Pelissero: Unscathed and undaunted, Vikings continue to live right
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Christian Ponder sauntered blankly to the podium and summarized a strange Sunday afternoon at the Metrodome with his first sentence.
"It's a good thing to be disappointed," Ponder said, "when you're 5-2."
Yes, these Minnesota Vikings and their young quarterback are living right, still unbeaten at home and seemingly undaunted despite their increasing propensity for self-inflicting wounds.
They grinded out a 21-14 victory against the Arizona Cardinals on a day they netted 43 passing yards, took seven penalties and had to overcome two Ponder interceptions inside their own 30-yard line.
Adrian Peterson gashed Arizona's vaunted front for 153 rushing yards, Harrison Smith returned an interception 31 yards for the Vikings' only second-half touchdown and a persistent pass rush battered another Cardinals quarterback into submission.
"Our offense had an easy day (Sunday)," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said, smiling. "They really didn't have to score any points after the first half."
The crowd of 61,068 was sufficiently nonplussed to start the wave while the Vikings had the ball in the fourth quarter, then repeatedly boo an Arizona penalty as it replayed on the video boards.
Thousands of fans had left by the time John Skelton's 6-yard touchdown pass to Andre Roberts cut the Vikings' lead in half with 1 minute, 48 seconds to play -- only for Jay Feely to dribble an onside kick Matt Asiata curled around to seal the decision.
"To win an ugly-looking game like this is huge," Ponder said. "It shows how good of a team we are and that we can win as a team. We're not relying on one side of the ball."
Now they're three games above .500 and within percentage points of the NFC North Division lead again, with first-place Chicago (4-1) hosting Detroit on Monday and Tampa Bay set for a short-week visit to the Metrodome on Thursday night.
No one could have been more relieved than Ponder, who finished 8-for-17 passing (47.1%) for 58 yards. His lone completion in seven attempts after halftime was a bubble screen to Peterson for 4 yards as the Vikings went three-and-out four consecutive times.
That streak ended only because the Vikings went for it on fourth-and-5 from the Arizona 33 with 14 seconds to go -- and Peterson pounded through for an 8-yard gain, as he'd done all day despite safety Adrian Wilson's presence near the line of scrimmage.
"We had to impose our will no matter if they had seven in the box or eight or nine," Peterson said. "We had the mindset that we were going to be able to run the ball, no matter what."
His relentless legs and a defense that scored on its own to force the Cardinals out of their effective ground game (26 carries, 126 yards, 4.8 average) were all the Vikings needed.
Once Smith's pick-six pushed the lead to 14 with less than a minute off the third-quarter clock, the Vikings just pounded it out, while the Cardinals ran deeper routes that had no prayer against two-deep coverage as seven sacks left Skelton increasingly skittish.
"That's the formula for success if you're in a tough situation throwing the football," coach Leslie Frazier said. "Credit our guys for buying into that philosophy and finding a way to get a win."
They had another chance when Peterson ran 13 yards for a touchdown and Brian Robison halted the Cardinals' 14-play ensuing drive by getting the edge on right tackle Bobby Massie and chasing down Skelton for a strip-sack at the Vikings' 19.
"Anytime a team's able to drive it on you," Robison said, "you really think to yourself that you want to be the guy to make the big play."
Ponder gave the ball right back, though, missing high and behind Kyle Rudolph on a throw across his body to gift an interception for Paris Lenon and an equalizing 3-yard touchdown run by slippery little LaRod Stephens-Howling four plays later.
Peterson gained 8, 17 and 12 yards on his next three carries to set up Ponder's 3-yard touchdown to Harvin on a slide route against Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who shadowed the Vikings' best receiver most of the day.
"We could take a bunch of keys on certain pressures that we could run right into," Ponder said. "Adrian ran exceptionally well, and obviously, the offensive line blocked exceptionally well. We're definitely relying on our run game, and that's not a bad thing. We just need to keep making progress in the passing game."
Harvin's score gave the Vikings a 14-7 lead that could have shrunk before halftime, thanks to a clueless backed-up sequence that ended with Ponder's arm getting hit on an attempted throwaway and the ball floating to Cardinals linebacker Sam Acho for another pick.
Jay Feely missed a 47-yard field goal wide right as the half expired. Then, Smith snared a silly Skelton dumpoff for Early Doucet and raced 31 yards for a touchdown 57 seconds into the second half, heaping pressure on the visitors and their overwhelmed quarterback.
Antoine Winfield stuck Skelton on a fourth-and-2 scramble to halt the ensuing drive at the 18-yard line -- one of 10 Arizona drives (76.9%) that reached Vikings territory, though only two produced points.
"He was a little nervous, I think," Williams said of Skelton, who got his 13th career start in place of injured Kevin Kolb (ribs). "He was hitting the back foot and trying to step up quickly. We did a good job rushing, and we can't forget the coverage."
The Vikings pressed, doubled and schemed to prevent the big play to star receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who finished with four catches for 29 yards.
They got another fourth-down stop when Kevin Williams sacked Skelton on fourth-and-10 from the Vikings' 37 with 6:16 to go.
They finished with huge deficits in first downs (21-12), net yards (356-209) and time of possession (35:05-24:55), one week after winning those categories in a loss at Washington that snapped a three-game winning streak -- and left players and coaches to own up in meetings.
"It didn't feel like a lost week around there," end Jared Allen said. "Guys had energy, guys had a sense of urgency to come out and play, understanding that we're coming home. ... I thought everybody prepared well and came out and just kept fighting. For being a young team, these guys are playing well."
Well enough, anyway, to have a chance to reach the midway point with more wins than many expected for the entirety of this rebuilding season.
They're still young, as Ponder's rocky showing reminded on Sunday without costing them the victory.
They're still remarkably healthy, without a single player landing on injured reserve since the season began.
They're living right, no question -- but also showing a knack for making the play they need whenever they give one or two away.
That's how a young team can stack wins and gain confidence at the time they need to, knowing well the challenges that lie on the second half of the schedule.
"The only thing we can control is what we do," Peterson said. "We just continue to keep that mindset, to focus and compete and improve this week. The sky is the limit."