Dominant Defense Lifts Favre's Vikings Into Playoffs
Sunday, the Vikings played as if they'd heard Childress loud and clear, clobbering the Cincinnati Bengals 30-10. They dominated the line of scrimmage. They blanketed the receivers, shutting down the Cincinnati passing game and holding Carson Palmer to 94 passing yards. They clinched a playoff spot and re-established their credentials as a leading contender to represent the NFC in Miami on Feb. 7.
"This," Vikings defensive lineman Jared Allen said, "is how we expect to play."
This was big for Minnesota. The loss to the Cardinals exposed all kinds of flaws. Adrian Peterson couldn't run the ball in that game. Brett Favre was throwing interceptions. The defense got pushed around and manhandled, and it lost middle linebacker E.J. Henderson for the year to a gruesome broken leg. Had the Vikings shown up and lost a home game to the Bengals, alarm bells would have ringing loud enough to ripple all 10,000 lakes.
"Everybody was motivated to come out and get a win and prevent a two-game slide," Vikings linebacker Ben Leber said. "Because when you start losing games in bunches this time of year, that's when doubt can creep in. We don't have any doubt in here, and we don't want any."
So they didn't leave any. They hounded Palmer early in the game, executing a game plan whose first goal was to make the Cincinnati quarterback uncomfortable and get him checking down to his tight ends and running backs. With Chad Ochocinco as the Bengals' only real deep threat, the Vikings believed they could clamp down on the Cincy passing game if they forced Palmer into short stuff early and prevented him from getting into a rhythm with Ocho.
Key to this plan was the return of Antoine Winfield. The veteran cornerback had missed the previous six games with a foot injury but returned for this one, just in time to help the Vikings overcome the loss of their defensive leader, Henderson.
"Just the excitement level and the confidence we have when he's out on the edge," Allen said. "You can feel the difference."
Winfield flew around the field early, breaking up passes and delivering crunching hits in the secondary. When he dropped a sure interception, he dropped to the ground and did push-ups, delighting the raucous Metrodome crowd.
"Felt like the first game of the year," Winfield said. "It felt great. I'll definitely be sore, probably the whole week, but it felt great to be back out there."
This was a hard-hitting, defense-dominated game. On the offensive side of the ball, Favre took a pounding as the Bengals defensive line pressured him most of the day with only four guys. Neither team scored in the first quarter, and the game's first touchdown didn't come until there was 8:50 left in the first half and Favre broke free from the rush to find Sidney Rice wide open in the end zone.
"They have a very good defense, very good," Favre said of the Bengals. "Their two corners are as good as anybody in the league. They're very aggressive up front. Defensively speaking, if there was ever a game to 'manage' going in, this was it. I didn't feel the urge to score maybe like I did last week. The passes that we completed, really all of the plays that we had that were successful, were hard-earned."
But as tough as Cincinnati's defense was, Minnesota's was tougher. They forced the Bengals into mistakes on offense. They forced Palmer to settle. For stretches, they let Cedric Benson bang away at the middle, but they were so focused on limiting the passing game that they felt that was okay. And the plan worked.
"Oh man, awesome," Ochocinco said of the Minnesota defense. "I can only speak from the secondary standpoint, but Cedric Griffin, Antoine Winfield and Madieu Williams did a hell of a job."
And that, really, is the whole point with this year's Vikings. As compelling and overplayed as Favre's story is, he is not the whole story of the 2009 Vikings season. If they are to be successful, he cannot be. He knows this. He and everybody connected with the Vikings knows they will win with a dominant defense, and with a running game that rebounded with 142 yards against a Cincinnati defense that hadn't allowed a team to reach 100 in eight straight games. The Vikings can play as physical as any team in the league and can dominate in so many ways.
This game was an important opportunity to show that, and they did it. In many ways, coming out and playing the kind of game they played, against a fellow Super Bowl contender, was more important than triggering the mathematical formula that ensures they will now be no worse than a wild-card team this year.
"Not focused on that," Childress said. "Somebody told me we did that. I'm sure those guys will figure that out. Ultimately, that is not where we're headed, goal-wise."
Sunday, a week after getting humiliated on national TV, the Vikings were right back to looking the way they've looked all year -- like a team that can reasonably hold out for the biggest goal of them all.