Vikings vs. Texans: Minnesota's Biggest Winners and Losers from Week 16
What a difference a year can make.
A year ago, on Christmas Eve, the Minnesota Vikings won their third game of the season, but not a lot of Minnesota fans were celebrating a victory that not only saw Adrian Peterson shred his left knee, but also saw them lose a shot at one of the two prized quarterbacks in the coming draft.
A year later, and two days before Christmas, the Minnesota Vikings went on the road and thoroughly whipped one of the best teams in the NFL, dominating the Houston Texans from start to finish, winning 23-6 and taking a giant step forward in their quest to make the playoffs just a year after a 3-13 season.
The Vikings won their third straight game and second straight on the road to improve to 9-6 and stay alive in what looks like will be a wild final Sunday in determining who's in and who's out of the NFC playoffs.
The Texans fall to 12-3 and missed out on a chance to clinch home field throughout the AFC playoffs.
We take a look at the winners and losers from Minnesota's stunning, dominating win over the Texans.
Winner: Leslie Frazier and the Vikings Coaching Staff
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Through 10 games, the Vikings were 6-4, and even though all was right in the world, most of the realistic Vikings fans looked at the remaining schedule and shook their heads grimly. The playoffs seemed like a long shot, but the six wins were enough to make a rational Vikings fan thrilled with the progress the team had made in one season.
The Vikings went on the road the next two weeks and lost to their biggest division rivals, getting whipped by the Bears and then losing a very winnable game to the Packers that got Minnesota fans' blood boiling.
The sky was falling. The quarterback and all the coaches needed to go. There was no longer such a thing as a rational Vikings fan.
Leslie Frazier's calm hand and demeanor were dismissed as "coach-speak" and a lifeless leader who was going down with his ship.
Three weeks and three wins later, and Frazier can be forgiven if he smirks a little bit at all the naysayers. He won't because that's not his way, but a little bit of perspective and a long look at the 2012 season tells you that Leslie Frazier belongs on the short list of Coach of the Year candidates.
Frazier's Minnesota Vikings just played one of the best teams in the NFL in their own building and beat the hell out of them.
The Vikings offense was cooly efficient and absurdly balanced, gaining 174 yards both on the ground and threw the air.
The Vikings defense was simply dominant, holding the Texans to just 187 total yards and keeping Houston from scoring a touchdown for the first time since 2006.
Everyone on the Vikings staff can take a bow, as all three units were on point and delivered time and time again when it mattered.
The Vikings now have all they could ask for from the last week of the season: a home game against their biggest rival, the Green Bay Packers, with their playoff lives on the line.
Loser: The 'Christian Ponder Is Awful' Crowd
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Full disclosure: I'm one of them. I'll gladly lose this one for as long as Ponder wants to beat me.
I've been one of them for pretty simple reasons: Ponder's been awful for most of the season. His throwing, decision-making and footwork have been getting worse during a season where most of us were looking for progress from him.
With the Vikings playing for their football lives on Sunday and with Adrian Peterson being as bottled up as Adrian Peterson is ever bottled up, Ponder gave the Vikings everything they needed through the air, leading them to a shockingly easy 23-6 win over the Texans.
Ponder's numbers weren't earth-shattering; he threw for 174 yards and a touchdown and ran for 48 huge yards. More important than the numbers, however, Ponder played with some authority and some grit. He looked like he was in command of the game and not terrified to throw the ball.
He played like he wanted to win, not like he was afraid to lose.
This is the NFL, and the truth is is that there are only about seven or eight teams who aren't convinced that their quarterback is awful. Ponder has given Vikings fans more ammo than most, but not on Sunday.
In the long view, the jury is still out on Ponder as a long-term solution at quarterback. Even as the Vikings have been battling for a playoff spot, it's been on the back of Adrian Peterson, and the smart view has been that an upgrade at quarterback would be needed before the team could take the next step.
That's on pause for at least a week; we'll give the kid that.
Winner: The Vikings Defense
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October 15, 2006. That's the last time the Houston Texans were held without a touchdown.
The Minnesota Vikings pulled the trick on Sunday, becoming the first defense to keep the Texans out of the end zone in 103 games.
The Vikings defense was completely suffocating, holding the Texans to just 187 total yards and a measly 34 yards rushing.
The Texans entered Sunday's game with the seventh-ranked offense in the NFL, averaging 387 yards a game, and hadn't been held under three touchdowns at home all season.
The Vikings did it with contributions from everyone on the field, truly a total team effort. Eight of the Vikings starters on defense had at least three tackles, with Harrison Smith leading the way with just seven. Anything the Texans offense tried to do, the Vikings had an answer for. The Texans' All-Pro running back, Arian Foster, had one eight-yard run, and after that, was held to seven yards on nine carries.
Matt Schaub had been averaging 254 yards a game passing and was held to just 178. The Vikings defense completely stuffed the run and severely limited Houston's air attack in one of their best overall performances in years.
The pivotal sequence in the game was late in the third quarter when the Texans had 1st-and-goal from the Vikings' 1-yard line and were threatening to pull within six points.
What happened next was perhaps the biggest sequence in the Vikings' season. A Schaub incompletion was followed by Ben Tate being completely stuffed by Chad Greenway and Kevin Williams and then Fred Evans chasing Schaub down for a sack 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The Texans never threatened again.
The Vikings defense carried the day.
Loser: Adrian Peterson's Quest for Eric Dickerson's Season Rushing Record
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Who cares, right?
The Texans defensive line, especially J.J. Watt, was every bit as good as advertised, holding Adrian Peterson to mere mortal numbers, 86 yards on 25 carries.
Peterson's consecutive games over 100 yards rushing is stopped at eight, three short of Barry Sanders' record of 11 straight. Peterson is now 208 yards short of Dickerson's season rushing record of 2,105 yards.
Nobody, especially Peterson, is complaining after the Vikings came away with a bruising, convincing, 23-6 win over one of the best teams in the NFL. Peterson fought hard for every one of his 86 yards on Sunday, and his 25 carries ground the clock and kept the Vikings defense fresh and ready when they were called on.
The Packers come to town next Sunday, with the Vikings most probably needing a win to make the playoffs. A big game from Peterson will be needed. A win will be quite enough, but if Adrian Peterson wants to make history in the process, who's going to bet against him?
Winner: Blair Walsh and the Vikings Special Teams
Blair Walsh set an NFL record when he hammered a 56-yard field goal midway through the second quarter that staked the Vikings to a 10-7 lead. It was Walsh's ninth field goal from beyond 50 yards on the season, breaking the old record of eight that he shared with Morten Andersen and Jason Hansen.
Walsh would add two more field goals, bringing his season total to 32-of-35, including nine for nine from beyond 50 yards.
Walsh has also been instrumental in the field position game, as no team has taken a Vikings kickoff past the 25-yard line in two months.
Chris Kluwe had another great game as well, averaging 45.5 yards on his four punts, including a crucial punt that pinned the Texans at their own 1-yard line for their first possession of the fourth quarter.
Marcus Sherels was solid once again in his return duties, and the Vikings special teams continued to be a dominant factor in games. The coverage teams have taken their lead from Walsh, getting downfield and punishing any return man they get a crack at.
When Rick Spielman drafted Walsh, he told everyone that Walsh could be a dominant factor in shortening the field for the Vikings offense and lengthening it for opposing offenses. I can't believe even Spielman knew how valuable Walsh would prove to be.
Loser: 'Wait Til Next Year'
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Pick your own adjective: The Vikings' improbable, confusing, amazing, bewildering, two-steps forward one-step back, roller-coaster of a season continues to gain steam as they head for the finish of the regular season next week at home against the Green Bay Packers.
Only the most optimistic of Vikings fans could have thought this team would have a chance at 10 wins this season, and yet here they are at 9-6 with a game to play.
If the Vikings win next Sunday, and I don't know who would bet against them at this point, they will more than likely make the playoffs just one season removed from a 3-13 season that was the worst Vikings fans had ever suffered through.
The Vikings got off to a surprising fast start in 2012, starting 5-2 and raising the expectation level for the team probably higher than they had a right to.
Losing four of their next five games brought them thudding back to earth and had the grumblers grumbling that there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
Three wins later and a historic stretch by its star running back have Minnesota right at the playoff door.
All the Vikings can control next week is their game against the Packers. Win that, and your season is a success, playoffs or not.