Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


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.


Posts about On the road

Behind Enemy Lines: After slow start, Aaron Rodgers carved Vikings up last week

Posted by: Updated: January 4, 2013 - 8:18 AM

As the Vikings prepare for Saturday’s playoff showdown with Green Bay at Lambeau Field, we asked Tyler Dunne, who covers the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …

1) The Packers will welcome two key contributors back to the field – one on offense, one on defense.

After missing last Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, receiver Randall Cobb has been back at practice all week and progressing nicely, likely to start Saturday night and eager to add some pop to the Packers offense.

On the other side of the ball, defensive back Charles Woodson, a 15th-year veteran, seems likely to return after a nine-game absence due to a broken collarbone.

So which return is more important?

Cobb was Aaron Rodgers’ top target during the regular season, registering 80 catches for 954 yards with eight TD catches.

“The Vikings had a little bit of success blitzing Rodgers last week,” Dunne said. “He wasn’t lights out like he usually is against that. But I’d have to think having Cobb back in the slot and on the same page, that’s a big cure for that. And it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the Packers offense with both Cobb and Greg Jennings together, both at full strength, playing their best. That’s a big deal.”

As for Woodson, his last action came on Oct. 21 in St. Louis. With the Packers having significant confidence in a young secondary that includes Casey Hayward, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, Woodson’s veteran presence isn’t mandatory but should help. His versatility allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to unleash his impressive creativity as well.

“As good as those young guys have been, they all had key errors in that game last week,” Dunne said. “So there’s definitely room for Woodson.”

Now it remains to be seen just how extensive a role Woodson will be able to take on, his conditioning certainly lessened due to his extended absence.

“They seem pretty confident that he can jump right in and be a difference maker,” Dunne said. “But you’d have to think there will be some type of transition.”

2) Green Bay’s defense still has no answers for Adrian Peterson.

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. And if you don’t succeed then? Well, that’s the predicament the Packers seem to be in after allowing Peterson to run for 409 yards in two regular season games. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy continues to insist that his defensive players simply need to do a better job of tackling to slow Peterson. But that’s an easy request for a coach with a headset to make. For the guys absorbing Peterson’s shoulder blows and stiff arms and ridiculous power, the challenge is elevated.

“The Packers can say all the right things around here,” Dunne said. “But you’d have to think that Adrian Peterson, to some degree, has gotten in their heads a little bit. How in the heck do you stop this guy? And what’s even more confusing is that their tackling has been better this season. They did shutdown Arian Foster [29 yards on 17 carries] and Chris Johnson [11 for 28]. They did a pretty good job with Marshawn Lynch [25-98]. Yet, for whatever reason, Peterson owns them.”

Peterson’s 199 yards Sunday came with the Packers devising a decent game plan designed to keep the star running back inside. Still, the yards just kept coming.

“He was chipping away, chipping away,” Dunne said. “That has to be a concern. It seemed like the Packers had a good game plan and guys in position to make stops all game long. And still, they couldn’t do it. So now what?”

3) As good as Peterson is, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers was at the top of his game last Sunday as well.

During one break in the action, Peterson and Rodgers stopped to talk with one another, both offering sincere praise of the other as the best in the game at their position. So, see, it’s not just the fans who recognized the legendary qualities of Peterson and Rodgers last weekend.

Troubling for Rodgers in last week’s loss: Green Bay’s slow start. The Packers punted on their first three possessions, allowing the Vikings to build confidence and a 13-0 lead.

“Some of that is an offensive line getting comfortable and being able to make calls in a tough environment on the road,” Dunne said. “Similar things happened at Detroit, at Seattle. Sometimes on the road, it’s been a little rocky at the start of games just getting assignments down and knowing who blocks who and getting into a rhythm for everybody. But once they figured that out, they got on a roll.”

Not troubling for Rodgers: he found his groove eventually leading six scoring drives on the Packers’ final seven possessions. Green Bay probably would have won last week’s game had they had the ball last, especially with Rodgers in a zone and picking apart a Vikings’ secondary that lost Antoine Winfield to a hand injury late in the first half. Rodgers threw for 318 of his 365 yards after Winfield’s exit.

“That was as good as they’ve looked in a really long time,” Dunne said. “And after Winfield went out, the Packers went after [Marcus] Sherels. They were just attacking him for big chunks.”

The Packers offense also got a notable boost last week from 24-year-old running back DuJuan Harris, who had 70 yards on 14 carries. Signed to the practice squad in October and later promoted, the diminutive Harris didn’t see his first action until Week 14 as he became the next man up in an injury-ravaged Green Bay backfield. His effort last Sunday was impressive.

“The Packers have a lot more trust and confidence in the guy,” Dunne said. “And his running style is just a little different than everybody else. Ryan Grant is so good on those stretch plays where he can press the hole and cut upfield when something’s there. Alex Green is more of a spread offense kind of back. Harris just gets it and goes. He’s a north-south tough runner.”

4) It’s not just the Vikings trying to vanquish the bad memories of their last playoff game.

For the Vikings, a 31-28 overtime loss to New Orleans in the 2009 NFC Championship game doesn’t require revisiting. It was 236 different kinds of painful. And Saturday will be their first playoff game since.

Green Bay’s last playoff game? A 37-20 home loss last January to the Giants, filled with uncharacteristic errors and providing a galling conclusion to a season in which the Pack went 15-1 during the regular season.

“That was a strange game, especially for the offense,” Dunne said. “They had three fumbles all year and then three fumbles in that game. They rarely dropped passes all year then dropped a ton of passes in that game. With the season on the line and so much at stake, everybody just fell apart, crumbled, played bad. That’s where the sting remains. They just weren’t themselves when it mattered most.”

The emotional scars of that loss won’t impact Saturday’s game with the Vikings much if at all. But certainly it provides motivation and a reminder of capitalizing on postseason opportunities as much as possible.

“You have to think they have that feeling of needing to play their best when it matters,” Dunne said. “Without a doubt, that’s in the back of your head – that feeling of having left something on the table and wanting to make things right.”

Winfield's status uncertain for Vikings playoff game

Posted by: Kent Youngblood Updated: December 31, 2012 - 2:30 PM

The Vikings won’t know until later in the week whether cornerback Antoine Winfield will be available for the Packers game on Saturday.

Winfield broke his right hand in the Vikings’ victory at Houston Dec. 23. He returned to play in Sunday’s game against Green Bay before pain forced him to leave the game. The Packers passing game heated up quickly after that.

During his press conference Monday, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said was simply pain – not further injury – that forced Winfield out of the game. As for his availability for Saturday’s rematch with the Packers in Green Bay?

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with Antoine,” Frazier said. “We’ll see how he does throughout the week. He was in quite a bit of pain [Sunday], so we’ll have to see how he does throughout the week and make a decision, maybe, later on.”

Marcus Sherels was inserted as Winfield’s replacement as the slot cornerback in passing situations. Frazier said the team went with – and stayed with – Sherels for the rest of the game because he has gotten more reps in the slot than rookie Josh Robinson, and that Robinson was best suited to play on the outside. That said, Frazier hinted that, should Winfield be unavailable, the Vikings might re-think their nickel defense.

“There are some things we’ll have to look at for this ball game that we might do a little bit different,” Frazier said. “But it goes back to who is an inside corner and who is an outside corner.”
 

Injury updates

Frazier said defensive end Brian Robison, who returned from a sprained shoulder to play Sunday, came out of the game OK.

Running back Adrian Peterson told Frazier that he felt better coming out of Sunday’s 199-yard performance than he did a week ago, when he finished the Houston game feeling a bit banged up.

Frazier said safety Harrison Smith – who left Sunday’s game for a spell with a shoulder issue – should be able to practice this week, though perhaps in a limited way. He is expected to play in Green Bay. The same goes for tackle Phil Loadholt. Frazier said there were some other players who were “nicked up.”

Peaking at the right time?

Recent history suggests that it is sometimes the hottest team – rather than the team with the best record overall – that has an edge as the playoffs begin. So does that mean the Vikings. Who won their last four regular season games, are in a good spot?

Frazier wouldn’t go that far. But it can’t hurt.

“We’ve played some games, in this last month, where we pretty much had our back against the wall, where we needed to get a win each week,” Frazier said. “Particularly these last four weeks. And our guys have risen to the challenge, played extremely well, and got us those wins. Now we’re into a whole new season. We hope we can continue that and improve, ‘cause we’re going to need to improve to go play on the road. It’s a big challenge for us, but we need to keep improving.”

Searching for lost yards?

Given that Peterson finished just nine yards short of setting the NFL’s all-time rushing record, Frazier was asked Monday if he was going to have somebody review the season to see if a few extra yards could be found.

“If we could find those hidden yards, we would do it,” Frazier joked. “They have different people who will be doing that. But we’ll be doing our own homework as well. If we can find nine yards, we’re going to find them.”

Seriously, though, Frazier said he expected another run at Eric Dickerson’s record next season.

“As you know, it doesn’t take much to get him going when he sets a goal,” Frazier said. “I wouldn’t put it past Adrian Peterson to shoot for that record next year and even attain it. He is one of those guys you never bet against. If that’s in his sights, it’s possible. Anything’s possible with Adrian.”

A familiar opponent

Saturday will mark the third game between the Vikings and Packers in five weeks. So, it will probably be difficult for either side to do anything to fool the other.

“We’ll look as hard as we can to see if there is anything we can do differently to help us,” Frazier said. “And for how we can improve across the board as a team. But we’re so familiar with one another, there aren’t a whole lot of new things you can do. But you can try to improve on what you have been doing. And what’s what we’ll try to get done.”

Upon further review…

Frazier said linebacker Erin Henderson should have stayed with Packers receiver Greg Jennings on the third-quarter Packers touchdown. Henderson let Jennings go, and Jennings was all alone in the left corner of the end zone for his five-yard TD reception .

Running argument

Are the Vikings really out of step in a pass-happy NFL? Six of the eight top rushing teams in the league are in the playoffs, including the second-ranked Vikings.

And the ability to run could become even more important in a game where weather could inhibit a passing attack.

“I would think so,” Frazier said. “I don’t know what the conditions are going to be at Lambeau yet, but I’m still going back to what I think is best for us. It’s a formula I think that can work no matter the conditions.”

Etc.

  • Frazier hasn’t decided whether the team will do any practicing outside, given the expected cold weather in Green Bay.
  • Frazier said he knows the Packers will be eager – and more able – to implement their no-huddle offense this week, which will give the Vikings defense that much more of a challenge; the noisy fans in the Dome Sunday made it more difficult for the Packers to go no-huddle. “We expect them to try to get the tempo where they want it in their home field,” Frazier said. “It will be something we’ll have to work on.”

Packers game a turning point; Winfield has broken hand

Posted by: Kent Youngblood Updated: December 24, 2012 - 3:07 PM

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?

Yes.

“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.”

 Injury update

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.

 

Stepping up

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.”

 

 Schedule almost set

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.

 

 

Week 16 Picks & Power Rankings: Broncos are the best (for now)

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: December 21, 2012 - 8:58 AM
What else would you rather do on a Friday morning than watch a poor man swing away at his weekly NFL Picks and Power Rankings? We’ll even throw in some extra purple with Three Reasons for Optimism and Three Reasons to Go `Uh-Oh.’
 
Power rankings
TOP THREE
 
1, Broncos (11-3)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: Peyton definitely will lose his fifth MVP title to Adrian Peterson if the Vikings make the playoffs. But he’s already reclaimed his MVM crown: Most Valuable Manning. Eli: 84.0 passer rating, 20 TDs, 15 INTs, 60.4 completion percentage. Big Bro: 103.5 passer rating, 31 TDs, 10 INTs, 67.9 completion percentage.
 
2. Falcons (12-2)
Last week: No. 4.
Comment: Fourteen games, 12 wins and one 34-0 rout of the Giants and yet no one can definitively say the Falcons are for real. That’s what happens when you’re this good in the regular season and that bad in the post-season. Time for Matty Ice to stop being Matty Melt in January.
 
3. 49ers (10-3-1)
Last week: No. 6.
Comment: The 49ers got two pieces of good news last week. No. 1, they’re good enough with Colin Kaepernick to go to New England and win in prime time. No. 2, they won’t have to play the Rams in the playoffs, so that 0-1-1 record against 6-7-1 St. Louis won’t come into play in January. But that Week 3 beatdown at the Metrodome looms.
 
 
BOTTOM THREE
 
30. Jaguars (2-12)
Last week: No. 29.
Comment: You know your franchise has hit rock bottom when you’re 2-12 and have become the leading candidate to sign Tim Tebow when the Jets are done with him at the end of the season.
 
31. Lions (4-10)
Last week: No. 26.
Comment: If the Mayans are right and the world ends today, it’s only fitting that the Lions go out at the bottom of their division.
 
32. Chiefs (2-12)
Last week: No. 30.
Comment: Shut out by the Raiders? How does that possibly happen when it’s no longer 1976?
 
 
NFC NORTH
 
7. Packers (10-4)
Last week: No. 9.
Comment: Aaron Rodgers averages 9.1 yards per third down pass attempt. The next best total in the league is Peyton Manning’s 7.99. Third-and-long in GB? No problem.
 
11. Vikings (8-6)
Last week: No. 12.
Comment: Adrian Peterson’s 1,812 yards rushing is more than 24 entire NFL teams. His 1,313 yards the past eight games is more than the entire season total for six teams.
 
14. Bears (8-6)
Last week: No. 13.
Comment: The Bears had 28 takeaways when they were 7-1. They’ve had nine while going 1-5 in their past six games. Turnovers come in bunches. But they disappear in bunches, too.
 
31. Lions (4-10).
Last week: No. 26.
 
 
THE REST
 
4. Patriots (10-4); 5. Texans (12-2); 6. Redskins (8-6); 8. Seahawks (9-5); 9. Cowboys (8-6); 10. Colts (9-5); 12. Bengals (8-6); 13. Ravens (9-5); 15. Steelers (7-7); 16. Giants (8-6); 17. Panthers (5-9); 18. Saints (6-8); 19. Rams (6-7-1); 20. Titans (5-9); 21. Dolphins (6-8); 22. Browns (5-9); 23. Jets (6-8); 24. Chargers (5-9); 25. Bills (5-9);26. Cardinals (5-9); 27. Raiders (4-10); 28. Eagles (4-10); 29. Buccaneers (6-8).
 
VIKINGS
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1, AP against anybody: It feels silly mentioning that the Texans are fifth in run defense. At this point, it seems that you could assemble the 11 best defenders in league history in their prime and they couldn’t stop Adrian Peterson from getting 150 yards. Peterson has tied Barry Sanders’ NFL mark with seven 50-yard runs this season. Anyone want to bet he goes eight quarters without getting another one?
 
2, Fewer penalties: Perhaps as amazing as Peterson’s seven 50-yard runs is the fact none of them has been negated by a yellow flag. The Vikings have been penalized only 75 times for 680 yards. That’s 20 fewer penalties for 166 fewer yards than their opponents.
 
3, The bionic kicker: At some point over the next two weeks, rookie kicker Blair Walsh will line up and make his ninth of nine field goal attempts from 50 yards or longer. That kick will set an NFL mark, breaking the mark of eight 50-yarders that he shares with Morten Andersen and Jason Hanson. This is an incredible weapon the Vikings could have for the next 20 years.
 
 
THREE REASONS TO GO `UH-OH’
1, Houston’s turnover margin: Not only are the Texans fifth against the run and tremendously balanced on offense, they also rank second in turnover margin at plus-15. Only the Patriots (plus-22) are better. The Texans also have turned the ball over a league-low 13 times.
 
2, Tiebreaker scenarios: Five NFC teams are 8-6, including the Vikings. The other four – Washington, Dallas, the Giants and Chicago – have what would appear to be easier games this week. (I know, it’s the NFL and nothing is as it appears). The Redskins travel to lifeless Philly. The Cowboys are at home against New Orleans (although I smell the Cowboys’ chances getting Romoed). The Giants are in free-falling Baltimore. And the Bears are at Arizona. The Vikings can’t be eliminated this weekend, but they can be thrown into hole with no realistic chance of climbing out of based on tiebreakers.
 
3, Ponder and the passing game: Please, please, please do not attribute anything Christian Ponder does on Sunday to the strange timing of his marriage to ESPN reporter Samantha Steele on Monday. Ponder is far too inconsistent on his own to attach any blame or praise to a better half. He wasn’t brilliant in last week’s win at St. Louis, but I gave him a “winning” performance based on a turnover-free game and where this offense is without Percy Harvin. In my ledger, that sends him into Week 15 with seven games in which I’ve felt the Vikings can win with him and seven in which I’ve felt he didn’t prove he’s the long-term answer. Looking at what will become available at quarterback in the draft, free agency and via possible trade (Alex Smith), it’s pretty obvious that Ponder will get another season to develop as the Vikings’ QB of the future.  
 
 
THE PICKS
Texans 31, Vikings 21: Anything is possible with Adrian Peterson and a turnover-free game. But can Christian Ponder and the Vikings really play two clean road games in back to back weeks? Not if the second week is in Houston against a 12-2 Texans team that is plus-15 in turnover margin. The Texans have the fifth-ranked run defense and a balanced offensive attack that can control the game or break it wide open. The Vikings’ margin for error is too slim against quality teams on the road.
 
Record picking Vikings games: 8-4.
 
VIK plus-8 at HOU: Texans by 10.
TEN plus-12 ½ at GB: Packers by 14.
OAK plus-9 at CAR: Panthers by 21.
BUF plus-4 ½ at MIA: Dolphins by 7.
CIN plus-3 ½ at PIT: Steelers by 6.
NE minus-14 ½ at JAC: Patriots by 28.
IND minus-6 ½ at KC: Colts by 7.
NO plus-2 ½ at DAL: Saints by 7.
WAS minus-6 ½ at PHI: Redskins by 7.
STL plus-3 at TB: Buccaneers by 7.
NYG minus-2 ½ at BAL: Giants by 3.
CLE plus-13 at DEN: Broncos by 7.
SF pick at SEA: Seahawks by 3.
SD plus-2 at NYJ: Jets by 3.
 
Overall Record Last Week: 8-7. Vs. Spread: 7-8
 
Record Season: 117-70-1. Vs. Spread: 91-91-1.
 
 
UPSET SPECIAL
CHI minus-5 ½ at ARI
 
Cardinals 28, Bears 21: After nine straight losses, the Cardinals found two teams as disappointing as they are: Detroit last week and now the Bears, who in a 1-5 free-fall since a 7-1 start. Sorry, Denny, but right now, the Bears aren’t who we thought they were.
 
Last week: BUF plus-5 ½ vs. SEA at Toronto. Prediction: Bills 24, Seahawks 23.  Actual: Seahawks 50, Bills 17.
Record: 8-6.

What should have unfolded on Christian Ponder's improvised TD run

Posted by: Updated: December 19, 2012 - 1:27 PM

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”

Injury updates

  • Defensive end Brian Robison won’t practice this afternoon, sidelined by a Grade 3 sprain of his acromioclavicular joint in his right shoulder. Frazier said Robison would be day-to-day and that Robison’s status for this weekend’s game would be up in the air until Friday afternoon.
  • Left tackle Matt Kalil is only sitting out Wednesday’s practice with an illness.
  • Cornerback Chris Cook, meanwhile, will be back on the field and will be eligible to rejoin the active roster on Thursday. Cook has missed the Vikings’ past six games with a broken bone in his right arm. But he is cleared to play and should be back on the field Sunday in Houston in some capacity.

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