I have been following the Vikings from the day they were awarded the franchise, and this team never before has made a jump like it has this year, a leap from a 3-13 record in 2011 to a possible 10-6 record and a playoff berth with a victory over Green Bay next week.
It's amazing how well the Vikings played Sunday, when you look back at how poorly they performed in some of their losses.
Now if they are able to get into the playoffs and perform like they did in beating Super Bowl contender Houston Texans 23-6 for their third victory in a row, they might surprise even more.
Last year's Giants are a good example of what can happen to a team that gets hot late in the season. If you want an example of how important momentum can be going into the playoffs, look no further than last season's Super Bowl champion. The Giants defeated the Cowboys 31-14 in the season finale, their second victory in a row, securing them the NFC East championship and a trip to the playoffs even though they were only 9-7.
The Giants then played host to the Falcons the first week of the playoffs, winning 24-2, before going on to win two road games, against the Packers 37-20 and the 49ers 20-17, before beating the Patriots 21-17 in the Super Bowl.
The Packers followed a similar pattern on their way to the championship two years ago. They won their last two games of the season to reach the playoffs at 10-6, beating the Bears 10-3 the final game of the season to secure a wild-card position. Then the Packers proceeded to win three consecutive road playoff games -- at Philadelphia 21-16, at Atlanta 48-21 and at Chicago 21-14 -- to reach the Super Bowl, where they beat the Steelers 31-25.
So in each of the past two seasons the eventual Super Bowl winner only secured their playoff position in the last week of the season, and the Giants and the Packers played a combined five of six playoff games on the road to win the title -- a fate that could be quite similar to the Vikings situation if they are to get in next week.
Packers game important
So this Packers game Sunday becomes one of the more important Vikings-Packers contests in history. If they can contain quarterback Aaron Rodgers half as well as they did Texans quarterback Matt Schaub on third down, holding him to 4-for-8 for 22 yards Sunday, they certainly will break their five-game losing streak to Green Bay.
Unlike the victories over the Rams and the Bears, where the Vikings won those games because of unbelievable days by running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings used different weapons this time.
Peterson failed to break 100 yards Sunday for the first time in nine games, but he did rush 25 times for 86 yards despite a groin problem and certainly contributed to the upset simply by keeping the Texans defense so focused on the run.
The Texans did hold Peterson to his lowest rushing total since he had 79 yards in an Oct. 14 loss to the Redskins.
So while Peterson had carried the team in victories over the Rams and the Bears, this time it was quarterback Christian Ponder, the offensive line, kicker Blair Walsh -- and the Vikings defense, which had a huge day holding the high-powered Houston offense to 187 yards, its lowest total of the year. The Vikings ran 73 plays to 53 by the losers and dominated the possession time 34:46 to 25:14.
Best day for Ponder
Ponder began his big day by completing three passes for 52 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown toss to tight end Kyle Rudolph on play-action that completed a eight-play, 78-yard drive in which he sparkled.
For the game, Ponder completed 16 of 30 passes -- many of them coming in crucial situations -- for 174 yards and a touchdown. The 2011 first-round draft choice also rushed seven times for 48 yards -- 14 more than the Texans ran for as a team.
Houston entered the game leading the NFL in defending third-down situations, allowing only a 26 percent success rate, but Ponder went 8-for-12 for 95 yards passing on third down and had runs of 21 and 29 yards. The team as a whole completed 50 percent of its third downs, going 9-for-18.
No doubt what also helped Ponder's best performance of the year was a good day by the offensive line, which limited star defensive end J.J. Watt to one sack and three tackles. And the Vikings receivers -- led by rookie Jarius Wright, who caught five of the nine passes thrown at him for 53 yards -- didn't drop as many balls as they usually do.
Ponder's rushing was highlighted by a big 29-yard run in the fourth quarter. With the score at 16-6 and 9 minutes, 26 seconds left in the game, Ponder scrambled to the right side on third-and-2 for a gigantic gain. The play took the Vikings from their own 44 to the Texans 27 -- but more importantly, it prolonged the drive at a time they were trying to eat up clock. Following Ponder's run the Vikings took an additional 4 minutes off the clock before Toby Gerhart scored the clinching touchdown with 4:49 to go.
Houston has lost only three times this season -- to quarterbacks Tom Brady of New England, Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay and now Ponder, who is getting better all the time.
And it was a good thing that Ponder had a good day. Had he duplicated some of his poor performances early in the season and the Vikings lost, you can bet he would have been crucified by the media for getting married last week during the season.
The Vikings defense against the run Sunday was amazing. Houston failed to score a touchdown for the first time since 2006. The Texans, who ranked first in the AFC in rushing at 141.9 yards per game, wound up with 34 yards rushing, with Arian Foster, one of the top running backs in the league, gaining 12 yards on eight carries in the first half.
He wound up with 10 rushes for 15 yards after leaving the game in the third quarter because of an irregular heartbeat.
No doubt the Vikings made their best goal-line stand of the year when the Texans had first-and-goal at the 1 in the third quarter after a 12-yard reception by Kevin Walter. On third down, Schaub was sacked for a 14-yard loss by tackle Fred Evans. So instead of scoring a touchdown and making the score 16-10, the Texans had to settle for a 33-yard field goal to cut their deficit to 16-6.
And to think, the Vikings defense did this with outstanding defensive end Brian Robison on the sidelines because of a shoulder injury.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org