Pelissero: Smashing Titans backs Vikings' belief they've 'got a shot'
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A bludgeoning like this had been a long time coming.
Not since their road to the NFC championship game in January 2010 had the Minnesota Vikings so thoroughly dismantled an opponent in a game that meant something as they did on Sunday afternoon.
And so it was just a few thousand who saw Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak desperately use timeouts to secure a meaningless final drive for his futile offense and heard Jamarca Sanford cackling through the referee's microphone after yet another Tennessee penalty.
The laughs are with the Vikings again, not at them. They are 4-1, tied atop the NFC North Division standings with Chicago for another week, and damned if they're not playing like a team deserving of the postseason speculation that surely isn't too far behind.
"With so many questions going into this year," veteran end Jared Allen said, "it's exciting to see them answered and know that, 'OK, if we play our best, we have a chance to beat anybody in the NFL.' And we're pretty darn good if we play our best."
These Vikings had lost 25 of their previous 35 games before they rallied behind a message of physicality and solidarity to upend San Francisco and Detroit in consecutive weeks.
On Sunday, they took a sledgehammer to a Titans side that trailed 23-0 and netted all of 96 yards and five first downs behind washed-up backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck before the Vikings went soft and let the visitors have all the slants they wanted.
Adrian Peterson ran for 88 yards on a bad ankle, Percy Harvin scored twice and Ponder bounced back from two rare interceptions to throw for a pair of scores, including the beautiful corner to Rudolph between two defenders to slam the door.
"There's more plays out there -- that's the encouraging thing," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We're just trying to have fun and play football. It's just like the opposite of last year, from the standpoint of, you start 0-4 and things just snowball. It's just as easy if things are snowballing the other way."
These Vikings had won this handily just twice the past two seasons -- last Oct. 9 against Arizona (34-10) and Dec. 5, 2010, against Buffalo (38-14), which like Tennessee came to the 'Dome as a six-point underdog.
These Vikings hadn't won three games in a row since November 2009, two months before they blew out Dallas 34-3 in a divisional playoff game and sent Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking into a rage with a late score.
On Sunday, it was Munchak having a quiet fit on the Titans sideline, declining the Vikings' merciful kneeldowns and using all of his timeouts even though he'd just lost halfback Javon Ringer to an apparently major knee injury.
"I hate to watch a game finish with kneeldowns," said Munchak, whose Titans now stand 1-4 and have been outscored by an NFL-worst 93 points.
"We had the three timeouts. We were hoping a score on that, so I thought, let's not get rusty. Let them play a little bit."
The Titans' efforts in that regard had been a resounding failure the first 58 minutes. But these Vikings had a heavy hand in that as well.
Ponder completed five straight passes, including a "go" ball to Harvin for 45, to spur a nine-play, 91-yard drive late in the first quarter. Harvin capped it by bouncing off Titans cornerback Ryan Mouton and safety Jordan Babineaux on a shotgun handoff for a 4-yard touchdown.
In the second quarter, Hasselbeck hit Antoine Winfield in the chest for an interception, settling up a 42-yard Blair Walsh field goal. The Vikings' next drive covered 77 yards in 12 plays, and Walsh hit from 36 to make it 13-0 with 1:52 left in the half.
"We still left a lot of plays out there on offense," Harvin said. "Still would like to get seven instead of three."
Battling a sore right knee, Ponder served up his first two interceptions this season on consecutive throws in Tennessee territory -- one by safety Robert Johnson on a ball high and behind Rudolph in the red zone just before halftime, the other by Babineaux sinking underneath Jerome Simpson.
But Ponder completed 12 of 13 passes for 100 yards the rest of the way, including 7 of 8 on the ensuing drive to set up another Walsh field goal from 26.
After another Titans three-and-out, Peterson busted loose for a 17-yard run, rookie tight end Rhett Ellison broke a tackle off a short pass for 29 and Harvin made three Titans miss to turn a bubble screen into a spectacular 10-yard touchdown.
"I know everyone is surprised that we're 4-1," said Ponder, who finished 25-of-35 passing (71.4%) for 258 yards and an 87.6 rating. "What stinks is we should be 5-0."
That would have required the Vikings to play like this three weeks ago against Indianapolis, which rallied on Sunday to beat the Green Bay Packers 30-27 -- dropping the NFC North favorites to 2-3.
But if these Vikings continue on this trajectory, that loss to the Colts will serve as the nexus of a transformation even those in the locker room couldn't have predicted would happen so quickly.
"They bring in a new d-coordinator, couple new guys here and a bunch of new players, and you're like, 'How is this going to work?'" Allen said. "But it goes to show -- and I've always said -- football's a game where whatever you put into it, you can get out of it. ...
"Guys were putting work in and now you're seeing it develop. A lot of it's got to go to the vets on the team and Coach for not allowing young guys to be young. We don't allow that excuse. You know what? It's coming together. But we have to constantly work."
There will be tougher tests ahead for these Vikings, who had hefty advantages in first downs (25-18), net yards (433-267) and time of possession (33:06-26:54) even after the Titans racked up 176 yards over three meaningless drives in the fourth quarter.
These Vikings continue to make costly mistakes, from Ponder's picks to Greenway dropping a sure interception to rookie safety Harrison Smith's ejection for shoving aside back judge Steve Freeman, who was trying to separate Smith from Titans receiver Nate Washington.
"It's still so early," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "There's so much football to be played. We all know there have been a lot of teams that have gotten off to great starts and ... you don't see them in December. We don't want to be one of those teams."
These Vikings will be tested again next weekend at Washington (2-3), even if rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III's concussion keeps him sidelined. Then it's back home again to face Arizona (4-1) and Tampa Bay (1-3) in a five-day span.
These Vikings don't have another division game until Nov. 11 against Detroit and don't see the surging Bears or the Packers until the season's final six weeks.
"With the age that we have on this team and guys playing key roles that are young, that cliché's going to be important for us -- just one day at a time," Greenway said.
"Monday, come in, get the workout in. Just focus on what we've got to do and just keep doing what we're doing, stamping out wins. If we can do that, who knows what happens? But I like the feeling right now."
Frazier gave the Vikings the first "Victory Monday" of the season, meaning players will get the day off to enjoy the win.
There were signs everywhere on Sunday these Vikings already are looking ahead, though, from Allen giving a comparison to last year's 49ers to one voice in the crowd of players celebrating up the tunnel screaming out, "Next!"
These Vikings sure don't look or act like those Vikings of the past two years, nor the rebuilding team that was expected to grow into its own. They're here to play, they're here to work and, at least on Sunday, they were here to destroy an inferior foe the way any good team should.
"Once you see guys work," Allen said, "you kind of say, 'OK, we've got a shot at this thing.'"