After an awful start to the season, the Minnesota Vikings are actually in control of their own playoff destiny for the first time.
The Vikings (7-6) won 27-7 over San Francisco last Sunday to move above .500 for the first time since beating Atlanta in their season opener. Minnesota opened just 2-5 before winning five of its last six games.
“I think if you told our guys a month ago that they were going to be the hunted instead of going hunting, they probably would have asked you, ‘Well, how’s that going to happen?’” Minnesota coach Brad Childress said.
Since losing to NFC North champion Green Bay 34-0 on Nov. 11, the Vikings are averaging almost 35 points during their four-game winning streak, and have outscored their last three opponents by a combined score of 110-34.
The Vikings, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004, currently hold the final wild-card spot in the NFC, but are just one game ahead of four teams tied at 6-7.
“We didn’t want to get sucker-punched by delusion,” Childress said. “If you identify the facts—and the facts are that we need to make sure we take care of business with the team that’s up—as long as we deal with the next team we’ll be fine.”
Minnesota defeated Chicago 34-31 at Soldier Field on Oct. 14, as Ryan Longwell kicked a career-long 55-yard field goal as time expired, but Peterson was the story of the contest.
In just his fifth career game, Peterson rushed for a then-franchise record 224 yards, the most rushing yards ever surrendered by the Bears in their 88-year history, and scored on runs of 67, 73 and 35 yards. He also set up Longwell’s game-winning field goal with a 53-yard kickoff return after Chicago tied the score at 31 with 1:38 left in the fourth.
Three games after that phenomenal performance, the rookie rushed for a NFL record 296 yards in a 35-17 win over San Diego.
Peterson is coming off his worst game, though, as he was held to just three yards on 14 carries. He has fallen 17 yards behind Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker for the league lead in rushing yards (1,217), despite missing two games because of right knee injury.
The Bears held Washington to an opponents’ season-low 31 yards on the ground in last Thursday’s 24-16 loss, but are still 24th in the league against the run (123.2 yards per game).
Chicago (5-8) has lost three of its last four, and is nearly out of the playoff picture after reaching the Super Bowl just 10 months ago.
“With all the expectations we had, with all we believed we could do, it’s been bad,” defensive end Alex Brown said. “It’s been real bad. I know people use the saying, ‘Never in a million years.’ That million years came this year. It was bad. Everything was bad. Nothing went the way we felt it would go. And it’s over. It’s pretty much over now.”
Beleaguered quarterback Rex Grossman sprained his left knee in the first quarter last Thursday, and will be out for the rest of the season.
As a rookie in 2005, Orton helped lead the Bears to a 10-5 record and a NFC North Division title before being benched for Grossman, who started a regular-season win at Green Bay and then a loss to Carolina in the playoffs.
“I think everybody knows that I’ve been frustrated and haven’t liked my role, but it’s what it was and I tried to make the best of it and now my job’s just to focus on the future and try to play well and let everything work itself out,” Orton said.
Orton finished the 2005 season throwing for 1,869 yards, nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions with a 59.7 quarterback rating. He has not played since a 34-10 loss at Minnesota on Jan. 1, 2006. The Bears had already clinched the division, and Orton was just 6-for-14 for 59 yards.
Orton will be joined in the backfield by Chicago’s Adrian Peterson, who has taking the place of the injured Cedric Benson.
Peterson had just 35 yards on 17 carries against the Redskins, and the Bears have the second-worst rushing offense in the league (82.0 ypg). Chicago rushed for 83 yards on 24 attempts against Minnesota in October.
The Vikings have the top-ranked run defense in the league (70.7 ypg), and have allowed an average of just 47.6 yards on the ground in their last five home games.