Adrian Peterson chose No. 29 for his high school jersey because he idolized Eric Dickerson growing up in Palestine, Texas.
Peterson switched to No. 28 in college when 29 wasn't available. But he never stopped emulating Dickerson, and always hoped he could one day break his NFL single-season rushing record.
With two regular-season games left, Peterson, who is just under a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, needs 294 yards surpass the 2,105 yards Dickerson gained in 1984.
"I was always compared to Eric Dickerson being from Texas and his upright style of running or whatnot. It would mean a lot," Peterson said of breaking the record. "He set a bar, something for running backs to chase and envision on breaking his record. It has inspired me to get there and break it. I appreciate him."
The path won't be easy, with Peterson and the Vikings (8-6) traveling to face the AFC South champion Houston Texans on Sunday. The Texans have the league's fifth best run defense and are one win away from securing both a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
"That's one of our team goals we set at the beginning of the season," Houston's Andre Johnson said. "We're going to go out and try to get that accomplished on Sunday. It's better to have it done Sunday than try to do it the following week."
The Vikings still have a shot at a wild-card berth in the NFC, but would likely need to win both of their remaining games and get some help to secure a spot. Peterson said any personal goals he's shooting for are secondary to helping his team get into the postseason.
"If I continue to play the way I've been playing, I'll be able to continue what I told myself earlier and help lead my team to a championship," Peterson said. "They kind of go hand-in-hand. If you rip off a 200-, 300-yard game, you get a 'W,' you're doing what you told yourself that you were going to do in the offseason."
Peterson needs 188 yards to become the seventh player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards and first since Chris Johnson did it in the 2009 season. He has a franchise-record eight straight 100-yard games and has ran for more than 200 yards in two of the last three weeks, making him a top candidate for the NFL's most valuable player.
What's perhaps most impressive is that he's had his best games in the five weeks since receiver Percy Harvin went down with an injury and Minnesota's passing game fell to last in the NFL.
"It's not like we have a lot of things around him," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of Peterson. "We have an offensive line that is doing a great job, but this is a new offensive line for the most part ... for Adrian to be doing what he's doing with the pieces around him, he's comeback player, MVP for sure."
This week he'll face a defense allowing just 93.2 yards rushing a game. A big reason for Houston's stingy defense is star defensive end J.J. Watt. Like Peterson, Watt is also on the cusp of setting an NFL record. He needs 3½ sacks to break Michael Strahan's NFL single-season sack record of 22½.
Watt has a total of 33 tackles for losses, 38 quarterback hits, 15 passes defended and has forced three fumbles.
It's a performance coach Gary Kubiak believes should put him in the conversation for MVP.
"There's not enough words to describe the type of season he's having," Kubiak said. "I think in due time everybody else will make their statement on that (MVP) toward the end of the season and what they think. But he's been exceptional and for a second-year player this is exciting. Hopefully he's here doing it a long, long time."
This game is a rare showcase of arguably the best offensive and defensive players in the league. Adding in their pursuit of records takes the matchup to another level.
"I can't recall two that are so close to breaking records that are about to face one another," Frazier said. "It's great for the game. But the most important thing for me and everybody in our organization is to figure out a way to win this game, and I'm sure that means finding a way to block J.J. Watt."
Peterson raved about Watt and said it seemed like there was no way to scheme for the defensive end when he was watching film of him this week. Watt is eager to face Peterson.
"You always want to prove yourself against the best of the best," Watt said. "Anytime you have a chance to go up against somebody who's doing historic things like he might do this year, you look forward to that opportunity and you cherish it."
While much of the focus for this game is on Peterson, he isn't the only star offensive player in this game. Houston's Arian Foster and Andre Johnson lead the AFC in rushing and receiving, respectively.
Foster has 1,313 yards rushing and Johnson has 1,360 yards receiving. Johnson has improved as the season has progressed and has piled up 1,002 yards receiving in the last eight games.
Johnson is the only player remaining from when Houston went a franchise-worst 2-14 in 2005. The Texans (12-2) have already set a franchise record for wins this season. If they win out, they'd have as many wins this year as they did losses in that terrible season.
"Those were some rough days, hard days to come to work," Johnson said remembering 2005. "This year is ... the most fun I've had since I've been in the NFL. And I'm just enjoying it, I'm enjoying every moment of it."
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