It was Week 7 last season when Adrian Peterson kicked things into high gear, putting the Minnesota Vikings on his powerful back and carrying them to a surprising playoff berth.
He topped 150 yards in seven of his final 10 games and racked up at least 200 yards twice in a jaw-dropping run of domination that is becoming increasingly rare in the aerial NFL. The exclamation point came on the final game of the season when he rushed for 199 yards and scored two touchdowns to beat the Green Bay Packers and clinch a trip to the postseason.
A year later, the Vikings head into their bye week needing their MVP running back to find that extra gear fast. The Vikings are 1-3, and even though they carry the momentum of their first victory, the team has all sorts of holes to address if it is going to withstand a brutal schedule and return to the playoffs.
Their passing game is shaky at best. Their secondary is banged up. Their linebackers have too often looked overwhelmed.
"As coaches, we're going to do a self-analysis of these first four weeks, try to learn about our football team, where we are, review our personnel and try to come out of this a better football team than we were going into the bye," coach Leslie Frazier said.
The biggest question is who will start at quarterback when the Vikings host the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 13. Christian Ponder, the team's first-round draft pick three years ago, struggled mightily in the first three games of the season, all losses. He threw five interceptions and lost two fumbles and didn't get much help from an offensive line that couldn't keep the pressure off of him, or open holes for Peterson.
Matt Cassel filled in last week while Ponder rested his injured ribs, and he gave the struggling unit a jolt. Cassel brought some much-needed rhythm and timing to the offense while throwing for 248 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-27 win over the Steelers.
Frazier said he will wait to see how Ponder's ribs respond to the week off before making a decision, but all indications are Cassel will be under center against the Panthers.
"My sole focus right now is to get healthy so I can get back to playing," Ponder said after the game in London. "It's out of my hands right now. It's the coaches decision. We're just going to enjoy this win and move on to Carolina when it gets here."
Frazier was asked several times whether Ponder was still the starter if he was healthy, and each time the coach declined to give a definitive answer.
"We'll talk about a lot of things when we get to next week but we'll see what happens when we get to next week," he said.
As good as Cassel — and the rest of the team — was against the Steelers, it's important for the Vikings not to put too much stock in just one game. The Steelers are 0-4 and appear to be a long way from the perennial Super Bowl contenders they have been for so long with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. And it's only going to get tougher for Minnesota from here.
"I think that that was the main thing for us was to just get started," Cassel said. "We needed to get that first win and we did. Hopefully that gives us some confidence if we move forward in the season."
They come out of the bye with the Panthers and a road game against the struggling Giants. Then comes a stretch that includes two games against the Packers, trips to Seattle, Baltimore and Cincinnati and home games against the Bears and Lions. Maybe that's why the relief was so apparent following the victory against Pittsburgh.
"If we can get back to .500 we definitely have a fighting chance," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We're steering the ship back in the right direction."
The Vikings would be wise to lean on Peterson. And he's right on cue.
Peterson racked up 140 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Steelers, including a 60-yard scoring run. He averaged an un-Peterson-like 3.5 yards per carry in their loss to the Cleveland Browns at home two weeks ago, but was back up to 6.1 yards per crack in London.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org