If I had told you on New Year’s Day that 2012 would be the best year of Adrian Peterson’s career, you would have said I was nuts. Well, I may be nuts, but Adrian Peterson is also the best running back in the NFL, and playing better this season than he ever has before.
Peterson, the Vikings running back who suffered a torn ACL in Week 16 of last season and spent his New Year’s recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, looked at the start of this year like he might not even be able to play football at all in 2012. Instead, Peterson put himself through a grueling offseason rehabilitation program in which the only doubt the Vikings’ medical staff expressed was whether they could keep the hard-working Peterson from overdoing it. He was ready to go for the first game of the season.
And what a season it’s been. In Sunday’s win over the Lions, Peterson carried 27 times for 171 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first player in the NFL this season to top 1,000 yards. Peterson leads the league in rushing with 1,128 yards, and he’s on pace to gain 1,805 yards this season. That would be a career high, as would his current average of 5.8 yards per carry, and he’s also on pace for a career-high 46 catches this year. Statistically, Peterson is having his best season.
But it goes beyond the statistics. It’s that Peterson, who last made the playoffs as a young player on a 2009 team led by Brett Favre, is now the veteran leader of this 6-4 Vikings team, which has legitimate playoff aspirations. It’s that Peterson is doing everything against defenses that are built to stop him: On Sunday, with the Vikings’ top receiver, Percy Harvin, sidelined, the Lions were stacking eight and even nine players in the box to stop Peterson. But they simply couldn’t: He broke tackles, outran people, and even hurdled a defender on a spectacular demonstration that his knee is 100 percent healthy. (Although the run on which he hurdled a defender didn’t count toward his stats, as it was called back by a holding penalty.)
Now the question is whether the Vikings, who are one of the NFL’s pleasant surprises through 10 games, can do it for six more games. Frankly, the smart money says they can’t. The Vikings still have to play the Bears twice, the Packers twice and the Texans once. They’ll probably only be favored in one of their final six games, Week 15 at St. Louis. So at the end of the season, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Peterson’s heroics weren’t enough to lead the Vikings to a winning record.
But if the Vikings go through that gauntlet and end up in the playoffs, and if Peterson keeps up his current pace, it would represent by far the best season of his career. And it would make Peterson more than just the best running back in football. It would make him a strong candidate for the NFL’s MVP.
Peterson was the player who impressed me the most on Sunday. Here are my other Sunday thoughts:
Chip Kelly and Michael Vick would make a dynamic duo in 2013. Kelly, the Oregon head coach whose team is unbeaten this season, is widely regarded as a strong NFL head-coaching candidate. And Vick, the Eagles quarterback who suffered a concussion in Sunday’s loss against the Cowboys, is widely regarded as needing a fresh start after things have fallen apart for him in Philadelphia. So what could be better than Kelly (whose spread offense is predicated on having a quarterback who can beat defenses with his legs or his arm) coaching Vick (who is the NFL’s all-time leader for rushing yards by a quarterback)? Let me be the first to admit that it’s entirely possible that Kelly’s system wouldn’t work in the NFL, and it’s also entirely possible that Vick is simply done as a quality NFL starter. Yes, there’s a chance it would be an utter disaster. But there’s also a chance that Kelly and Vick would be an incredible pairing. I’d love to see it happen next season.
Titans running back Chris Johnson is the most inconsistent player in NFL history. After his 23-carry, 126-yard game against the Dolphins on Sunday, Johnson now has four games this season in which he gained more than 120 yards and at least 5.5 yards a carry. He also has four games this season in which he gained less than 25 yards and averaged less than 2.2 yards a carry. It seems impossible that a player who’s capable of the kind of greatness we routinely see from Johnson is also capable of turning in the kinds of dreadful performances that have become routine for Johnson. But that’s what Chris Johnson is: On any given Sunday he might be the best running back in the league, or the worst.
Did they bring back the replacement refs? (Part One) Broncos punt returner Trindon Holliday raced 76 yards for a touchdown in Carolina, but there was just one problem: He decided to start celebrating his touchdown after 75 yards. Holliday flipped the ball into the air before crossing the goal line, which means it should have been ruled a fumble into the end zone and the Panthers’ ball. But the officials on the field for some reason ruled it a touchdown, and even more egregiously, the replay assistant failed to signal to the referee to review it — even though the rules say that every touchdown needs to be confirmed on replay before the extra point is kicked. It was a stupid mistake by Holliday, a major oversight by the officials on the field, and it ought to be a firing offense for the replay assistant who failed to fix it.
Did they bring back the replacement refs? (Part Two) In one of the worst pieces of officiating you’ll ever see, the Vikings were briefly awarded an interception return for a touchdown on an incomplete pass — an incomplete pass that was so incredibly obvious that it’s stunning that none of the seven officials on the field saw that the ball bounced off the ground. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford’s incomplete pass bounced into the hands of Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who grabbed it and just stood there for a couple of seconds before he realized that none of the officials had seen it hit the ground, at which point he sprinted into the end zone for what was ruled on the field as a touchdown. The call was correctly overturned on replay, but it’s ridiculous that the officials needed replay to get that one right.
Did they bring back the replacement refs? (Part Three) Sunday’s most replacement-like officiating happened in the bizarre tie game in San Francisco, where the men in stripes simply looked like they had no clue. Long delays, conferences in which all of the officials appeared to be confused, and bad calls abounded. The worst of all was a strange sequence in which the officials allowed the clock to keep running while they brought out the chains for a measurement, resulting in more than a minute being wrongly run off the clock. Mistakes like that are inexcusable.
Indianapolis is going to the playoffs. The Colts’ win on Thursday, combined with losses by the Chargers and Dolphins on Sunday, give Indianapolis a two-game lead over the rest of the pack in the AFC wild card race. Considering that the Colts still have games against the 3-6 Bills, the 4-5 Lions, the 4-6 Titans and the 1-7 Chiefs, it’s almost impossible to envision Indianapolis falling short of a winning record, and this looks like a season in which anything over .500 is going to be good enough to secure an AFC playoff spot. Amazing as it is to say, the team that finished last year with the worst record in the league will finish this year in the playoffs. That’s almost as amazing as a running back who entered the year with a devastating knee injury finishing the year as an MVP candidate.