Christian Ponder (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
After a rough start to last season, the Vikings were happy to escape with a win Sunday and have some positive momentum early in the season. There were struggles, but the Vikings found some clutch plays, too.
The Minnesota Vikings started the new season in a good mood.
Positive feelings can be just as important for revitalizing a team as bringing in better players.
The Vikings didn’t win a game last year until the fifth week, so their start to 2012 is already a step up. The worst part about their 3-13 record last season was probably those blown halftime leads of 10 points or more while losing each of their first three games. So despite the late scare when Jacksonville took the lead with 20 seconds left, the Vikings showed their first suggestion of improvement by rallying to beat the Jaguars 26-23 in overtime on rookie Blair Walsh’s fourth field goal.
“It’s such a different feel after a win than a loss,” quarterback Christian Ponder said Monday, adding: “We are a young team, but we’re growing up. We have the right guys in place where we can have the mindset where if we are behind, or if things aren’t going well, we can overcome it.”
Minnesota plays at Indianapolis this Sunday.
“There are some things that we can draw on where our players will have confidence in the future and win close ballgames, that we can finish with a win,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “That’s something you can build on as a team.”
The Vikings have acknowledged often this summer they’re not considered legitimate contenders for the playoffs. They’re simply not talented enough yet to expect any easy victories this year.
“The way we’re built right now, we’re going to play a lot of close games and we have to find a way to win those games in the fourth quarter,” Frazier said. “And fortunately for us (Sunday), we found a way.”
Several areas still need work. The offense went nearly an hour between first downs in an ugly first half made better by a late drive that Adrian Peterson capped with his first touchdown run; Ponder was just 3-for-7 until he found a groove with three straight short throws that Percy Harvin turned into 32 yards to set up the score, and he looked a little skittish while taking two sacks.
The defense forced field goals on three of Jacksonville’s four trips inside the 30-yard line, including once to the 1 and another time to the 8, but the group let the Jaguars move the chains on 10 of 20 plays on either third or fourth down. Misdirection runs by Maurice Jones-Drew and over-the-middle catches by tight end Marcedes Lewis were productive for the Jaguars. Then there was the inexcusable 39-yard go-ahead touchdown pass by Blaine Gabbert in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter, when Cecil Shorts III maneuvered around cornerback Chris Cook, who turned his head the wrong way as the ball was arriving. All-Pro Jared Allen had a quiet afternoon.
“They made a good play,” Cook said. “That is the life of a corner.”
But there was plenty to like from the performance, too, giving the Vikings more evidence for their belief they’re a better team this year.
Ponder was particularly sharp on first downs and went 13 for 16 for 192 yards after halftime, confidently and calmly moving the Vikings 32 yards in two plays and about 10 seconds to set up Walsh’s tying 55-yard kick as regulation time ran out. Peterson, of course, defied skepticism about his ability to run at full strength. The offensive line was sturdy. Harvin set a team record with 192 combined yards, including kickoff returns. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had a career-high seven catches. Devin Aromashodu got open for three important receptions with 7½ minutes left in the fourth quarter or later, each of which helped set up a field goal by Walsh.
“That all goes back to that confidence, knowing you’re the guy and knowing guys are looking for me to make a play,” Ponder said. “That kind of makes it cool, I guess, and it makes me want to go make that play so much harder. Everyone made big plays in the clutch at the right time.”
On the other side, defensive end Brian Robison harassed Gabbert often, finishing with two hurries and one of the team’s seven passes defended. Rookie strong safety Harrison Smith leaped to knock down a third-down throw by Gabbert in overtime. Chad Greenway was credited with 13 tackles and two passes defended.
“To come back and win it in overtime, that’s the sign of a good team,” Allen said. “Just excited to get that first win in the books. Now we have to clean things up.”