Chip Scoggins is a Star Tribune sports columnist. He has temporarily returned to cover the Minnesota Vikings. He had the beat from 2008-2011 after covering college football for five years. Chip has been with the Star Tribune since January 2000. He can be followed on twitter at @chipscoggins.Find Chip on Facebook.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier can point to the moment he felt his team coming together, the game in which he felt everybody arriving on the same page, the day he felt the Vikings were becoming a cohesive team.
Interestingly, it did not come in a victory.
With a win-and-in game with Green Bay at Mall of America Field fast approaching, Frazier pointed to the Vikings loss in Green Bay Dec. 2 as that vital moment.
Really? A game in which the Vikings lost in large part because of two Red Zone interceptions by quarterback Christian Ponder?
“That game helped us in some ways,” Frazier said at his Monday press conference. “We found out a lot about ourselves on the road and I told our players after that game that I thought that, more than any point in our season, we had played as a team. I really felt like we were coming together at the right time. I’m sure when they heard me say that they were like, ‘What’s he talking about? We just lost to our rivals on the road.’ But I saw something in our team in that game that made me believe we had a chance to really take off.”
The Vikings have not list since that day, winning three straight, including road wins at St. Louis Dec. 16 and the big upset in Houston Sunday.
“Green Bay the first time was sort of like, ‘Wow, we’re really good, we’ve just got to figure out how to navigate those last two quarters and find a way to get a tough win,’ ‘’ linebacker Chad Greenway said. “I think these last two road games for us have been an indication that maybe we’re starting to figure out how to play together for four quarters and put it all out there. That doesn’t mean we’re going to get a win this weekend just because that happens. It just means that, hopefully, we can remain consistent, keep doing that. And realize that when we play our kind of football and don’t make mistakes, that we’re pretty good.”
That Green Bay game was also the point at which it became clear what had to happen over the final quarter of the season for the Vikings to make the playoffs. Namely, win. That was the week that both defensive end Jared Allen and owner Zygi Wilf talked with the team. Their message was simple: The team had to win the final four games.
“We kind of knew where things were and how important this final month of the season would be,” Frazier said. “But then you’ve still got to go out and play well. You have to prepare properly. And to our players’ credit and our coaches, they’ve done a great job of doing just that.”
A magnetic resonance imaging test done Monday morning showed that cornerback Antoine Winfield finished Sunday’s game with a small hand fracture. He was able to finish the game and is expected to play Sunday with a soft cast on the hand.
The Vikings hope defensive end Brian Robison, who missed Sunday’s game with a sprained right shoulder, will be available this week. “We’ll have to take it day-to-day with him,” Frazier said, “just to see what he’s able to do when he gets back to practice Wednesday.” Robison did some things in practice Friday, but was still in too much pain to play against Houston. “We weren’t sure if he’d be able to go out and protect himself,” Frazier said of the decision to sit Robison. “He needs to be able to tackle someone or, if someone is pushing up against him, he can protect himself. If he can do that, then he’ll be ready to go.”
Meanwhile, running back Adrian Peterson is still experiencing soreness with his abdominal issue and could be limited this week.
For the first nine games, rookie receiver Jarius Wright was inactive. In the last six games he has caught 19 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown. Sunday in Houston he had five catches. Three of those plays resulted in first downs for the Vikings. Monday Frazier talked about the strides Wright has taken.
“He’s just taken off as he’s gotten more confident with what he’s doing and what we’re asking him to do,” Frazier said. “The game he had yesterday was a big-time game. He ran good routes, got yards after the catch for us. He’s a young guy we have high hopes for.”
The Vikings’ final two opponents for 2013 will be set following Sunday’s game.
They will play each team in the NFC East and AFC North next season.
The Vikings’ home games will be against Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, the NFC South team that finishes in the same position as the Vikings (currently New Orleans), Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago. The Sept. 29 game in London against Pittsburgh also counts as a home game.
Road games will be at Dallas, the N.Y Giants, Baltimore, Cincinnati, the NFC West team that finishes in the same position as the Vikings (currently Seattle), Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago.
Longwell logs in
Former Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell broke his Twitter silence Sunday afternoon to laud his replacement, Blair Walsh. Longwell, who was bothered by never making the Pro Bowl, clearly thinks Walsh should be the NFC kicker as a rookie. His series of tweets read: "I've purposely not commented on any football stuff this entire year so let me make my first one now. I've seen many great seasons go unrewarded by not getting voted to Pro Bowl. But if @BlairWalsh3 does not get voted in this year it will prove system is broke! What more can the guy do?? Accuracy, 9-9 50+ yarders, Kickoff touchbacks and a game winner in his first career game!!"
Walsh is third in the NFC with 128 points, second in field goal percentage (behind Dallas’ Dan Bailey) and set an NFL record with his ninth field goal of 50 yards or more on Sunday.
Believe it or not, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder had more to talk about than just his marriage Wednesday. In revisiting Sunday’s 36-22 win in St. Louis, Ponder again noted the significance of the Vikings’ opening drive, a 45-yard touchdown march that set the tone for the day.
On a series in which Adrian Peterson was stopped for minus-3 yards on five rushes, Ponder’s playmaking proved key in sparking the Vikings to an early 7-0 lead.
Included on the march: an 11-yard completion for a first down to Jerome Simpson and a key 13-yard connection to Stephen Burton on third-and-14.
The latter put the Vikings in position to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Rams 7. Ponder converted that play with a frenetic 3-yard scramble.
“On fourth down, obviously we love coach going for it,” he said. “As players we love that. He took the risk and we converted, which was big.”
Moments later on third-and-goal from the 5, Ponder finished the drive with an improvised touchdown run. The designed play called for a pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph. But Rudolph was double-covered coming off the right side of the line. Ponder’s second option would have been to Michael Jenkins, running an out route against Bradley Fletcher on the outside to the right.
But once Robert Quinn blew by Charlie Johnson, penetrated the backfield and slapped Ponder in the face, the quarterback instinctively took off and dove in for the score.
“We knew that winning on the road is hard,” Ponder said. “And for us to do it, we have to start fast. And it was crucial to finish that first drive.”
Griffen’s maturation obvious
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier had high praise for defensive lineman Everson Griffen on Wednesday. Griffen’s interception and 29-yard return for a touchdown was one of the key plays in Sunday’s win and it continued an encouraging season for Griffen. The third-year lineman has been active all year long when on the field and has continued to produce even after experiencing a significant emotional blow in October when his mother unexpectedly passed away while visiting.
Here’s what Frazier had to say of Griffen: “He’s come so far. I talk to him about it often. Just seeing the maturation, even through this last offseason, being able to manage his free time, understanding what it means to become a pro and to act like a pro both at practice and in games as well. And he’s one of the guys that as we speak has really bought into the right way of doing things. … He’s one of those guys who has paid attention and listened.”
Frazier said he is proud of Griffen’s continuing maturity and the emotional toughness he’s shown the past two months.
“The tragedy that he faced this season, losing his mother, that was hard,” Frazier said. “But the way he responded, even in the midst of that tragedy, you take your hat off to him with how courageous he is. And I’ve told him, I know his mother would be extremely proud of him and the way he’s handled himself. He’s come a long way”
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier won’t demand perfection. But he is hoping his team can play “a clean football game” next Sunday when it heads to St. Louis. And by clean, Frazier means he wants to see the elimination of costly turnovers.
In five road losses this season, the Vikings have turned the ball over 10 times and are minus-6 in turnover differential.
In their six home wins? The Vikings have 12 takeaways and eight turnovers.
Said Frazier: “Finding a way to be plus in the turnover ratio would be a big deal to us, if we can execute the way we have. Even in some of our games on the road, we’ve executed well at times. But we haven’t done a good job when it comes to winning that turnover battle. And it’s cost us.”
Most notably, two weeks ago in Green Bay, the Vikings let a key division game slip away due to two costly Christian Ponder interceptions – one in the end zone and the other at the Packers 14. Those are exactly the miscues Frazier wants eliminated.
“Our margin for error is not very big,” said the Vikings coach. “So when that happens, it becomes problematic for our football team.”
Twice this year, the Vikings have gone without a turnover. Both times, they never trailed and scored convincing wins over Detroit.
With three games left, here are the milestones Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is chasing. He’s currently at 1,600 rushing yards for the season needing 161 (an average of 53 per game) to set his own single-season record.
Peterson needs 400 yards (an average of 133 per contest) to reach 2,000. And he’d need 506 yards (an average of 169) to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record.
Frazier, coincidentally, was a player during Dickerson’s peak. Dickerson set the single-season rushing mark in 1984. Here’s how Frazier compared the styles of Peterson and Dickerson:
“I know Coach [John] Robinson gave it to [Dickerson] a lot [with the Rams] and we’re doing the same thing with Adrian. Both guys were extremely fast and very motivated to run the ball and run it well. I think the styles are somewhat similar, but the power that Adrian runs with combined with the speed is rare.
"When I think of Eric, I think of more of a guy who was so graceful and getting on the edge and outrunning people. But you see Adrian running through tacklers, stiff-arming guys, running around guys, juking guys. He’s so rare. Eric was a great runner, a Hall of Famer. And Adrian is on his way to being a Hall of Famer as well.”\
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