NFC North: Three answers 17
ESPN.com is planning a season wrap-up feature for later Monday, so we'll avoid duplication and bag the full complement of our "Three answers" feature. But it probably makes sense to offer an expanded version for playoff-bound Minnesota, which gives us a chance to tie up some loose ends from Sunday's wild events. So without further ado:
After the Vikings' 20-19 victory over the New York Giants, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
1. Celebrations are for Sunday night and second-guessing is for Monday morning. So it's only fair to point out a pair of end-game facts. (A) At least five Giants starters were on the sideline as the Vikings scored the final 10 points of the game. (B) Placekicker Ryan Longwell bailed out the Vikings from an inexcusable stretch of indecision. Almost 20 seconds ticked off the clock between the time tailback Adrian Peterson was tackled at the 32-yard line and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson finally called a timeout. The Vikings should have called an immediate timeout or let the clock dwindle to 5 seconds or less. Instead, the timeout came at 9 seconds. Longwell jogged onto the field. The Giants called a timeout to ice him. Only then did the Vikings decide to run another play, ensuring that the forthcoming kick would be the game's last play. That move ultimately allowed the Giants to ice Longwell again. Longwell is largely unflappable, but forcing him to sit through three timeouts was unnecessary. The Vikings sideline was in chaos at the time. Coaches were yelling at one another and several players seemed agitated by the turn of events. And for all the Vikings knew, the NFC North was on the line. (In reality, Chicago was losing at Houston). Let this be a lesson for dealing with pressure: Take the simplest path possible. And, for good measure, don't compound the original mistake by trying to run more time off the clock with another play. (Don't forget, the Vikings were out of timeouts. A fumbled snap on the time-decreasing play would have ended the game).
2. Peterson held off Atlanta tailback Michael Turner to win the NFL rushing title, gaining 67 yards on one play and 36 yards on his other 20 carries. Peterson deserves some credit for breaking a 67-yard run at the end of a season in which he carried 363 times. But even a casual observer could notice a hitch in his gait during that run, and there is no doubt he is worn down to some extent. Also worth noting: New York's defense is modeled after the scheme Philadelphia will bring to the Metrodome this weekend. One fact you can rest assured of: Peterson will continue giving maximum effort. That's half the battle.
3. Vikings fans might be a little nervous about the way Jackson played Sunday. He was late with a throw to Bernard Berrian in the end zone, resulting in an interception. He completed deep throws to Berrian and Bobby Wade, but in both cases they were forced to slow down their routes to make the catch. (Wade might have had a touchdown had he caught the ball in stride). Jackson also played a role in the endgame indecision, and overall didn't look as sharp as he has in recent weeks. Some of that can be attributed to the Giants' exotic pass rush package, one that left free blitzers coming at him for much of the game. Jackson better adjust quickly, however, as the Eagles use the same scheme.
And here is one question I'm still asking:
How many NFC teams can you say are flat-out better than the Vikings? I guess this is a roundabout way of asking how far Minnesota might push into the playoffs. The fact is the Vikings defeated the top two seeds (New York and Carolina) and the No. 4 seed (Arizona) during the regular season. No. 5 seed Atlanta beat them, 24-17, on the strength of four takeaways, and the Vikings will get a chance to match up with the sixth-seeded Eagles on Sunday. Playoff games are truly about which team plays better on that given day. But you wonder if the Vikings don't have the capacity to play better than all five of the other NFC seeds.