MINNEAPOLIS – The New York Giants were already comfortably in the playoffs. The Minnesota Vikings? There was nothing comfortable about their situation, let alone their entire season.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, right, is sacked by New York Giants safety Michael Johnson (20) for a 13-yard loss as Giants defensive tackle Mathias Kiwanuka (97) adds pressure during the first quarter of an NFL football game in Minneapolis, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008.
(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
With plenty of practice in dealing with drama, the Vikings rallied past the resting Giants for a 20-19 victory on Sunday afternoon to qualify for the postseason for the first time in four years.
"They had to earn it, as it should be, and that makes it that much sweeter," coach Brad Childress said.
Ryan Longwell's 50-yard field goal as time expired gave Minnesota its first division title since 2000, rendering Chicago's game at Houston moot. The Bears lost to the Texans 31-24 anyway, but this was the way the Vikings (10-6) were determined to go in. They didn't want to back into their first NFC North crown since the league realigned six years ago.
"It wouldn't have felt the same if we won the division by default," Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson said.
Minnesota will host a first-round game next Sunday, against Philadelphia.
Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was benched after two losses to open the season, the offense struggled into October, star middle linebacker E.J. Henderson was lost for the season to a foot injury, and the Vikings took a 3-4 record into their bye week. But they rebounded by winning five of their final six games and despite last week's fumble-laden loss to Atlanta and Chicago's overtime win over Green Bay, they still had control of the tiebreaker — and their fate.
The Giants (12-4) gave the Vikings a break well before the game started by beating Carolina last week to clinch the top seed and gain home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Derrick Ward, who fueled last week's win over the Panthers, gave the Giants a pair of 1,000-yard rushers — only the fourth such running back tandem in NFL history — by finishing with 77 yards on 15 carries. Brandon Jacobs got there earlier this month. The last set of teammates to do that in the same season was Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner of the Cleveland Browns in 1985.
They put four starters on the inactive list: Jacobs (knee), tight end Kevin Boss (ankle), cornerback Aaron Ross (concussion) and nose tackle Barry Cofield (knee). Quarterback Eli Manning was joined on the sideline by a steady stream of other regulars during the second half. When Jackson found a wide-open Bernard Berrian for a 54-yard touchdown pass to cut New York's lead to two points midway through the fourth quarter, it was a third-string cornerback — Terrell Thomas — who fell down trying to cover him.
"They're a very talented team, and we knew coming in they were going to give us everything they had," said Domenik Hixon, who caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from David Carr that gave the Giants a 16-10 edge in the third quarter.
Really, it was the Giants who gave the Vikings all they could handle despite a bunch of backups on the field and a clearly conservative offensive strategy in the second half.
"We always talk about improvement and how important improvement is. That's the way to improve right there, under game conditions," coach Tom Coughlin said.
Jackson threw his first interception in 13 quarters since taking over for Gus Frerotte, a zinger into the end zone that James Butler grabbed and returned to near midfield. John Carney's fourth field goal stretched the lead to 19-10 early in the fourth, but his fifth attempt from 48 yards was wide right with 3:17 left.
The Vikings then crawled through a frantic, unorganized final drive and got just close enough for Longwell to kick the winner.
"I think this game's going to build character and give us something to reflect back on," defensive end Jared Allen said.
Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo ordered a bevy of blitzes and kept Jackson from finding any room to run or get comfortable in the pocket. Adrian Peterson fumbled for the sixth time this month, but he made amends later in the first quarter with a 67-yard touchdown run that put the Vikings up 10-0.
Peterson finished with 103 yards on 21 carries and held off Atlanta's Michael Turner for the NFL rushing title. He also became the fifth player in league history to reach 3,000 yards in his first two years, joining Eric Dickerson (Rams), Edgerrin James (Colts), Earl Campbell (Oilers) and Clinton Portis (Broncos).
The victory, of course, was what he really wanted. He proudly put on a gray cap commemorating the division title as he left the interview room.
"It was rocky," Peterson said, "but we continued to fight.
Notes:@ The Vikings gave up 135 yards rushing, hurting their chance to finish first in the league in run defense for the third straight season. ... Carr finished 8-for-11 for 110 yards and no turnovers. ... Vikings DE Ray Edwards hurt his left knee and will have an MRI on Monday.