Less than 7 minutes remained Sunday at Mall of America Field, and this time the Vikings were in little danger of blowing their big halftime lead, cruising toward a 34-10 drubbing of the Arizona Cardinals.
Still, coach Leslie Frazier wasn't going to stand for his team easing off the gas after a month of frustrating finishes. So as the Vikings prepared to take over on their last meaningful possession, ahead by three touchdowns but not yet content, Frazier began gathering his offensive line to deliver a lecture on staying focused.
Only this time, he was quickly interrupted. By an energetic leader wearing number 28.
Adrian Peterson raised his hand.
"Coach, I've got it," Peterson said. "Let me talk to them. I'll handle it."
Peterson handled plenty Sunday in securing the Vikings their first victory of 2011. He not only spoke up, he also ran angry, rushing for 122 yards and three touchdowns.
"He was at his best today," Frazier said.
Most of the fireworks came early with all three of Peterson's touchdowns coming during a 7-minute onslaught in the first quarter that provided the Vikings a 28-0 lead.
Yet just as important, Frazier believes, was the example Peterson continued to set on the final scoring drive.
It was nothing flashy. But Peterson did chew up 17 yards and 4:28 of clock on six consecutive carries. That led to a 53-yard Ryan Longwell field goal. And just like that, the Vikings avoided the 0-5 doldrums -- with Peterson making sure to have his say.
"I was like, 'Whoa,' " Frazier said. "This is our star player stepping up in a leadership role and saying, 'I'll handle it. Let me handle it.' From my vantage point, that is huge when you get that out of your best players."
While Peterson's vocal leadership resonated, his physical running style also sent a jolt through his team.
Peterson's first-quarter outburst was set up by a defensive effort that was nothing short of dominant. Arizona needed six possessions to register its first first down. Even more eye-opening: With 2:41 left in the first quarter, the Cardinals had fewer total yards (20) than the Vikings had points (28).
"We finally stood up and put it all together," defensive end Brian Robison said.
Peterson's first TD came with 9:18 left in the first quarter.
On Arizona's next snap, cornerback Asher Allen picked off a Kevin Kolb pass and returned it to the Cardinals 24.
On the Vikings' next play, Peterson scored again, delivering a nifty and nasty 24-yard run that included a juke in the hole around cornerback and a vicious shoulder blow to rookie Patrick Peterson near the goal line.
"I'll tell you what, man. That guy is unreal," Robison said. "How can you not love watching him run?"
Arizona's next series lasted all of 40 seconds. Robison's strip sack of Kolb and a fumble recovery by Jared Allen at the Cardinals 25 set up another short-field touchdown drive, this one finished by Donovan McNabb's 4-yard run.
In the blink of an eye, a team that had only three takeaways and zero points off turnovers in the first four weeks had buried the Cardinals.
The Vikings' average starting field position on their first three touchdown drives was the Arizona 22. By day's end, they had turned four Cardinals turnovers into 17 points.
"We hope those keep coming and keep coming in bunches," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Even if we force punts on a few of those [series], our offense isn't getting the ball with those easier drives set up in short-field situations."
That's not to say Sunday's victory will wind up in the "Classic" drawer at NFL Films. McNabb's erratic play again proved worrisome and led to widespread booing throughout the afternoon. The Vikings also failed to score a second-half touchdown for the fourth time in five games.
But after all the anxiety and hand-wringing that had surfaced during an 0-4 start, relief was a welcome emotion.
Equally important, the Vikings seemed ready to pocket Sunday's victory with a sense of perspective.
"Today is going to stand for what it is," said defensive end Jared Allen, who had two more sacks and leads the NFL with 8 1/2. "It's a positive. But we have to go back to work."
Added Greenway: "It's hard to talk about momentum after what we went through the first month. But it's still nice to win. I wish we were 1-0. ... Mostly, we saw what happens when you stay within yourself and make the plays you're capable of making."
Dan Wiederer • email@example.com