MINNEAPOLIS – By the time the clunkiness of the brace on Adrian Peterson's right knee had become no more than just another part of his leg, Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress had seen enough. The rookie running back had lavished his franchise with more than it could have hoped for Sunday: two touchdowns, 116 yards on 15 carries and a grand re-entrance into the NFC playoff race.
But there was Peterson in the third quarter, pleading with Childress, hoping to steal back some of the last two games he'd missed with a torn LCL. Ever the competitive glutton, he slumped his shoulders when the only guy who could stop him on Sunday did just that.
"You're done," Childress declared, with the Vikings having punched in the last touchdown of their 42-10 win over the Detroit Lions.
Peterson could only recount the moment later with a reluctant smile, noting that when "the head man says you are done, then you stop your argument."
It was the prudent move, preserving Peterson for a stretch run that suddenly means so much for these Vikings. Only three weeks ago, this was a franchise in chaos, having been steamrolled 34-0 by the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field – the same game which saw Peterson go down with his knee injury. Flash back to that loss, and this was a team without an answer at quarterback, no impact wide receiver in site, and a frightening cloud hanging over their franchise rookie.
Three wins later, and with Peterson's triumphant return, this is looking like an NFC team that could scare down the stretch. By crushing the New York Giants and Detroit in back-to-back games, the Vikings dispatched the two teams most observers considered the best of the NFC's "second-tier."
"We're finding that maturity that we just never had," Vikings safety Dwight Smith said. "Think about the guys we've got in there. We're starting a rookie running back. We're starting a rookie wide receiver (Sidney Rice). We're starting a rookie cornerback (Marcus McCauley) next to a second-year cornerback. And we have a quarterback (Tarvaris Jackson) that is really a full-time starter for the first time this season."
That the Vikings were able to stay afloat the last two games without Peterson is a testament to an offensive line that continued to open holes for backup Chester Taylor, and a coaching staff that felt comfortable enough to expand Rice's role. But perhaps nothing has been more impressive than the steady play of Jackson, who returned from a concussion and took back the starting job after the Green Bay loss.
And though he faced wildly inconsistent defenses the last three weeks, Jackson seemingly transformed into a model of efficiency in wins over the Oakland Raiders, New York and Detroit. Taking shorter drops and getting the ball out of his hand decisively, Jackson has completed 45 of 58 passes (a 78-percent completion rate) for 504 yards and three touchdowns in that span, against only two interceptions. Looking remarkably poised and patient in the pocket, Jackson also has used his scrambling ability as wisely as at any time in his career, rushing 13 times in the last three wins for 77 yards – attempts that have helped keep opposing defenses off balance.
"I think his decision-making has improved, as far as what to do with ball and when to take those (rushing) yards," Vikings center Matt Birk said. "Where does it come from? I don't know. I think it's just a matter of having experience and having patience."
Despite the two interceptions, Jackson has almost looked like the NFC's version of David Garrard, commandeering a superior defensive team and putting it in winning position by limiting mistakes and handing the ball off to an excellent two-back rotation. That formula suddenly has thrust Minnesota right back into the midst of the wild card hunt, as other contenders – Detroit, the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles – have stumbled in the postseason race. And while the Vikings won't flaunt it, they know they have something most other wild-card contenders don't have: a generally favorable schedule, with road games at the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos, and home tilts against the Chicago Bears and Washington.
A major factor in Minnesota's favor? All four of those teams have struggled mightily against the run at various times this season. Combine that with Peterson's focus – he's still aiming for 1,800 rushing yards despite losing the last two games to injury – and the Vikings have both momentum and a salivating superstar working in their favor.
Remarkably, nobody seemed all that surprised that Peterson's return packed such a wallop. Not after seeing him in practice last week, when a handful of the defensive players actually urged Childress to take some precautions to protect Peterson from his own aggression.
"(Defensive tackle) Pat Williams said to me, 'Coach, you better put a red shirt on him,' because he was ripping through the line of scrimmage," Childress said. "There weren't any apparent flaws. … I think he got a little bit ticked out there (against the Lions). Somebody was talking to him a little bit, got around his neck and there was a lot of extra jaw-jacking going on. So it was kind of interesting to watch him bow up a little bit."
So go the Vikings along with Peterson. With four games left to determine the bottom rungs of the NFC playoff field, Minnesota is coming with elbows sharpened. And unlike Sunday against the Lions, if opponents can't stop Peterson, Childress isn't likely to step in again and do it for them.