MINNEAPOLIS -- The man who ought to be the NFL's Most Valuable Player was still on the field, doing a postgame interview. The Minnesota Vikings' much-maligned owner was whooping it up as he scampered out of the locker room, ebullient that his team had won 10 games, seven more than last season. Players were singing and clapping about being the league's most surprising playoff team. Security guards were holding the locker room door open for the MVP, who was the last Viking on the field after one of the most exciting, storyline-filled games of the season.
Moments before, the Vikings had secured their place in the playoffs with a last-second field goal to give them a 37-34 shootout victory in a win-and-you're-in game against the Green Bay Packers. Now, Adrian Peterson was asked a question by FOX's Pam Oliver. How did it feel to be 9 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record?
"Nine yards?" Peterson replied, surprised. "Nine yards, what? From breaking it?"
That's right. The man who just completed one of the most stunning seasons in NFL history -- 2,097 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns, an NFL-record seven games with more than 150 yards rushing, all this made more remarkable because it was done on a knee that was surgically reconstructed exactly one year ago Sunday -- had no idea where he stood. Most of football-watching America had been counting every yard as he closed in on the 28-year-old record. Peterson couldn't pay attention to any of that. There were more pressing things at hand. Even when they flashed his face on the big screen to mark him passing the vaunted 2,000-yard mark, Peterson didn't look up.
Peterson walked from the field to the locker room, his chance at the record gone but something more important now firmly in his grasp. His teammates shouted as the door closed behind him, their superstar ready to celebrate with his team. As the chattering class has done incessantly for the past few weeks, the chatter about who this league's MVP ought to be continues. The talk will continue for the next few days, until the ballots are cast and the playoffs begin.
It can be hard, in such a team-oriented sport, to quantify the contributions of an individual. How can you say that what Peyton Manning did for the 13-3 Denver Broncos was worth more than what Tom Brady did for the 12-4 New England Patriots? How can you tell who carried more of his team's load, Aaron Rodgers as the league's top-ranked passer or J.J. Watt as the league's top-ranked pass rusher?
What we can definitively say about Adrian Peterson, though, is this: Without him, the Minnesota Vikings are not a very good football team.
But with him? With him they're heading to the playoffs on a four-game winning streak, and after a season that included upset victories over the Packers, the Houston Texans and the San Francisco 49ers. With him they're one of the few offenses left in the NFL that runs the ball first and passes second, and they're exciting when they do it. With him they were able to win 10 games despite having the fewest passing yards in the NFC, and the NFL's 26th-rated passing quarterback. With him they went on a 4-1 December tear, with Peterson's December stat line reading like this: 210 rushing yards in the first game, 154 in the next, 212 in the third, 86 last week, 199 on Sunday -- an NFL record for rushing yards in a single month.
"He's incredible," Rodgers said afterward. "I just told him after the game he's the best. He's incredible to watch . . . He probably might have won the MVP today."
Moments after the locker room door closed behind Peterson, another door opened. Peterson was standing at his locker. His backfield teammate, Toby Gerhart, gave him a hug. A team employee helped him tug his jersey over his shoulder pads. Wide receiver Michael Jenkins, who'd caught three passes for 37 yards and a crucial fourth-quarter touchdown, slapped Peterson on the shoulder: "You did what you had to do." When a Minneapolis reporter told him he'd had 199 rushing yards on the day -- he needed 208 to break the record -- Peterson shrugged and smiled.
"It's all good," he said. "We live on for another day."
The only thing that mattered? As he'd told Oliver on the field moments before, "We got the W."
Everything about the Vikings' upset win, which vaulted them into a playoff rematch next weekend against the Packers at Lambeau Field, could be traced back to Peterson. Like most teams do against the Vikings, the Packers stacked the box, bringing their safeties up to guard the run. That helped open up the passing game, and second-year quarterback Christian Ponder capitalized. He played perhaps his best game as a pro, completing 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards, three touchdowns and, most importantly, zero interceptions. On the first play of a fourth-quarter drive when the game was tied, the Vikings figured the Packers would key on the run because of Peterson's dominance. So offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave called a play-action pass, and Ponder lofted one of the most beautiful passes of his career, a 65-yarder to a streaking Jarius Wright, which set up a touchdown.
And on the final drive, with the ball at midfield, the Vikings gave the ball to Peterson three times in a row: Four yards on the first. Zero yards on the second. And then on the third play, a 26-yard dash that brought the fans to their feet, hoping he could both set the record and send the Vikings to the playoffs in one fell swoop. He didn't. But instead of a dicey 50-or-so-yard field goal, Blair Walsh hit a 29-yard chip shot as time expired, and the Vikings lived another day.
Never mind the inspiring part of this story: That the first four games of this season Peterson couldn't cut from the left to the right because of his freshly repaired knee. Never mind the pressure put on Peterson's shoulders: As the Vikings have gone on this incredible December tear, it's been without the other dynamic weapon of their offense, Percy Harvin, who has been out since November with an injured ankle.
Just point to this: In their confidence, in their obvious joy with which they play the game, in their never-say-die attitude, the Vikings are a completely different team when Peterson's on the field.
"I don't think his season this year compares to anything else I've seen in this league," Carl Eller, the Vikings Hall of Fame defensive end, said in the Vikings' locker room. "It's not so much the record, which he came awfully close to. His tenacity. His enthusiasm and dedication and commitment. He lifts a team. He really does lift a team."
Head coach Leslie Frazier heaped praise on Peterson afterward: "He is without question the best running back in our game, and truly in my mind MVP of our league. We don't win this game today without the effort of Adrian Peterson." But what Eller said, that Peterson lifts this team on his shoulders with both his violent running style and his contagious attitude, is perhaps the truest example of why Peterson should be this league's MVP.
After showering and dressing, Peterson walked out of the locker room and into the interview room. He was dressed like a movie star, with a plaid tie framed by a sharp tan trench coat. He said he heard when the crowd was chanting "MVP!," and that he soaked it all in. He said he was bummed that he didn't get the record but didn't pay attention to his rushing totals, just winning: "I never knew. I never knew. And I really wasn't worried about it. I told myself I was coming into this game focused on one thing, and that was winning."
Yeah, sure, it's a clich. Player doesn't care about self; player cares only about team. In football, that mentality is more ingrained than in any other sport. You hear it so much in locker rooms that it makes your brain numb. But step back for a moment, forgetting about repaired knees and all-time great record. Just look at what this one player has meant to his team, a team that was supposed to be in a rebuilding season but that just sneaked into the playoffs by beating one of the NFL's juggernauts.
If that's not the definition of an MVP, I don't know what is.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.