MINNEAPOLIS -- Forty-five minutes before kickoff, the doors to the Vikings locker room opened and a group of running backs and receivers emerged. They walked down the runway in the bowels of Mall of America Field, turned right into the tunnel leading to the field and stopped. Then, as each player's arm went up and touched the others, the man in the middle delivered his words of encouragement.
"It's going to take all of us," Adrian Peterson said. "I promise you I'll give it everything I've got. ... Go for four quarters. ... Make them feel it. Make them remember today."
Then Peterson went out and ran. He ran early and he ran often. And when he was finished running through, around and over the Green Bay defense, when he had delivered a 34-carry, 199-yard performance that carried the Vikings to a 37-34 victory and a playoff berth in a must-win game, he had put the finishing touches on the second-best rushing performance in the history of the NFL.
Peterson closed the season with 2,097 yards, nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's 1984 record of 2,105 -- an incredibly improbable performance given that just one year and one day ago, he lay in a hospital bed after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery for ACL and MCL tears. Back then, he promised himself that he would come back better than ever.
And man, did he ever deliver.
That he came up 27 feet short of breaking the rushing record disappointed Peterson, but didn't discourage him.
"It's a bittersweet feeling inside, but the first thing that came to my mind when I heard I was nine yards short was, like, it is what it is. It wasn't meant to happen," Peterson said in a postgame interview. "Not to say it doesn't hurt, because it does, but we came in here tonight and accomplished the ultimate goal, which was getting a win and punching our ticket to the playoffs."
With Peterson leading the charge and second-year quarterback Christian Ponder perhaps playing his finest game in his 26th start in the NFL, the Vikings won their fourth consecutive game and finished the regular season with a 10-6 record that netted them the NFC's sixth seed in the playoffs. Coincidentally, they will play the Packers again next Saturday night in Green Bay in a wild-card game.
Sunday's victory capped a remarkable turnaround by the Vikings, who a year ago went 3-13, the worst record in the history of the franchise. Four weeks ago, after Ponder threw two interceptions in a 23-14 loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field, you could almost hear the sound of the fans jumping off the Minnesota bandwagon. But then they mounted a four-game run that included a home victory over the Bears and back-to-back road wins over the Rams and the Texans -- the AFC's third seed -- before beating the Packers Sunday on rookie Blair Walsh's 29-yard field goal as time expired.
Fittingly, Peterson set up the game-winning play when he busted loose for a 26-yard run before safety Morgan Burnett pulled him down at the Green Bay 11. Had Peterson ran for a touchdown on the play, he would have broken Dickerson's record.
"I was definitely trying to get to the end zone, by all means, but in my mind I was conscious of being smart and protecting the ball," Peterson said. "So it was a good feeling, especially when you have Walsh over on the sideline."
Slashing and dashing his way up and down the field, looking like a man possessed, Peterson also broke runs of 28, 22, 18 and 12 yards. But there were a handful of carries where he was stopped at the line or thrown for losses. He was still thinking about a couple of those runs, when he cut back inside instead of following fullback Jerome Felton, after the game.
"I let the defensive end, or it might have been the safety, spook me on both of those," Peterson said. "If I had followed my fullback, I could have stretched it out."
Peterson became the seventh NFL rushing back to hit the 2,000-yard plateau in a season, joining Dickerson, Jamal Lewis (2,066), Barry Sanders (2,053), Terrell Davis (2,008), Chris Johnson (2,006) and O.J. Simpson (2,003). He also tied Earl Campbell's 1980 record for most 150-yard rushing games in a season, with seven.
Not catching Dickerson, however, a man he has never met or talked to, left a little stick in his craw.
"I know Eric Dickerson is feeling so good right now," Peterson said, drawing laughs in the interview room. "He's a pretty cool guy. He's from Texas. I've got compared to him a lot. He had some good things to say about me in the end."
There should be nothing but platitudes paid to Peterson, who still owns the NFL single-game rushing record (296 yards, set in 2007), after coming back from an ACL tear that normally requires nine months of recovery and often keeps a player from returning to his previous form for at least two years. Peterson started plotting his comeback the night of his surgery, when Dr. James Andrews told him it would be at least two weeks before he could start knee lifts.
"You mean like this?" Peterson said, lifting his surgically repaired leg.
Nonetheless, coach Leslie Frazier and the Vikings took a cautious approach with Peterson, who didn't practice with the rest of the team in training camp but instead worked on a side field with team athletic trainer Eric Sugarman, taking handoffs and catching passes. The Vikings held Peterson out of their preseason games, then limited his carries to 17 (for 84 yards) in a season-opening win over Jacksonville. By the time Peterson rushed 25 times in a Week 3 victory over San Francisco, the reins came off.
Frazier put Peterson's performance into proper perspective after Sunday's game.
"What it says is he is without question the best running back in our game and, truly, the MVP of our league," Frazier said. "We don't win this game today without the effort of Adrian Peterson."
The Vikings make no secret that they are first and foremost a power running team, so it wasn't a surprise that they kept feeding the ball to Peterson. Opponents tried different approaches to stop him. St. Louis opened the game with five linemen, yet Peterson still managed to rush for 212 yards. Houston stacked eight players near the line of scrimmage and had a safety on the back side to try to prevent cutbacks. Green Bay used a safety on run blitzes.
It seemed like nothing could prevent Peterson, who rushed for one touchdown and caught a 2-yard pass for his first scoring reception in more than a year, from slashing the Packers defense and leading the Vikings to the playoffs.
Peterson knew he would perform like this months ago, back when he was going through painful, rehabilitating exercises. Few people believed him back then. Nobody doubts him now.
On Sunday, Peterson capped his pregame promise. He gave the Vikings all he had -- and then some.