MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings didn't come to the Metrodome on Sunday to clinch a spot in the playoffs, although -- as a point of historical fact -- that's what they did. By beating the Bengals 30-10, they won their 11th game and locked up a playoff berth. But they didn't come here simply to beat the Bengals.
They wanted to beat the Bengals up.
And good heaven on earth, that's what they did.
"Had to send a message," said mammoth Vikings offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie. "Passing the ball is great, and we like to win any way we can, but sometimes you have to be physical. Run the ball when you want to run -- that's what we were out to prove today."
The Vikings proved that and then some, and not just because starting tailback Adrian Peterson is -- since we're quoting historical facts here -- one of the most accomplished young running backs in NFL history. Remember, Peterson also was their starting running back last week against Arizona when he ran 13 times for 19 yards. That's nineteen. It was his second-worst game as a pro, and it came in a 30-17 loss.
"Back to basics today," Vikings offensive guard Steve Hutchinson said. "That was a bunch of Day 1 [running] plays from training camp. We knew [the Bengals] had a very physical defense -- they were No. 1 in the league in scoring defense -- and we pride ourselves in being able to play physical, too."
Done. Peterson ran 26 times for 97 yards, and while that translates to a pedestrian average of 3.7 yards per carry, his average was skewed by the number of times he pounded into the heart of the Bengals defense inside the 10-yard line. Five times he carried the ball inside the 10, those five carries spread between two separate scoring drives, and all five times he gained positive yardage. Peterson capped both drives with short touchdown runs.
"Last week was disappointing," Peterson said. "We watched film, and there wasn't much to say. ... But facing a good team in Cincinnati offensively and defensively, we pretty much dominated."
On both sides of the ball, too. One cornerback, Cedric Griffin, destroyed Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco near the goal line to break up a pass, drawing a penalty for roughness but effectively taking the Bengals' only downfield receiving threat out of the game. Catches for Ochocinco through three quarters: three. Catches for Ochocinco in the fourth quarter: zero.
Another cornerback, Antoine Winfield -- a ferocious hybrid who supports the run like a safety -- returned after missing six games with a foot injury and led Minnesota with nine tackles. One of them was probably the biggest play of the game, a fumble-forcing hit on Bengals running back Brian Leonard with four seconds left in the first half. That gave the Vikings just enough time to kick a 44-yard field goal for a 16-7 lead and every ounce of momentum going into halftime.
|Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer feels the wrath of the Vikings on Sunday. (Getty Images)|
"He's a collision football player," Vikings coach Brad Childress said of Winfield. "Those are the kinds of things you miss."
Even before Winfield went out with the injured foot, though, the Vikings hadn't earned a physical identity. They were molded in the image of their quarterback, Brett Favre, who got off to the best 10-game start of his 19-year career. Through 10 games he had 24 touchdowns and just three interceptions, and the Vikings looked very much like a finesse team. Nothing wrong with being a finesse team -- except for on a day like last week at Arizona, when the Cardinals decided to punch the finesse team in the mouth, and the Vikings did nothing in response but bleed.
Sunday, the Vikings took it out on Cincinnati. Griffin sent Ochocinco's helmet flying. Peterson took on bruising Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe and sent Ndukwe tumbling backward.
Even when the Bengals tried to get tough, the Vikings sneered. In the third quarter, 305-pound defensive tackle Tank Johnson drove Favre into the turf, landing on top of him at the end of the sack, and Favre simply got up and threw a 26-yard completion to Peterson. Four players later Peterson followed his surging offensive line into the end zone from 1 yard out. In the locker room later, Favre was laughing with teammates about the Tank Johnson sack.
"That was a good slam," Favre said to a group of teammates. "You liked that, didn't you?"
In another part of the locker room, Winfield was talking about the non-play that had the Metrodome buzzing.
"I heard it," he said.
It happened early in the second quarter, after Winfield dropped what should have been an easy interception. He immediately dove to the turf and did 10 push-ups, paying penance in a way that had the crowd roaring. His teammates were fired up, too. On the next play, three of them swarmed Carson Palmer, hitting the Bengals quarterback so hard that he got to his feet yelling at his offensive line about its lack of support. Palmer finished with 94 yards passing, the third-lowest total of his seven-year career.
Just like the Vikings in the NFC, the Bengals will get to the playoffs, too. One more win and they're the AFC North champion -- and Kansas City visits Cincinnati on Dec. 27. But the only way they'll see the Vikings in the postseason is if both teams make it to the Super Bowl, and that rematch wouldn't bode well for the Bengals. Not after a beating like Sunday, when Cincinnati was the team that got punched in the mouth and responded by bleeding and going home.