With every razor-sharp cut in the hole and every breakaway run, Adrian Peterson is doing more than instilling hope in any athlete who has torn an ACL this year.
His remarkable recovery from a major knee injury just 10 months ago is also showing his Minnesota Vikings teammates that anything is possible. Maybe even a playoff berth in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season.
The Vikings (6-4) enter the bye week right in the thick of the postseason picture, thanks in large part to their star running back doing what many thought impossible. Not even a year out from surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his left knee, Peterson is barreling through the league again just like he did before he was hurt, striking fear into opposing defenses and galvanizing a young team with limitations on offense that desperately needed him.
"I think Adrian is an inspiration for our entire squad, our entire organization," coach Leslie Frazier said. "What he has accomplished, in a lot of ways, is mind-boggling in so many ways."
Peterson leads the league in rushing, more than 100 yards ahead of Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, is averaging a career-high 5.8 yards per carry and has topped 120 yards and scored at least once in the last four games.
The NFL's best running back, as crazy as it may sound, could be even better now than he was before his left knee collapsed in Washington last season. He's setting up his blocks more patiently, trusts the play design more implicitly and appears to have regained his speed and agility faster than most running backs who are coming off a torn ligament.
"That guy's a monster," defensive end Jared Allen said after Peterson rushed for 171 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Lions last weekend. "Are you kidding me? Good luck trying to catch him. That dude's phenomenal."
Conventional thinking is that it takes a player, particularly a skill position player like a running back, a little less than a year to return from the injury and two years before he is returns to full strength, if he ever does at all. Peterson vowed to return in time for the season opener, which he did, but it took a few games before he started to really break out.
His first 100-yard game came in Week 4 against Detroit, and it's been pedal to the metal ever since. He's had runs of 64, 74 and 61 yards in the last three weeks and is averaging 7.8 yards per carry over the last month. He's been so good that he said occasionally a defender will come up to him after a run and tell him, "You're great."
"I guess it shocked me," Peterson said. "You're out there, you're playing against guys and they come up and say different things like that to you. It's humbling. But I know that I'm blessed so I just take it in for what it is and just say thanks."
As impressive as Peterson has been through the first 10 games, the Vikings are going to need even more from him. They face a brutal stretch coming out of the bye — at Chicago, at Green Bay, Chicago at home, at St. Louis, at Houston and the season finale at home against the Packers.
If they're going to chase down that playoff spot and surprise the rest of the league, they're going to earn it.
"We'll worry about our problems when they come, but we obviously know who we have coming up on our schedule," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "The next three weeks are huge. We just have to be men on the road. We have to figure out a way to go to tough spots and get wins that are ugly and that count. We have to figure that out."
The victory over the Lions last weekend was crucial for the team's psyche, with a three-game losing streak going into the break a sure sign of disaster. They also hope to get Percy Harvin back from a sprained left ankle.
"You go into a three-game skid into the bye, I don't know if guys come back so focused," Allen said. "I'll be honest, I don't know if I come back so focused. You have a whole week to sit there and wonder what if and then you start questioning things. ... to come back and answer the way we did and play in a dominant fashion, it really boosts guys' confidence."
Seeing No. 28 in purple rack up yards and touchdowns has done wonders for the team's outlook as well, and it's no surprise that the Vikings are starting their "Adrian For MVP" campaign.
"I haven't seen all the guys around the league, but it's hard for me to imagine a guy doing more for his football team than what Adrian has done for our team," Frazier said. "And the fact that he has been so dominant over the course of the season. He's pulling away with his domination as a runner."
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