They scored on their opening possession with newly married quarterback Christian Ponder going 3-for-3 for 62 yards on the drive and capping things with a 3-yard touchdown toss to Kyle Rudolph. That put the Vikings ahead to stay with less than 9 minutes gone by. And a sturdy effort from the defense carried the day. The Vikings bottled up Arian Foster, the AFC’s leading rusher, to 15 yards on 10 carries before Foster left the game for good with an illness in the second half. Jasper Brinkley forced a first half fumble that A.J. Jefferson recovered. And the defense had two key stops in the third quarter, none more important than holding Houston to a field goal after the Texans had first-and-goal at the 1. The biggest play in that sequence was a Fred Evans sack. And now, at 9-6, the Vikings head to the final week of the season eyeing a wild card berth.
Bad news: Adrian Peterson came back down to earth – by his standards anyway. Peterson was corralled in the backfield throughout the day, stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on many of his runs. He still managed to pile up 86 yards on 25 rushes. He is now 102 yards shy of 2,000 and 207 yards short of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record.
Extra point: Rookie kicker Blair Walsh continued his assault on the record books Sunday. Walsh made three field goals, including a career long of 56 yards in the second quarter. That boot matched Paul Edinger’s team record for longest made field goal. It also gave Walsh his ninth made kick from 50 yards or beyond, a new single-season NFL record. Walsh’s 32 field goals for the season currently rank as the third most in team history. Gary Anderson made 35 field goals in 1998. Fuad Reveiz made 34 in 1994
Next up: The Vikings will wrap up the regular season next weekend with a home game against Green Bay. The Packers are dominating Tennessee in their home finale at Lambeau Field, up 48-0 and rolling to a blowout victory that will give them an 11-4 record.
HOUSTON -- What the heck is going on in Houston?
Playing for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, the 12-2 Texans are getting embarrassed 13-3 at the half in front of a crowd that's getting downright angry at their normally explosive offense.
Meanwhile, the Vikings are getting an unusually quiet game from Adrian Peterson (40 yards on 13 carries, including 20 on his last 12 carries), but an unusually exceptional day from quarterback Christian Ponder, who has completed 10 of 17 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown. He also ran 21 yards for a first down on third down.
Defensively, the Vikings have held Houston to 107 yards. And then there's Blair Walsh, who, of course, is kicking field goals that would be good from Dallas. And
The Texans took the opening kickoff and drove 46 yards in nine plays and took a 3-0 lead on a 51-yard field goal by Shayne Graham. The Texans' drive stalled when A.J. Jefferson reached in and broke up a pass to Andre Johnson. Chris Cook, who had been on injured reserve the previous six weeks, started the game but split time with Jefferson in the first half.
The Vikings took a 7-3 lead on their first possession. Peterson ran for 20 yards on the first play to extend his NFL-leading runs of 20 or more to 21. His next three carries netted zero yards, but Ponder carried the Vikings the rest of the way, completing 3 of 3 passes for 62 yards, including a 3-yard TD to Kyle Rudolph.
For those keeping tabs on the wildly inconsistent season that Ponder is having, here are the second-year QB's numbers on the first drives of the past two games: 6 for 6 for 100 yards, one touchdown rushing and one passing. One of his completions today was a 32-yarder to Michael Jenkins aganst a blitz on third-and-six.
The Vikings' defense set up the next score when Jasper Brinkley forced running back Arian Foster to fumble. Jefferson fell on it at the Vikings' 21-yard line.
Walsh capped the drive with his NFL record-setting ninth field goal of 50 yards or longer this season. This one tied Paul Edinger's team-record long of 56 yards. Walsh, a rookie, is 9 for 9 from 50 or longer. That broke the mark of eight held by Morten Andersen and Jason Hanson.
Walsh added a 41-yarder with 37 seconds left in the half. Walsh is 31 of 34 on the season.
As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game with Houston at Reliant Stadium, we asked John McClain, who covers the Texans and the NFL for the Houston Chronicle, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) Without one of the top four quarterbacks in NFL history, you might not beat the Texans this season.
Through 14 games, Houston has stumbled just twice. In Week 14, New England’s Tom Brady had no trouble handling Houston’s blitzes, throwing for 296 yards and four touchdowns to ignite a 42-14 Patriots blowout. Eight weeks earlier, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers lit the Texans up for 338 yards and six touchdown passes in a 42-24 Packers win.
Rodgers was nothing short of surgical in his dominance. Four of his TD tosses came against perfect coverage. Another came with a blitzer hitting him as he released the ball.
Both losses humbled Houston but did not cause panic.
“Those two losses weren’t pretty,” McClain said. “But when you take a step back, they ran into what I believe are two of the four greatest quarterbacks in history, both at the top of their games. I put Rodgers and Brady in that class along with Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana.”
Needless to say, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder isn’t quite on that same list.
The Vikings will also be facing a Texans squad Sunday hungry to lock-up home field advantage throughout the playoffs, a goal the entire city has rallied behind.
“The road to the Super Bowl has never gone through Houston,” McClain said. “Going back to the ‘Luv Ya Blue’ era with Bum Phillips, Earl Campbell, Elvin Bethea, they never had home field and lost two AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh with the feeling that if ‘Well, had we played this game in the Astrodome we would have won.
“And then in the Run-and-Shoot Era with Jack Pardee, Warren Moon, Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they went to the playoffs every year. But they never had the home-field advantage.”
“So two things we’re hearing about every day this week are home-field advantage and Adrian Peterson.”
2) Speaking of Peterson, the Texans may have the best chance of any defense this season to hold the Vikings star in check.
Houston ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 93.2 yards per game. Obviously, the Texans have yet to face a back as explosive as Peterson. But having the ability to consistently lockdown against the run has been a big part of the team’s success.
Only two backs this year have topped 100 yards against Houston. In Week 4, Chris Johnson went for 141 yards on 25 carries. Last weekend, Indianapolis rookie Vick Ballard rushed for 105 yards.
With Houston blowing Tennessee out, Johnson got big chunks of his yardage on draw plays late in the game. Ballard, meanwhile, had 60 of his yards on one series in the third quarter last Sunday.
Even with linebacker Brian Cushing being lost for the season in Week 5 with a torn ACL, the Texans have remained sturdy up the middle of their defense with nose tackle Shaun Cody and linebackers Bradie James and Darryl Sharpton playing well.
“This is the game Cushing would have helped the most,” McClain said. “He would have covered Peterson on pass routes. He would have been the guy between the tackles. This would be the time they’d really need Cushing to try to contain Peterson. Because overall, they’re just in awe of him.”
3) J.J. Watt is as good as advertised. Maybe even better.
Consider this. McClain has been covering professional football since the mid 1970s and he’s certain he’s never seen a more dominant season from a defensive player than the one Watt’s having.
Pick whatever stat you’d like, it’s bound to shed light on Watt’s dominance. He has 19.5 sacks, 38 quarterback hits and 15 pass deflections. He has also forced three fumbles and recovered two. Plus, he’s a beats against the run.
“Coupled with having the talent, he’s very coachable,” McClain said. “He takes coaching and has really learned. And then on top of that, he has that high motor. It just doesn’t stop.”
Five of Watt’s deflections have led to interceptions with his combination of strength, effort and timing paying off.
“He’s become very good at kind of pushing off and jumping,” McClain said. “Not just leaping but pushing back a couple of steps and jumping. He’s so quick about it that nobody’s been able to stop it so far.”
4) Receiver Andre Johnson is back on the top of his game.
Hamstring issues in both legs hindered Johnson in 2011. A groin issue slowed him some early this season.
Back in early October, following a four-game slump in which Johnson totaled nine catches for 164 yards, doubt began to creep in on whether his dominance had disappeared.
Yet since Week 6, Johnson has been back to his old self.
“Everybody was thinking, this guy turned 31, hit the wall and couldn’t play anymore,” McClain said. “But he didn’t say very much, kept at it. And now he’s on a rampage over the last nine games in which he’s averaging 8.4 catches and 119.6 yards [per contest].”
Johnson’s has 43 career games with at least 100 receiving yards and his 16 career games with at least 10 receptions and 100 yards are the most in NFL history, tied with New England’s Wes Welker.
Postgame snapshot from the Edward Jones Dome, where the Vikings beat the Rams 36-22.
Good news: The Vikings defense came to play Sunday afternoon. And it started on the first series. A Brian Robison sack was the biggest play on the Rams’ opening possession, forcing a punt that allowed the Vikings to start their first TD drive in Rams territory. The offense responded with a 45-yard march and the Vikings took a quick 7-0 lead. In building a 30-7 halftime advantage, the Vikings defense got sacks from Robison, Christian Ballard and Erin Henderson and takeaways from Kevin Williams and Everson Griffen. Griffen returned his second quarter interception 29 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings finished plus-two in turnover margin. Quarterback Christian Ponder (17-for-24, 131 yards plus a 5-yard TD run) steered clear of costly mistakes. And, oh yeah, that Adrian Peterson kid busted off an 82-yard touchdown run as part of a ho-hum 24-carry, 212-yard day.
Bad news: On a day where so much went right, it’s hard to find much bad news. But the Vikings’ clock management again seemed suspect at the end of the first half. They took over for their final drive with 1:00 left at their own 47 and got four consecutive Ponder completions netting 29 yards. But the final pass of the half was a strange 2-yarder to Jerome Simpson. And with timeouts left, the Vikings probably could have run a few more plays. Instead, they let the clock run down to 0:04, called timeout and let Blair Walsh kick one of his five field goals on the day.
Extra point: With two games left in the regular season, Peterson has 1,812 rushing yards. He needs to average 147 per game in contests against the Texans and Packers to break Eric Dickerson's NFL single-season record of 2,105 yards.
Next up: The Vikings will travel to Houston next weekend. The Texans improved to 12-2 Sunday with a 29-17 home win over the Colts, clinching the AFC South title.
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