After eight full games this season, Percy Harvin had 60 catches for 657 yards, adding two more catches and 10 yards the next game before an ankle injury ultimately ended his season.
At the time, teammates like Chad Greenway were championing Harvin for the league MVP, impressed with his toughness and desire to succeed. But without Harvin, the receiving corps and passing game in general started to look lost with the exception of a 221-yard performance against Detroit at the Metrodome on Nov. 11.
Since that Detroit game, Christian Ponder didn't throw for more than 160 yards in the next four games. Last week during an improbable win at Houston, Ponder was efficient while throwing for 174 yards and a touchdown. Sunday in a must-win game against the Green Bay Packers, Ponder and his receiving corps were even livelier, including the longest pass play of the season – a well-time, perfectly thrown 65-yard pass to rookie Jarius Wright to open the final touchdown drive of the game.
"We talked before that series, are we going to try to run some clock or do we want to take a shot and we had worked on that play a number of times at practice and kind of had it in our back pocket," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "We hit it some in practice and sometimes we didn't, and it just seemed like the right time. They had begun to get a little momentum so we were able to take that momentum away for a moment. Just seemed like the right time to call it."
Wright's big catch was the first play after the Packers had tied the game 27-27 in the fourth quarter and it advanced the ball from the Vikings' own 21-yard line to the Green Bay 14. Seven plays later, the Vikings had a 34-27 lead.
Back on Nov. 11 against Detroit, the first game without Harvin, Wright was active for the first time in his career. He had spent the initial nine games of his rookie season inactive and wondering what was happening.
"Honestly, it sucked for me coming out, used to playing, used to being able to make plays and make plays for the team to win. What I do completely changed," he said.
"At first I was young and didn't really understand the NFL, why I wasn't playing or anything like that. But I stayed humble and just believed in the Minnesota Vikings. … I just believed in them and they believed in me. As the season got on, they just kept showing me how much they believed in me."
In his first series of the season against Detroit, Wright caught a 54-yard pass. In his second-to-last series of the regular season, his 65-yarder against another division rival proved even more important. It helped the Vikings clinch a playoff berth and showed they can still win with a brand of football that features the best running back in the NFL, a solid defense and a receiving corps that is starting to evolve.
"I'm just so proud of our receivers and everybody on this team. We proved everybody wrong. We proved everybody wrong. A lot of people was talking about we don't have the receivers it takes to make it into the playoffs," said Jerome Simpson, who had three catches for 39 yards. "… This team stuck together when a lot of people didn't think we were going to do it."
All three of Simpson's catches went for first downs, with two of them coming on third down.
Michael Jenkins was just as timely with his catches, none bigger than a difficult 3-yard touchdown in which he changed directions while Ponder while scrambling and outdueled the Packers for the ball. That gave the Vikings the 34-27 lead at the end of the drive in which Wright started things with his 65-yarder.
"I knew I had to grab that one and kind of roll away from him so there wasn't any question if I caught it or not," Jenkins said.
On the next series, Simpson caught a 25-yard pass in between coverage along the left sideline to convert third-and-11 and help set up the game-winning field goal.
All told, the Vikings' receiving numbers weren't spectacular – 28 targets, 16 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns. But with a receiving corps that was dominated by Harvin during the first half of the season, having some form of balance is a welcome sight for the Vikings.
"Without Percy, at first I think it was a little bit like that for the simple fact you see how many yards Percy had and how many catches Percy had," said Wright, who said he still receives encouraging texts from Harvin. "So (Ponder) just had to get a little chemistry with everybody else and keep working hard as we go on."
Said Simpson: "Mike Jenkins, he came through when we needed him. Christian Ponder, he had a great game, too," Simpson said. "I'm just so proud of this team because we stuck together when a lot of people just really didn't think we would do it."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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