To win consistently with a running back as the face of a franchise that’s lacking at quarterback in today’s NFL takes exceptional ball security, great third-down defense and elite return games.

One out of three isn’t nearly enough, as the Vikings can attest after sandwiching 3-13 and 4-10-1 records around running back Adrian Peterson’s otherworldly MVP season a year ago.

The Vikings’ ball security (30 giveaways) ranks 30th, with only the Lions (34) and Giants (41) being worse. Quarterbacks Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman have a combined 23 giveaways, which is more than the totals of 14 entire teams.

The third-down defense ranks 31st, with only Atlanta being worse. Opponents are converting at a 44.9 percent rate, which is the root of the problem for a scoring defense that ranks dead last (31.1 points per game) and is within 17 points of the team record of 484 set in 1984.

Meanwhile, lost in the shadows of a dreary season is the best combination of kickoff and punt returning in the 53-year history of the Vikings.

Rookie kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson and always-underestimated punt returner Marcus Sherels are on pace to set team season records at their positions. Patterson leads the league with a 33.6-yard average, which would destroy Aundrae Allison’s mark of 28.7 (2007). Meanwhile, Sherels is second in the league with a 13.6-yard average and needs one more return in Sunday’s season finale against Detroit to become eligible to break David Palmer’s mark of 13.2 (1995).

“I think for the most part our special teams performed pretty well this season, especially our kickoff return team with Cordarrelle,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “Our kickoff [coverage] team has struggled this year. … We had a rookie punter [Jeff Locke], who as the season has gone along has gotten a lot better and more confident and more composed.”

Let the record also show that Patterson is the first casualty of the NFL’s decision to eliminate kickoffs from the Pro Bowl. With an average that’s 3.1 yards better than second place and two touchdowns, including an NFL-record 109-yarder, Patterson would be joining Peterson in Hawaii under normal circumstances.

The Vikings rank No. 1 in average starting field position on kickoffs (27.5). But when it comes to covering kicks, they’re No. 31 (24.6).

From a punting standpoint, Locke didn’t do a whole lot to get noticed on or off the field. He’s not as consistent or as good at pinning teams near the goal line as was his predecessor, Chris Kluwe. But Locke’s net average (39.2) would rank third in team history behind Bobby Walden’s 41.8 in 1964 and Kluwe’s 39.7 from last season.

One record the Vikings don’t want Locke to own is most punts by a rookie. He needs five to break Neil Clabo’s mark of 73 set in 1975. Too many punts plus too many turnovers plus horrendous third-down defense leads to a run-oriented team ranking No. 30 in average time of possession (27:40).

Peterson turns 29 on April 21. The team’s record since drafting him is 54-60-1, including 1-2 in the playoffs.

The Vikings proved again this year that even one of the greatest running backs of all time needs much more than a couple of record-setting return games to win consistently.


Three observations …

• Tony Romo has had two back surgeries in eight months and he turns 34 on April 21. If this isn’t the end of the line, can it be far off? Romo was placed on injured reserve this week and will miss Sunday’s winner-takes-the-NFC-East-title game against Philadelphia. The fact the Cowboys have eight victories with one of the worst defenses in NFL history is a credit to Romo. This could have been the sort of signature game that has eluded Romo his entire career.

• The Packers, who play the Bears for the NFC North title on Sunday, would have clinched the division weeks ago and would be contending for a No. 1 seed had Aaron Rodgers not missed the past 7½ games. But home-field advantage hasn’t been a prerequisite for postseason success in recent years. In 2010, the Packers were the sixth seed when they went on the road an upset the No. 3-seeded Eagles, No. 1-seeded Falcons and No. 2-seeded Bears en route to winning the Super Bowl.

• There are a lot of bad quarterbacks. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford isn’t one of them. But he might be the best quarterback who gets the least out of his raw talent.

Two predictions …

• Something Romo’s reputation doesn’t need: Kyle Orton leading Dallas to a surprising playoff-clinching victory over the Eagles.

• The bodies keep dropping, but the Patriots keep winning. A win over Buffalo on Sunday clinches a first-round bye for the fourth straight year.