Tarvaris Jackson (Matt York/AP)
The Vikings were facing the first of three playoff-contending teams to close out the season and looked sharp in all three phases of the game in a 35-14 win. The ground game was stellar again, Tarvaris Jackson was sharp, the special teams contributed (and gave up) a touchdown, and the defense limited a normally explosive offense.
Snowballs in Arizona?
The Vikings left the deep chill of Minnesota behind, but they still pelted the Cardinals with quick and repeated scoring in the first quarter, taking a 21-0 lead and converting that into a convincing 35-14 win that keeps them atop the NFC North division with a 9-5 record.
They did it with special teams when Bernard Berrian opened the scoring with an 82-yard punt return. They did it was an impressive ground game when Adrian Peterson ran for 165 yards and he and Chester Taylor combined for 231 yards rushing. They did it with a quarterback making his first start in 12 games and throwing a career-high four touchdowns. And they did it with a defense that created turnovers early and pressured quarterback Kurt Warner late.
It was an all-around effort that put the Vikings up early and propelled them to their ninth win and a good shot at the division title. With two games left, the Green Bay Packers (5-9) are officially out of the playoff race and the Vikings need some combination of a win on their own or a loss by the Chicago Bears in the next 14 days in order to clinch the division. The Bears are 8-6, but the Vikings hold the tiebreaker advantage with a better record against common opponents and therefore would only need a tie with the Bears to best them for the NFC North championship.
While Minnesota still faces the playoff-contending Atlanta Falcons and NFC East champion New York Giants, the Vikings have been more concerned about taking care of their own business, and they did exactly that in Arizona.
Jackson was an efficient 11-for-17 passing for 163 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 135.5 passer rating. That included long passes to Bernard Berrian (41 yards) and Bobby Wade (59 yards) that went for touchdowns. The Vikings also converted 10 of 15 third-down conversions and controlled the ball for 34 minutes, 34 seconds to help limit a normally dangerous Cardinals offense.
Defensively, the Vikings gave up 316 yards, but many of those were surrendered late in the game while allowing completions underneath the coverage. Jared Allen added two more sacks to his side saddle and the Vikings got to Warner four times overall and hurried him 11 times.
Berrian opened the scored with an 82-yard return on Arizona’s first punt of the game, and only 3:34 into the contest the Vikings had a 7-0 lead.
The Cardinals and Warner returned to the field and started to move the ball with J.J. Arrington picking up 29 yards on two first downs, but a deflected pass was intercepted by Cedric Griffin and Jackson’s offense was back in business.
After picking up one tough first down, it appeared that the drive that started in Arizona territory might stall. But facing third-and-15, Jackson delivered a soft strike down the right sideline to Berrian for a 41-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 6:39 still left in the first quarter.
It kept getting better for the Vikings, who created another turnover when Antoine Winfield stripped Anquan Boldin of the ball and Darren Sharper scooped and returned it 20 yards to the Arizona 23-yard line. From there, the Vikings converted two third downs – one with Jeff Dugan’s second pickup of the game and another one when Jackson fired a 6-yard bullet to Sidney Rice for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead with 2:43 left in the opening period.
The defense continued to do its job, and so did the special teams when Wade returned a punt 20 yards up the middle of the field. The Vikings were once again starting a drive in Cardinals territory, and Peterson provided a big play when he got the right edge for a 25-yard run on third-and-2. But on the next play, Chester Taylor fumbled away the ball – the Vikings’ only turnover of the game – and Arizona got is first break on the first play of the second quarter.
The Cardinals took advantage of the turnover … to a degree. They put together their first substantial drive of the game, thanks to a 16-yard draw to Arrington and a 23-yard completion to Jerheme Urban. But, facing third-and-7 from the Minnesota 35-yard line, Brian Robison came up with a big sack and strip of Warner. While offensive lineman Levi Brown recovered it, the lost yardage took the Cardinals out of field goal position and forced a punt to the Vikings.
There would be no long pass play and no big turnover to give them great field position, but the Minnesota ground game showed it can turn a long field into a touchdown the standard way. Despite three false-start penalties on the drive, the Vikings were able to move the chains. Peterson started converting first downs, taking his first three carries for a combined 46 yards. Then Taylor took over for 23 yards on two carries and, after one Peterson run, Taylor rushed twice for 10 yards each. But once the Cardinals committed to stopping the run inside the red zone, Taylor took a middle screen 11 yards for the final touchdown of the half and a 28-0 lead.
For all the defensive effectiveness of the first half, the Vikings were too generous in Warner’s first drive – a quick drive, at that. He needed only three snaps, all passes, to go 73 yards, including a 50-yard pass play to Urban, who slipped through several tackle attempts during his touchdown sprint. Less than two minutes into the second half the Cardinals cut the Minnesota advantage to 28-21.
The game seemed to be settling back down into the Vikings’ favor as they used a 15-yard penalty and a 17-yard run by Peterson to move the ball across midfield and had a play originally ruled a fumble by Peterson overturned on a challenge. But when they settled into field goal position, the Cardinals overloaded the right side of the line and brought more than Dugan could block. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie blocked the kick and Roderick Hood picked it up and sprinted 68 yards for the touchdown to shave the Vikings’ lead to 14 points with 4:27 to play in the third quarter.
This time, Jackson answered. The ground game converted two first downs, but on second-and-11 Jackson pump faked with his shoulders and Bobby Wade got the Cardinals to bite on the double move. Jackson laid the ball perfectly between the beaten cornerback and the late-arriving safety and Wade had a 59-yard touchdown to extend the Vikings’ lead back to 21 points at 35-14 with only 17 seconds to play in the third quarter.
That final score put the Cardinals into desperation mode. Warner was on target, but he was starting to get knocked around as Arizona abandoned the running game. He moved his team across midfield with a 23-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald and later into the red zone with a 17-yarder to Steve Breaston, but eventually they ran out of room and the Vikings defense stopped them on four downs with a smothering defense and Allen’s first sack. The defense did the same thing on Warner’s next drive and so did Allen, registering another second-down sack that the Cardinals couldn’t overcome.
Save for one second-half drive, the defense generally performed well against a pass-happy attack. The Cardinals only ran the ball seven times, but Minnesota was still able to hold Warner and eventually backup Matt Leinart to a combined 298 yards passing. Fitzgerald had five catches, Boldin six and Steve Breaston four, but none of them had more than 52 yards receiving.
Peterson will draw deserved praise with a 165-yard effort and Jackson will garner attention with a career-high four touchdown passes. The special teams also chipped in with a jumpstarting 82-yard punt return while also giving up a 68-yard blocked field goal return for a touchdown. But the defense was also a driving force in a solid and convincing all-around win in the desert that retained the Vikings’ one-game lead in the division and making them look like a team that’s peaking at the right time.