Sunday, December 21, 2014

Vikings still in playoff hunt

MINNEAPOLIS—The Metrodome roof held up just fine during Minnesota’s latest heavy snowstorm.
It’s the Chicago Bears who seem to be collapsing under the weight of December football.

Adrian Peterson rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns, and Harrison Smith returned an interception for a score, to lead the Vikings to a 21-14 victory over the freefalling Bears yesterday afternoon.
Almost two years to the day that a huge snowstorm felled the big white dome and forced the Bears-Vikings game to move across town to the University of Minnesota’s stadium, another dose of wet snow came down as the Vikings prepared to host their division rivals.
No problem this time around—for the roof or Peterson.
The resilient running back ripped off a 51-yard run on the first play of the game and got the Vikings (7-6) out to a 14-0 lead before the first quarter was half over en route to a desperately-needed victory.
“I think they’ll look at the standings tomorrow [Monday] and see that we’re still right in the thick of it, just like we were when this week began,” noted Vikings’ coach Leslie Frazier.
“For us, every game following will be like a playoff game.”
When the Bears (8-5) look at the standings today, they will be a game behind the Packers, who beat Detroit 27-20 last night but still be ahead of Minnesota.
It just didn’t feel that way when they hobbled out of the stadium yesterday afternoon.
They were 7-1 and in prime position to win the NFC North at the season’s midpoint, but now have lost four of their last five games and seem to get a different key player injured every week.
This time it was quarterback Jay Cutler, who was crunched on a high-low hit by Vikings’ defensive end Everson Griffen in the fourth quarter.
He finished the drive, but did not return for the final four minutes because of a neck injury.
He was 22-of-44 for 260 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.
With Brian Urlacher out indefinitely with an injured right hamstring and cornerback Tim Jennings missing the game because of a shoulder injury, the Bears are bruised and battered—to go along with beaten.
“Everybody has injuries. That’s part of this league,” reasoned defensive end Julius Peppers.
“We’re going to have to play through that.
“But obviously some of our better players are down,” he added. “We need guys to step up and play.”
Few have rebounded from an injury the way Peterson has. The relentless runner tore the ACL in his left knee late last season, yet somehow has been able to come back better than ever.
He topped 100 yards for the seventh-straight game to give him 1,600 yards this season—putting that hallowed 2,000 yard mark well within reach with three games to go.
More importantly for the Vikings, he carried the ball a season-high 31 times—the kind of broad-shouldered performance the offence desperately needed with quarterback Christian Ponder continuing to struggle in the passing game.
Ponder was 11-of-17 for just 91 yards and one ugly interception yesterday, a back-footed throw into triple coverage that Major Wright easily snagged just before halftime.
No matter. The beleaguered quarterback had Peterson and an opportunistic defence to lean on. Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson picked off Cutler in the first quarter and returned it 44 yards to set up Peterson’s second touchdown of the day.
Smith then gave them some much-needed breathing room in the third quarter when Cutler floated a pass over Brandon Marshall’s head and into Smith’s arms.
The rookie took it back 56 yards for a 21-7 lead that held up.
“In the situation we’re in, we have to win out,” stressed Peterson, whose Vikings finish up with games at St. Louis, at Houston, and then at home against Green Bay.
“That’s the focus we have.
Jason Campbell came on in relief of Cutler and threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall, but it was a little too late for the Bears, who trail the Packers by a game heading into a showdown with the division leaders in Chicago this week.
The Bears then finish up on the road at Arizona and Detroit. Their margin for error is getting smaller by the day.
“It’s frustrating,” admitted safety Chris Conte.
“We’ve had some injuries, but ultimately we have to come out and play better,” he warned.
The late-season swoon is a familiar one under coach Lovie Smith, who fell to 15-18 in the final four games of a season.
Last season, the Bears lost five-straight games after a 7-3 start and finished at 8-8 to miss the playoffs.
“I’m just thinking about us getting back on a winning streak next week,” Smith said.
Elsewhere in the NFL, Dallas nipped Cincinnati 20-19, Washington edged Baltimore 31-28 (OT), Seattle routed Arizona 58-0, the N.Y. Giants bombed New Orleans 52-27, Cleveland dumped Kansas City 30-7, San Diego beat Pittsburgh 34-24, and Indianapolis upended Tennessee 27-23.
The N.Y. Jets beat Jacksonville 17-10, Carolina upset Atlanta 30-20, Philadelphia shaded Tampa Bay 23-21, St. Louis downed Buffalo 15-12, and San Francisco dumped Miami 27-13.

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