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.
The biggest surprise of the first day of the NFL playoffs came 90 minutes before the Vikings kicked off at Lambeau Field. That’s when 16-game starter Christian Ponder was declared inactive, too bothered by a stiff and bruised throwing arm to get the green light for Saturday’s game.
Like the rest of the country, many of the Vikings players said they had no idea Joe Webb would be their starting quarterback until they were inside of 2 hours before kickoff.
“I didn’t know at all,” cornerback Antoine Winfield said. “Until I saw Joe out there warming up. That’s when I knew.”
It was a late twist that left the Vikings handicapped for their playoff opener, a 24-10 loss to the Packers.
Having not thrown a pass in a game since August, Webb sputtered to an 11-for-30, 180-yard passing night. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble in the third quarter. And after scoring a field goal on the opening drive, the Vikings went nine scoreless possessions before adding a late meaningless touchdown.
As for the mental hurdle of trying to ready for a high-stakes playoff contest with such a late change in plans, Jared Allen simply shrugged.
“Honestly,” he said, “I don’t think there was a mental hurdle for us. When you find out, you have to go with it. There are no surprises in this league. People go down, the next guy’s got to step up. You can’t sit around like, ‘Oh, goodness!’ You’ve got to give that guy your full support and go out there and try to win the game.”
Allen pinned the blame of Saturday’s loss on a defensive effort that allowed 326 total yards and 24 points and not on the late quarterback switch.
“When you hear that [news], you just keep your mind focused on what you can do,” Allen said. “I can’t throw the ball. I can’t hand it off. So it doesn’t matter what they do over there. So if I can tackle guys and get to the quarterback, I’m doing my part.”
Receiver Michael Jenkins, who had two catches for 66 yards including a late 50-yard TD grab on busted coverage, also admitted surprise at the quarterback decision.
“We didn’t know until game time like everybody else,” Jenkins said. “But [Joe] prepared all week like he was going to be the starter. And he did everything he could. We just weren’t efficient as we could have been on offense trying to win the game.”
Counting to 12
Jasper Brinkley might have been the Viking caught sprinting to the sideline when the field goal block unit was flagged for having 12 men in the huddle in the third quarter. But Brinkley wasn’t the one at fault. Instead, he was designated to count the Vikings on the field, a role that requires him to sprint off if there are too many out there.
“We needed to get one of our defensive ends off the field,” said coach Leslie Frazier. “We had two defensive ends on the field that play the same position.”
That penalty was arguably the most costly of the four flags the Vikings drew Saturday night. It came on fourth-and-4 with Green Bay’s Mason Crosby lining up for a 32-yard field goal. Instead, the Packers received a first down at the Vikings 9 and completed the drive on the next play with a 9-yard TD catch by John Kuhn.
Allen was miffed at the 12 men in the huddle call, under the impression the ball had to be snapped for the defense to be penalized in that situation.
Said Allen: “The refs said that was a new rule this year. Because I don’t know how a defense ever has 12 men in the huddle. We don’t huddle. … So that was news to me. I guess I should let the refs explain it. I really didn’t want to hear it. So I was just like, ‘See ya.’”
Cornerback Antoine Winfield fought through the pain in his fractured right hand as best he could Saturday. Winfield started and never aggravated the injury but admitted afterward the sturdier soft cast he wore to protect the hand made it more difficult to jam receivers.
“The way my hand was in the cast, it wouldn’t bend all the way back,” Winfield said. “So my hand placement was kind of off.”
Winfield, 35, has now completed his 14th season in the league and has one year left on his contract. He said he certainly plans to be back in 2013.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “I’ve got to get 15 in. That’s a good number.”
Quotes of note
Here’s Vikings coach Leslie Frazier on the pride he had in this season’s 10-win campaign: “The effort they gave every single week over the course of this season, including tonight. These guys never let anyone put limitations on what they could achieve. They played as hard as they could and tried to do the very best they could to give us a chance to win. And I told them that after the game. We are all extremely proud of every one of them.
And here’s Frazier on the skills in Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers he admires: “He’s a very accurate passer on the run. That’s the thing that sticks out. When you get him moving around like you want to, he has the ability to make throws on the run. [That] creates a lot of problems for your defense. Because guys end up uncovered even when you get a good pass rush. It just creates a lot of problems, his ability to throw as well as he does on the run.”
With their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Vikings have had ample opportunity this week to reflect on the catalysts of their impressive turnaround this season. With so many players showing notable growth, it’d take awhile to complete a full roll call. But Jared Allen delivers an unsolicited shout out to safety Jamarca Sanford, whose whose behind-the-scenes push to get better this season has been underrated.
Said Allen: “I’ve seen [him] different, in his preparation and his attitude and his focus of where he wants to go. Last year he was out there for us, and he had the potential to make big hits. This year he’s been an impact player on our defense.”
Sanford is proud of his maturation. After losing his starting job to Mistral Raymond in training camp, he was forced back into a leading role after Raymond dislocated his ankle in Week 3. Sanford played so well in the six games Raymond missed that he earned the opportunity to keep starting with the two safeties splitting time over the final seven games.
Sanford credits veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield with teaching him how to be a more complete player.
“Like I tell a lot of people, last year was my first year starting,” Sanford said. “And I was just really happy to be out there, still shocked that I’m in the NFL and I’m starting. And I was just out there on my natural ability. This year, I’ve gone up a level. This league isn’t about how athletic you are, it’s how smart you are. How well can you study film and break a team down. When you know stuff that’s going to happen before it happens, it’s incredible. I learned a lot from Antoine. And the thing I put in my mind this offseason is that I’ve never been the weak link of whatever part of the team I’m on. I want to be at my best for what I do or at least live up to the standards of the guys around me. And one thing about this defense here, you can’t be the weak link. They’ll find someone else to do your job.”
Sanford shared a few other thoughts with the Star Tribune this week. Among the more notable …
On what was going on beneath the pile when he recovered a third quarter Aaron Rodgers fumble last week …
“Under that pile, there’s a lot going on. You might get a little punch in the side, some pinching. Guys crawling trying to get to the ball. I was making sure we came out of there with that ball. Luckily we did. That was a big-time turnover at a critical time. I had it at first and then it bounced out of my arm. It was really a struggle under the pile. Eventually, I heard Everson yelling, ‘I got ya! I got ya! I got ya!’ At first, it was and somebody else had it halfway. But Everson was under there pulling off arms. And by the time he pulled that guy’s arm, I finally got total control of it and it was time to get up.”
On carrying Adrian Peterson off the field after Sunday’s win …
“That adrenaline was pumping. Adrian deserved that. I wanted him to know our appreciation. After the season he had, he deserved to be carried off. Like I said, my adrenaline was pumping. And when I did set him down, I was pretty tired. He’s pretty heavy. … This is a legend right in front of your eyes. I’ve heard of the great backs of all-time – Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, all the greats. To see one with my own eyes is special. … When A.D. is running, he’s just different. He plays like a guy on defense. He’s always loose. And if you hit him hard one time, you have to come back and do it again the whole game. Some backs, you hit them in the mouth one time, they start tiptoeing. Not Adrian. He just keeps coming.”
On whether he still communicates with close friend Percy Harvin, who has been absent from the Vikings’ facility since being put on injured reserve in early December …
“Percy and me are always texting. I’m making sure he’s still good, keeping his head up and reminding him to be ready to come back strong next year. He loves the success we’re having. He tells me he’s really proud of us. I know it was hard for him [to go on I.R.] He wants to be with this team, helping this team win. But unluckily he got hurt. That’s part of the game. So all he can do is sit back and watch. He just has to be ready to recover from that injury and be ready for next year.”
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