Pelissero: Sure, it can be ugly, but this is how Vikings have to win
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MINNEAPOLIS -- This was the game the Minnesota Vikings thought they could play the past two weeks, before turnovers changed everything in defeats at Chicago and Green Bay.
This was the game the Vikings will keep trying to play the next three weeks, their long-shot playoff goal still within reach after Sunday's 21-14 triumph over the Bears.
"And that's us," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "We're probably not going to win a lot of games where we throw the football 40 times. That's not who we are, and we're not going to overcome two or three turnovers in a game. That's not the way we're built right now."
What they're built to do best is pound Peterson until the wheels come off, which is only possible if they get on top.
That took roughly 3 minutes on Sunday, with Peterson going 51 yards on the game's first play against the Bears' depleted defense and scoring a 1-yard touchdown five plays later.
Josh Robinson picked off Cutler on the ensuing series, Peterson scored from the 1 again and the Vikings had a 14-point lead to squat on the rest of the way.
"Our whole thing was just not to let Cutler run free," end Jared Allen said. "When he ran, we needed to force him into bad throws, and we were able to do that. We got a pick-six and a pick down to the 5 early that got us up 14 and they had to play from behind."
Cutler gave up the ball again in the third quarter, serving a pick-six to Harrison Smith that made it 21-7 just as the Vikings' momentum seemed to wane late in the third quarter.
That proved too much for a Bears offense that netted 438 yards but got in the end zone only twice, on a 23-yard Cutler pass to Alshon Jeffery before halftime and a 16-yarder to Brandon Marshall from Jason Campbell after Cutler departed with a stiff neck.
"This is what we've been trying to get done all year," Robinson said. "Now it's time where we've really got to make the plays. We can't give up no more games."
It didn't matter that Ponder got booed several times, underthrew a bomb to Jarius Wright that Major Wright intercepted and generated just 91 yards on 11-of-17 passing to a Percy Harvin-less receiving corps.
Frankly, the Vikings are what they are and they don't care what they can't do, so long as they can play a game that allows them to cover up those weaknesses.
Peterson had 104 rushing yards in the first quarter and finished with 154 on 31 carries (5.0 average), keeping the clock and the chains moving when the Vikings needed it.
They're 7-6 with three to go, one game back in the NFC wild-card chase, and they haven't scared anyone with their passing game from the start.
"For a lot of our players, we're in uncharted territory to be playing games in December where every game has major implications," Frazier said. "There weren't a lot of people when we were in Mankato (for training camp) thinking that that would be the case."
Of course, owner Zygi Wilf said he expected the Vikings to win the NFC North Division, which remains a long shot with the Packers two games up at 9-4 and stumbling Chicago at 8-5 entering their matchup next week at Soldier Field.
But it was no accident Wilf spoke in a team meeting on Friday for the first time all season. Getting swept by the Bears, who had won six consecutive games in this series, would have sent the Vikings to St. Louis (6-6-1) next weekend in total freefall.
Instead, they got a reminder of what can happen if they avoid coughing up the ball in the red zone, putting their defense on short fields or dropping passes in crucial moments.
"Our playoffs started last week, after we lost to Green Bay," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "We knew we had four left. We're going to need some help to get in, of course."
They also need some luck and got it on Sunday, beginning when Jeffery slipped in pattern and Cutler's pass hit Robinson in the chest.
Ponder let the ball squirt out of his hand on a sack, but officials ruled his forward progress had been stopped. A.J. Jefferson fumbled on a kickoff return, but the ball lay untouched until teammate Christian Ballard picked it up.
Yet it was Chicago that couldn't capitalize on its opportunities, straight through two drops that killed one fourth-quarter drive at the Vikings 23 and the poor onside kick Kyle Rudolph easily pulled down to end it.
"The coaches were saying earlier this week you don't want to play meaningless ball in December," Smith said. "Right now, we're playing meaningful games. It's basically playoffs for us. That's how we're approaching it."
Now, they take their 1-5 road record to St. Louis and face an offensively challenged Rams team before visiting Houston (11-1) and a Texans team that already has its playoff spot wrapped up.
Those games will determine whether Frazier is right and the season will go down to the finale against the Packers, whom they might have beaten last weekend if Ponder hadn't given away the game with two awful picks.
The Vikings can only win one way, because there's only one thing they do really well. As long as they do that one thing well and avoid crippling errors, though, Sunday was evidence they'll have a fighting chance.
"We won the way we're designed to win," Frazier said. "We talk all the time to our team about what Viking ball is, and (Sunday) was a perfect example of it.
"Being able to run the football effectively, have success against eight-man fronts when do throw the football, play great defense against the run and being able to come up with turnovers and play outstanding special teams. (Sunday) really was Viking ball in a lot of ways."