Vikings beat demons, Bills
MINNEAPOLIS — A month ago, the play that transpired with 4 minutes, 43 seconds left in the first quarter Sunday would have led to the Minnesota Vikings' undoing.
Tarvaris Jackson, in place of injured Brett Favre, threw a pass that Buffalo cornerback Drayton Florence stepped in front of and returned 40 yards for a touchdown. Under Brad Childress, that would have been a "here we go again" moment.
But under interim coach Leslie Frazier, Florence's touchdown ended up as a footnote following the Vikings' 38-14 demolition of a Bills team that looked every bit a bad as its 2-10 record at Mall of America Field.
The Vikings (5-7) are 2-0 under Frazier — their first winning streak this season.
"After that pick-six our team could have easily gone in the tank, and that didn't happen," Frazier said. "They responded in a proper way, and we talked about that all week long that we're going to face adversity over the course of four quarters and we've got to respond properly."
The first bit of adversity came on the third play from scrimmage, when Favre was hit in the back by linebacker Arthur Moats as Favre rolled out to pass. The ball popped into the air and was intercepted by Florence. Favre suffered a sprained sternoclavicular joint in his throwing (right) shoulder, did not return and will have an MRI Monday.
Frazier said that if Favre is healthy he will start against the Giants next Sunday. "No quarterback controversy," Frazier said. "Great job by Tarvaris. I don't want to take away from anything he did. He had a great game."
Great might be a little strong. Jackson threw one more interception (three) than he did touchdown passes (two), but he did rebound after Florence's touchdown, completing his next eight passes for 104 yards with two touchdowns. "I could have made a better read (on the first interception)," Jackson said, "(but) I still felt confident. It did help coming back out that next drive and getting that first completion."
The Vikings ended the half with five consecutive scoring drives — four touchdowns and a 38-yard Ryan Longwell field goal — and a 31-7 lead. The Vikings exited at home at the half for the first time this season without being accompanied by boos.
"We can feel it," linebacker Ben Leber said of the growing momentum. "The energy is definitely great. We've been having some great practices these last couple of weeks, and I think the hard work is really paying off on Sundays."
The Vikings also were missing two Pro Bowl players, receiver Percy Harvin (migraines) and guard Steve Hutchinson (broken right thumb).
"We just want to fight," Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "We know the type of team we have and the success we've had in the past. It hasn't gone the way we'd like this year, but we know how good this team can be, and it's starting to come around."
The Vikings nearly played without running back Adrian Peterson (sprained ankle), but he showed enough in a pregame workout that Frazier decided he could go. It turned out to be a very wise call. Peterson rushed for 107 yards on 16 carries with a season-high three touchdowns.
Receiver Sidney Rice, playing his third game since returning from hip surgery in August, looked like the 2009 version of himself, catching five passes for 105 yards with two touchdowns. He made two spectacular grabs in double coverage in the opening quarter, hauling in a 46-yarder on a third-and-11 and a 31-yard touchdown reception. On the second, a Vikings challenge led to the ruling that Rice had made the catch and stayed inbounds.
The defense created four of the Bills' five turnovers — the other came on a fumbled kickoff. The Vikings scored 21 points off miscues.
Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was never allowed to get into a rhythm. He was sacked only once despite facing consistent pressure and being hit five times, and leading receiver Stevie Johnson (nine touchdowns) had only two receptions for 36 yards.
Because of injuries the Bills used three centers, certainly one reason Fitzpatrick failed to hang on to a snap on third-and-goal from the Vikings 1 in the fourth quarter. Leber recovered that ball.
"That's a good football team," Fitzpatrick said of the Vikings. "You look at the year they had last year and they didn't lose many pieces, so I think they were having a down year obviously. But there's a ton of talent in that locker room."
Why did it take this long for the Vikings to become a difficult team again? Playing back-to-back games against less-than-stellar opponents in Washington and Buffalo certainly helps, but the Vikings' 38 points Sunday surpassed their previous high for the season by 11. And Buffalo hadn't lost a game by more than three points since early October.
"They've always wanted to win," Frazier said when asked if his team had become complacent or felt self-entitled. "They've always worked hard, but things just weren't clicking. We're in a good place now.
"Complacency and self-entitlement, you've got to know those guys in that room. You see today that's not who they are. They just want to win."
And under Frazier, they are now doing that.