It was a night of long-awaited beginnings and potentially premature endings on Sunday night in Minneapolis. It was the beginning of the Vikings’ time inside U.S. Bank Stadium, one that they rang in with a 17–14 win over their division rival Packers. It was possibly—though hopefully not—the end of Adrian Peterson’s season, or at least the end of a good chunk of it. But even amid the unwelcome sight of Peterson unable to put any pressure on his right leg as he was assisted off the field and into the locker room by trainers, there was still a sense of optimism about the Vikings' season—because the most important beginning of all may just be the one that Sam Bradford ushered in as he took the field for his first start on his third NFL team.
Here are the stat lines of the two quarterbacks tonight:
QB1: 20/36, 213 yards, 5.9 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT, 5 sacks. 70.7 rating.
QB2: 22/31, 286 yards, 9.2 YPA, 2 TD, 0 INT. 4 sacks. 121.2 rating.
QB 1 is two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers. QB2 is the perennially hurt and disappointing Bradford, who everyone has been waiting on to have that golden year, and who never seems to be able to stay on the field long enough to have it. What will come for the rest of this season, nobody knows yet. But on Sunday in Minnesota, the new Vikings starting QB at least had himself a golden night.
Yes, those are admittedly some big, laudatory words to use about a quarterback whose team only scored 17 points. But this was arguably the most important start of Sam Bradford’s career. He’s been a member of the Minnesota Vikings for all of two weeks, and he was able to take control of an offense whose run game was stuttering for the entire game. He found instant chemistry with the soon-to-be superstar Stefon Diggs. Diggs, who deserves an entire section of this piece full of nothing but laudatory words, finished 9/11 for 182 yards and a touchdown, and the pair looked like the newest QB/WR tandem that’s going to give defenses headaches all season long.
That's not to say that things were perfect for the six-year veteran QB—and they’re about to get a lot harder without Peterson. But even when Peterson was in this game, he and the Vikings’ offensive line were getting manhandled by the Packers’ fierce D-line, and so it was on Bradford to deliver. (Peterson had six carries for 19 yards when he was injured in the third quarter). The offensive line didn’t do him many favors—they left him very little time and he was hammered all night long for four sacks. The line is a problem that needs to be solved sooner rather than later, but, most importantly, Bradford didn’t let the pressure force him into a backbreaking decision, something we saw him do too often last year with the Eagles.
This already seems like a story that's been told before. Sam Bradford looked really good! It’s finally his year! He looked really good at Oklahoma, too, which was why he was the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. He looked really good when he was Offensive Rookie of the Year for the Rams in 2010, and in 2013, before he tore his ACL and missed the entire year. He looked good enough for the Eagles to trade Nick Foles to the Rams for him in 2015, and then for the Vikings to trade their 2017 first-round pick for him once Teddy Bridgewater went down. But on Sunday night, it all felt a bit different. Maybe it’s because he has something he never quite had before—an explosive receiver in Diggs—or maybe it’s because he has a newfound confidence because he’s comfortable trusting his truly outstanding defense to bail him out when his drives stall. But Bradford’s throws were well-timed, he showed poise and authority, and he, quite simply, looked like a veteran. In the absence of Bridgewater, that’s exactly what the Vikings will need to compete for the division title again, and that, paired with the defense that wreaked havoc on Aaron Rodgers and the dangerous Packers offense all night, is exactly what they used to get a crucial divisional win over rival Green Bay.
If you compare Bradford’s numbers to Teddy Bridgewater’s last year, they’re eerily similar. In 2015, Bradford had a 65.0 completion percentage, with 3,725 yards and 19 touchdowns and 14 picks, while Bridgewater in 16 games had a 65.3 completion percentage for 3,231 yards and 14 touchdowns and nine picks. Bridgewater also had the luxury of Peterson last year, something that it’s looking like Bradford will have to live without for at least a couple of games (Peterson is set to undergo an MRI on Monday, which will determine the extend of his injury). But if Bradford can continue to eliminate those interceptions, and, of course, stay healthy, it looks like he and that fearsome defense can lead the Vikings pretty far.
“Staying healthy” are the key words here. There was a moment in the second quarter, just after the Vikings had tied the score on a beautiful pass from Bradford to Kyle Rudolph in the corner of the end zone, when this story seemed like it was going to reach the same old ending. When the game returned from commercial, cameras were on Bradford, who was walking off the field and into the locker room, clutching his distorted-looking hand. After less than two quarters of really strong play, it looked as though Bradford had already gotten hurt. Again. The Sam-Bradford-Is-Made-Of-Glass tweets flowed through timelines. Is this what the Vikings were giving up their first-round pick next year for? This same old ending?
But that’s not what it was. His hand was not broken, he won’t end up being out for months after just over 15 minutes of play. A couple of minutes later, Bradford trotted back onto the field, lined up under center, and two drives later, led the Vikings to a field goal, highlighted by yet another pretty 44-yard completion to—who else?—Diggs.
Instead, in a twist of fate, it was Peterson who would head to the locker room and not return, and it was Bradford who, despite being knocked around all game long, withstood the adversity of losing his top running back and continued to perform well.
Did he break quarterback records? No. Did he look like a world-beater? No. But on Sunday night, Sam Bradford played better than Aaron Rodgers. After having only a little bit of time to learn the ropes of a brand new offense and team, Bradford came into U.S. Bank Stadium, made it his stage, and used it to show that perhaps, this time, the ending of his new story will actually be different.