The heavy focus on Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and the Texans' pursuit of home-field advantage in the playoffs was warranted. Understandably overlooked as equally significant was the Vikings defense, which played a major role on Sunday.
The Vikings shackled the Texans' sixth-ranked offense and kept alive their postseason aspirations despite a pedestrian performance by Peterson, grinding out a 23-6 victory over Houston at Reliant Stadium.
Peterson entered play with 1,812 rushing yards and within shouting distance of the single-season NFL record of 2,105 set by Eric Dickerson in 1984. The Texans made Peterson labor for his 86 yards on 25 attempts, but their inability to control Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder proved to be their undoing. Ponder effectively set the table for rookie kicker Blair Walsh, who drilled three field goals for the Vikings (9-6), who opened Sunday one of five NFC teams with eight victories.
"All I know is that we have to win," said Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, who recorded five tackles and one quarterback hit. "That is our main focus right now and it doesn't get any easier for us going into next week (hosting the NFC North-champion Green Bay Packers). It now becomes a one-game season next week."
The Texans (12-3) needed to win to secure the top overall seed in the AFC. But after marching downfield to score on their opening possession, the Texans stalled repeatedly and didn't score again until kicker Shayne Graham hit a 33-yard field goal with 26 seconds left in the third period.
"We didn't play a good football game," Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said. "Give credit to the Vikings; they came out here and they won a football game. But we need to play better.
"We'll be just fine. This team, we know what it takes. Today we didn't play our game. We're going to get things corrected, we're going to have a great week of practice, we're going to be very focused and we're going to come out next week (at the Indianapolis Colts) and go earn ourselves home-field advantage."
That drive late in the third quarter was a microcosm of the Texans' ineffective offense. Pressed into a sense of urgency, the Texans surged into the red zone after starting from their 39-yard line, and nearly sliced the Vikings' 16-3 lead to one score before Kevin Walter was tackled at the one-yard line.
That yard was monumental. The Vikings had dominated the line of scrimmage, limiting the Texans to 34 rushing yards on 16 attempts. Facing first-and-goal, the Texans attempted just one running play -- backup Ben Tate was stuffed for no gain on second down -- and settled for that Graham kick after Fred Davis sacked Matt Schaub for a 14-yard loss on third down. The Texans failed to fashion a threat in the fourth.
"It was really ugly," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "We made things really hard on ourselves. Not good. I don't know what else to tell you."
Ponder finished 16-for-30 for 174 yards and a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph. He also rushed for 48 yards on seven carries and nimbly avoided pressure from the Texans' celebrated front seven. Watt recorded the Texans' lone sack of Ponder in the third quarter.
The Vikings limited the Texans to just 187 yards and 11 first downs. The Texans lead the league in time of possession yet held the ball for just 25:14 Sunday. They were forced into six three-and-outs and converted just one of their 11 third downs. Running back Arian Foster, the AFC leader in rushing yards (1,313) at kickoff, finished with 15 yards on 10 carries before departing with an irregular heartbeat that wasn't considered serious.
"We talked about the importance of being physical. We talk about that every week," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "There was no greater time for us to display the characteristics we talk about as a team every week. We thought all our team characteristics would have to come into play to make this work from a defensive standpoint, and our guys practiced that way throughout the week.
"They understood the physicality that was going to be necessary."
NOTES: Walsh set an NFL record with his ninth field goal of 50 yards or more this season, kicking a 56-yarder at the 8:15 mark of the second quarter. ... With his five-yard reception on the Texans' second play from scrimmage, receiver Andre Johnson became the 25th player in NFL history with 800 career receptions. Johnson did so in his 137th game. Only Marvin Harrison, who did it in 131 games, accomplished it faster. ... Rudolph closed to within two touchdowns of the Vikings team record for a tight end. Visanthe Shiancoe had 11 touchdowns in 2009.