On the back of a Hall of Fame running back with no plans on slowing down, the Vikings are in the NFC North driver’s seat.
OAKLAND, Calif. — The run, like so many Adrian Peterson runs, started with a small opening, a sliver to the right of the mass of Raiders who blocked where he was supposed to go. The Vikings’ apparently ageless running back shifted outside, sprinted toward twilight and shook a defender the way a giant might swat a bee.
Then ... gone.
Peterson was up the right side of the field at O.co Coliseum, with nary a Raiders defender in sight. The crowd sat silent, then showered the home team with boos. Peterson, meanwhile, slowed down as he neared the end zone, from sprint to jog to trot. He all but walked across the goal line. That score, which happened late in the fourth quarter, cemented the Vikings’ latest victory, a 30–14 thumping of the Raiders. It also improved Minnesota to 7–2, which, when coupled with the Packers’ loss to Detroit earlier Sunday, left the Vikings alone in first place in the NFC North.
Outside of the Minnesota team facility, and the homes of the parents of Vikings players, and maybe their fourth-grade English teachers (maybe?), this is how many people predicted that: no one.
Inside the visitors’ locker room, they celebrated Peterson tying O.J. Simpson for the most 200-yard rushing games in NFL history (six, after the 203 yards he gained Sunday) but not their place in the standings. They know it’s far too early to consider the Packers done, despite Green Bay’s recent slide.
But they also know this: A division that seemed like a Packers lock a month ago is suddenly very much in dispute.
And this: “The Vikings are for real, man,” said receiver Stefon Diggs.
That starts with Peterson, who turned 30 last March, and who missed most of last season after he was charged with child abuse. (He agreed to a plea bargain that reduced the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor of reckless assault.) At the age when running backs slow and stumble and look very much like men who spent the last however many years absorbing blow after blow after blow, Peterson looks the same as he did in 2012, when he led the league in rushing and won the NFL’s MVP award—nine months after major knee surgery, we should add.
However one might feel about what Peterson was accused of, it’s clear that through the first nine games of this season, he has made the Vikings more than better. He’s made them contenders, made them relevant, made them a team built for playoff football.
As Diggs said in the locker room afterward, the Vikings have found their formula. They run the ball (with Peterson), play defense and control the clock. It’s the oldest formula to win in football, and that’s not by coincidence. That’s because it works.
On the season, Peterson has racked up 758 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns. He’s averaging 4.5 yards a carry—again, at 30. “He’s got that fountain of youth, man,” Diggs said. “I’ve got to ask him for the secret.”
Peterson stood at his locker afterward, a fresh cut on his back, the gold necklace (two hands clasped, studded with diamonds) that he lost at one point Sunday back draped over his neck. He pointed to last season as something of a turning point, when the Vikings lost three games by less than three points in his absence and won their share of close games, too. In those contests, Peterson believes Minnesota forged an identity that carried over to this season. The Vikings’ offensive line also improved, he said, as it paved paths for other backs.
“Last year, we had a lot of young guys, a lot of close games,” says Jerick McKinnon, one of Peterson’s backups. “We learned from last year how to close games like this out.”
Oddly, Peterson says he’s getting better—again, at 30. “I would say, just feeling more agile, more explosive, quicker, my vision,” he told the horde of reporters that surrounded him at his locker. “And just my whole vibe when I’m out there, and I get into a rhythm. It’s like it’s coming on a different level—like a Super Saiyan-type level.”
(I had to look that one up, too. Here, from the Dragon Ball Wikia: “Super Saiyan is an advanced transformation assumed by extraordinarily powerful members of the Saiyan race in the Dragon Ball franchise.” So that is that.)
No one, least of all Peterson and or any of his teammates, is suggesting the Vikings won the NFC North on Sunday afternoon. What they’re saying is: Don’t peg them simply as a wild-card team anymore. They can be just as formidable as the Packers, who, it just so happens, will visit Minneapolis next weekend. Should the Vikings win again, they’d take a two-game lead with one tiebreaker secured and six games to go.
Minnesota should be encouraged by the play of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (14 of 22 for 140 yards and a touchdown Sunday). It should be elated that Peterson’s form has not dropped and that the uproar that encircled him last season has died down.
There was owner Zygi Wilf shortly after the game ended, exiting the locker room.
“Our running back ain’t so bad,” he said.
Neither is his team.