The final seconds bled off the clock at U.S. Bank Stadium, and the last non-quarterback to win an NFL MVP award walked across the same plot of land he used to electrify each week, in search of the 25-year-old who’d just snatched one of his many Vikings franchise records.
Adrian Peterson’s most brilliant work in the NFL came as he dragged a nondescript Vikings team to the playoffs in 2012, running for 1,322 yards in the final eight games of a 2,097-yard season and coming within 8 yards of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record. A 199-yard effort helped the Vikings clinch a wild-card berth in the final game of the Metrodome’s penultimate season.
Peterson has defied the life expectancy for NFL running backs long enough to wind up back in the NFC North at age 35, and on Sunday he watched his successor in the middle of a similar pursuit.
There is much for the 2020 Vikings to accomplish before they can call a playoff push anything more than a pipe dream, before they can claim they’ve successfully emerged from a 1-5 hole of their own making.
But as Dalvin Cook ran for 206 yards in a 34-20 victory over the Lions on Sunday, helping the Vikings improve to 3-5 with their first back-to-back victories of the year, his hopes of a second-half mad dash for a wild-card spot seemed something less than crazy.
“Obviously, we started this thing behind the eight-ball,” Cook said. “And like I said last week, we lost some games that we wasn’t supposed to lose, and we know that. We’re just trying to play catch-up and I’m just trying to give my team a fighting chance. You’ve got to commend the guys up front: receivers, tight ends, my whole O-line, fullback, all those guys, man, for making this thing open for me to hit some holes and get some daylight out there.”
Cook has run for 369 yards in his past two games, eclipsing Peterson’s 366 in Weeks 13 and 14 of the 2012 season as the most in back-to-back games in Vikings history. His legs again acted as the pistons driving the Vikings’ offense, exploiting the creases created by an increasingly confident line in a win that was striking for its simplicity as much as anything.
The Vikings ran for 275 yards in 34 carries against an overmatched Lions defensive front, with Cook eclipsing 200 rushing yards for the first time in his career. The running back sealed the game with a 70-yard fourth-quarter burst behind pulling guard Ezra Cleveland and fullback C.J. Ham, a week after his 50-yard score on a screen pass gave the Vikings a two-touchdown lead in Green Bay.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins needed to throw only 20 times, finding tight end Irv Smith Jr. for a pair of red-zone scores and directing a six-play, 87-yard scoring march just before halftime without attempting a pass beyond 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
The Lions focused their attention on Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson in the passing game, and after coach Mike Zimmer said in a TV interview after halftime he wanted to take more downfield shots in the second half, Cousins threw deep for the rookie twice in three plays.
But the running game’s effectiveness and the Vikings’ efficiency on screen passes meant they could again survive without many downfield strikes.
“You’re just going to have fewer attempts, which is a good thing, if you will, because we’ve been able to be explosive with those fewer attempts and still be able to move the football,” Cousins said. “It also keeps us from having to drop back all the time, which I think defenses want to be able to rush the passer. Any time you can run the football it really gives you your entire offense and you’re able to kind of control the situation so it’s a real positive.”
A Vikings secondary missing Mike Hughes, Cameron Dantzler and Holton Hill got the benefit of a curious Lions game plan, with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell insistent on running the ball with Peterson and D’Andre Swift rather than testing the Vikings’ defensive cohesion downfield.
When Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford did try to throw, Detroit simply couldn’t stay out of its own way. Danny Amendola and Swift dropped passes, and Stafford threw his first of two interceptions to Vikings linebackers after Swift’s drop, failing to account for Eric Wilson in zone coverage.
The Lions drove into Vikings territory on five of their first seven drives (excluding two plays at the end of the first half). They came away with points only three times. After Shamar Stephen and Hercules Mata’afa’s third-down sack, Matt Prater missed a field goal on Detroit’s second drive, and Stafford threw third-quarter interceptions to Wilson and Eric Kendricks, who picked the quarterback off in the end zone on the series after Wilson’s interception. On the Lions’ next series, Stafford left the game to be evaluated for a concussion after a sack from Wilson and Armon Watts.
Detroit finished the game with 421 yards, with Chase Daniel relieving Stafford and throwing an interception (to Harrison Smith) and a touchdown (to T.J. Hockenson, one play after the Lions’ second blocked punt of the day). The game wasn’t in much doubt, however, after Cook’s 70-yard score made it 34-13 with 10:42 remaining.
“We’ve had to change a lot of things because of our personnel, with what we’ve been trying to do defensively, and so part of it is narrowing some of the package down, some of it is adding some things that we feel like can help guys in coverage,” Zimmer said. “Some of the things have been how we can add to some of the guys who rush. I thought they played well [Sunday]. There wasn’t a lot of mistakes that I saw throughout the course of the ballgame, but I thought we played hard, and that’s a big key to it.”
Next Monday, the Vikings will head to Soldier Field, the building that’s given them more trouble than almost any other, and it’s hard to entertain serious thoughts about a second-half surge if they can’t beat a Bears team that has lost three in a row after a 5-1 start. But after that, the Vikings play three at home against a trio of sub-.500 teams — the Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars.
“When you’re sitting there at — what were we, 1-5? — everything is collapsing,” Zimmer said. “You’re getting ready to jump off the cliff. You beat Green Bay, and then you start to get a little juice. You beat Detroit, now you start getting a little bit more juice. So I think the confidence level helps. Continuing to play well, I think, gives us confidence we can do these things against good football teams.”
The Vikings are two games back of the Rams for the NFC’s new seventh playoff spot, and they can afford few slip-ups in NFC games after starting 2-3 in the conference. Effectively, a team that just won back-to-back games for the first time might need to go 6-2 in the second half.
That they have any hope of making it happen, though, owes plenty to Cook, who has come to count Peterson as a friend at the same time he’s performing as his peer.
“Dalvin is a terrific player because it doesn’t matter to him,” Zimmer said. “Obviously he wants to get 200 yards every week, but he’s going to do all the dirty work. He caught a third-and-8 or -7, whatever it was, he caught a ball and made a couple guys miss. He made a couple guys miss on the flip play late. But he’s going to do everything. That’s why he’s a captain. That’s why he comes to work every single day. He’s a terrific leader, he’s energetic and guys in the locker room really love him.”