Christian Ponder, Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin were the big stories for the Vikings on Sunday – if you just want to focus on the players who gave the most outstanding and inspiring on-field performances. The real story of the game, if you want to look beyond the feel-good aspects, was how the Vikings were able to overcome a multitude of miscues to keep the score close going into the fourth quarter, then took advantage of some major lucky breaks to eke out the three point win.
Ponder again showed great poise in crunch time, throwing big-time third down passes and leading the Vikings to 10 unanswered points to win the game. But as solid as Ponder and his receivers were when it mattered, the reality is that the Vikings offense had only a so-so day against what is by most measures a bad Panthers D. A big part of the problem was a simple inability to run the correct play. On more than one occasion Christian Ponder looked back to hand off to Adrian Peterson only to discover that his running back was lined up somewhere other than he expected. Even when the Vikings succeeded in the vexing task of completing a basic hand-off, Peterson often found himself without a hole to run through. Only in the second half when Bill Musgrave committed to attacking the Panthers’ defense up the middle, and began craftily switching between Peterson and Toby Gerhart to create run/pass recognition confusion in the Panthers’ D, did the Vikings find a consistent running game.
Musgrave was one of the day’s big heroes with his clever personnel mixing. The tendency-breaking approach paid big dividends early when Musgrave pulled Peterson entirely and instead ran Percy Harvin out of the backfield, a plan that yielded a quick touchdown. Musgrave’s other big move was to get Adrian Peterson more involved in the passing game. Ponder would throw to Peterson five times in the game, and Peterson would catch all five passes, including a huge screen play for 19 yards and a TD late in the second to tie the game. Musgrave’s mix-and-match approach resulted in a strange halftime circumstance: Harvin leading the team in run yards and Peterson leading in receiving yards. By game’s end, Peterson would lead in both categories, having racked up 162 yards of total offense.
Not to be outdone, Fred Pagac also dug deep into his bag of tricks in dreaming up a scheme to stop Cam Newton. Among Pagac’s more surprising moves was the decision to shadow Steve Smith with Asher Allen, a choice made at least in part to protect Cedric Griffin, who in recent weeks has given up a disproportionate number of big plays. The plan either worked or didn’t work depending on how you want to look at it. Yes, Smith caught 7 balls for 100 yards and was left wide open by Allen to catch his one TD, but it could’ve been worse. The fact is that, though Allen held his own for much of the day, he did commit a huge mistake by allowing Smith to turn inside toward the uncovered part of the field on the TD pass, and that kind of breakdown is just what has been plaguing the Vikings secondary. And it wasn’t the only critical mistake against Carolina. Husain Abdullah was also guilty of a breakdown when he failed to jam tight end Greg Olsen at the line in one-on-one coverage, allowing Olsen to burn him for a 39-yard touchdown. And then of course there was the familiar culprit, Tyrell Johnson, whose poor coverage in the fourth quarter led to a huge fourth down conversion and a chance for Carolina to win the game.
It’s not very often that a team will endure such terrible secondary play and still win the game. The Vikings can thank timely offensive playmaking and two huge late breaks for their unlikely victory. Break number 1 came when Steve Smith was called for holding on what would’ve been a 6-yard Cam Newton run to set the Panthers up with first-and-goal at the Vikings’ 8. Break number 2 came two plays later when Olindo Mare missed a 31-yard game-tying field goal wide left, giving the ball back to Minnesota for the kneel down.
In the end, the Vikings victory was less about what they did and more about what the Panthers failed to do. Carolina’s defense, almost as bereft of playmakers as the Vikings’, failed to get off the field when they had chances in the fourth quarter. Percy Harvin’s gritty effort was a sight to behold, but the Panthers could’ve written a different story had they been able to execute a tackle. Christian Ponder might have been stopped on one of those big third down plays had the Panthers found someone who could get into the backfield and bring him down. Cam Newton, for all his excellence, left a few plays on the field that, had he completed them, would’ve tipped the balance toward Carolina. Give the Vikings credit for making the plays they did make, but also keep in mind that they played far from a perfect game, and were aided immensely by a Panthers team that is itself a long way from being a consistent winner.