GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Vikings’ performance on Thursday night against the most complete team in the NFL evoked memories of the best Vikings team of the past 15 years.
What most people remember about the 2009 team is Brett Favre beating the Packers, and his crushing interception against the Saints in the conference championship game.
There was another interesting twist near the end of that season.
The 2009 Vikings were 11-2 when they traveled for a Sunday night game at Carolina. They lost that game, 26-7. Favre and head coach Brad Childress exchanged unpleasantries after the game.
The next week, the Vikings played at Chicago and lost in overtime.
On Thursday, a Vikings team weakened by key injuries faced the Arizona Cardinals, the rare NFL team that appears to be good at just about everything.
Anthony Barr, Linval Joseph and Harrison Smith were out. Cornerback Terence Newman, so important in so many Vikings victories this year, was forced to play safety, meaning rookie Trae Waynes would start for Newman against a team deep at receiver.
This was not only a blowout waiting to happen, this was a game in which the Vikings could be excused for playing Shaun Hill. At every position.
In 2009, the Vikings’ two-game December losing streak did not damage the team because in the second loss, at Chicago, Favre took control of the offense and rallied the team.
The next week, the Vikings, clearly rejuvenated, beat the Giants 44-7. Then the Vikings won their first playoff game, 34-3 over Dallas.
The two-game losing streak didn’t hurt that team. It had led to two dominant performances and a statistically dominant performance in the NFC Championship Game that was lost because of turnovers.
Thursday night, the Vikings and Cardinals were tied 10-10 at the half. They were tied 20-20 inside two minutes remaining. The Vikings lost 23-20 when the Cardinals produced a last-drive field goal and the Vikings’ last drive produced a sack and a fumble by Teddy Bridgewater when the team could have attempted a 48-yard field goal.
A victory would have been the most impressive of the season, by far. As a loss, it remained their most impressive performance, even if the particulars — failing to tackle John Brown, calling a reverse that produced a fumble when the offense didn’t seem to need a trick play, and that last drive — will nag.
Against Arizona, on the road, on a short week, without their three most important defensive players, a week after collapsing in the worst home loss of the season?
Athletes overuse the word “character.” This week, the Vikings can use that word without sounding trite.
“Against a playoff-caliber team, we’re able to look back and say we got things going,” Peterson said.
A week after looking startled by an opposing pass rush, Teddy Bridgewater looked much sharper. He threw for 335 yards and a touchdown, led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to tie the score, and, until the last drive, ably managed a challenging pass rush.
In the first half, Bridgewater completed 11 of 14 passes for 162 yards and took only one sack. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner used quick passes and bootlegs on the Vikings’ first drive, which covered 80 yards in seven plays. Bridgewater looked more comfortable against the blitz, as well.
The Vikings are 8-5, yet their two best performances might have come in 23-20 losses on the road that both ended with Bridgewater getting sacked and fumbling. Losing close at Denver and Arizona will only enrage fans tormented by the ghosts of close losses past, but both games required much more of the Vikings than most of the victories on their schedule.
After the game, in the locker room, Bridgewater sat, stewing, in his uniform while Peterson, shirtless, pulled up a chair. They looked like they were planning, not commiserating.
What appeared to be an unwinnable game turned into a drama. That didn’t help the Vikings in this week’s standings, but if they play like this the rest of the season, they’ll make the playoffs for the second time since 2009, perhaps even earn their second playoff victory since 2004.