Pelissero: After destroying Texans, Vikings say 'we're not done yet'
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HOUSTON -- Zygi Wilf had to hold back tears as he stood before players in the jubilant Minnesota Vikings locker room and made a proclamation that would seem bolder if not for the dominance he'd just witnessed at Reliant Stadium.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team," the Vikings' owner said, grabbing coach Leslie Frazier's shoulder. "I'm emotional because you guys are so great, guys. We're going to win the next one and we're going on, guys. God bless you guys."
Yes, one more performance like the one the Vikings used to humble the Houston Texans 23-6 on Sunday afternoon would give this young team a postseason berth most wouldn't have believed was possible without divine intervention.
They've gone from 3-13 to 9-6, equaling their win total from the past two seasons combined, with next weekend's finale against rival Green Bay now the biggest game the Metrodome has seen in three years.
"But we're not done yet," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "We still want to get to playoffs and we'll be extremely disappointed if we don't get there. But we've come a long way."
They entered Sunday as nine-point underdogs against a 12-2 Texans team looking to wrap up home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They left believing, in nose tackle Fred Evans' words, "we actually have a chance to do something special this year."
The Vikings regained control of their fate on the plane ride home when the New York Giants lost to the Baltimore Ravens. They could sneak into the playoffs even with a loss, too, but that wasn't on anyone's mind after the most impressive win of their season.
Houston settled for a field goal on its first possession, Ponder answered by leading an 83-yard touchdown drive and the Vikings never trailed again, racking up huge edges in net yards (345-187), first downs (22-11) and time of possession (34:46-25:14).
"We are definitely in a groove, in a rhythm right now," halfback Adrian Peterson said. "We're clicking on all levels."
The defense mitigated Houston's play-action passes by suffocating the run game (2.1-yard average on 16 carries), allowed one third-down conversion in 11 chances and came up with critical stops both times the Texans sniffed the red zone.
The offense overcame a relatively pedestrian day from Peterson (25 carries, 86 yards, 3.4 average) thanks in part to Ponder, who was 9-of-13 passing for 101 yards on third down and converted two more with scrambles of 21 and 29 yards against split-safety coverage.
Blair Walsh connected on three field-goal attempts, including a 56-yard bomb. Chris Kluwe forced the Texans to start a drive at their own 1, and the coverage units were as good as they've been all season.
"We really believe in our team and our teammates and the organization, and we didn't want to let anybody down," said Evans, who capped a goal-line stand with a 14-yard sack on third-and-goal.
"The magnitude for us has pretty much been all or nothing for these last four or five games, if we really want an honest chance to do anything in the postseason, and that's how we approach it. We understand it's a one-game season every week."
The Vikings have played that way the past three games, trailing for a total of 4 minutes, 31 seconds -- all after A.J. Jefferson's pass interference penalty set up a 51-yard Shayne Graham field goal that gave Houston a 3-0 lead in the first quarter.
Ponder kept the ensuing drive going with a 32-yard strike to Michael Jenkins on third-and-6 and capped it with a 3-yard touchdown to Kyle Rudolph. Houston mounted one more decent drive before the half, but Jasper Brinkley stripped Arian Foster at the 28 and Jefferson recovered.
The Vikings capitalized with a 56-yard boot by Walsh, who connected again from 41 with 37 seconds left in the half to send the Texans into the locker room under a hailstorm of boos and the weight of a 10-point deficit.
After another Walsh field goal from 39 yards out made it 16-3 early in the third quarter, the Texans called their two most trusted run plays to Arian Foster, took a false start penalty and ended up in third-and-12, where they seemed to be all day.
"Our whole thing was if we could get them out of their slashing and boot game, either by (scoring) points or by stopping the run and forcing them into third-and-longs," end Jared Allen said.
"Then, we thought we could do some good things. We were able to do that and we didn't allow (Matt) Schaub to just sit in the pocket and get in a rhythm. We forced him off his spot a lot and it paid off well."
When Ponder fumbled on a J.J. Watt sack, Schaub missed Andre Johnson on a go ball and Allen drew a holding penalty on Texans left tackle Duane Brown, backing up one of six three-and-out possessions.
And when Schaub (18-of-32, 178 yards) finally did get something going, driving Houston to the Vikings' 1 late in the third quarter, the defense came up with what could go down as the most pivotal stop of the season.
A crossing route to Owen Daniels misfired on first-and-goal, the middle caved on a run to Ben Tate for no gain on second and then Evans chased down Schaub on third, forcing the Texans to settle for a 33-yard field goal.
"That was one of the best defensive efforts I've been around," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Being able to play this type of opponent on the road the way we did was huge for us. We really needed that moving forward."
Toby Gerhart punched in a 4-yard touchdown run to seal the decision with 4:44 to go and the crowd of 71,688 fled, yielding stark silence on the field compared to roars emitting from the Vikings locker room a short time later.
The six-game improvement from last season matches the largest swing since the Vikings went from nine wins in 1997 to 15 in 1998 -- and the last two victories have come on the road against opponents with plenty on the line themselves.
"We had to rise to the occasion," Ponder said. "There was no other option."
Now, they have to do it one more time against a Packers team that wrapped up the NFC North Division a week ago, destroyed Tennessee 55-7 on Sunday for its ninth win in 10 games and can clinch a first-round bye.
The Vikings had the Packers in trouble three weeks ago, too, before Ponder threw away a game they led 14-10 in the third quarter with two terrible interceptions at Lambeau Field.
They're still unbeaten when they're even or better in the turnover battle. On Sunday, they found a way to defeat one of the NFL's elite on a day more than half of their best player's touches went for loss or no gain.
"A win is a win no matter how you slice it or dice it," Peterson said. "We came in here with the mindset that, hey, this is another course we have to complete. We were able to do that in all phases."
One more time, and they're going on, just like the boss said.