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Adrian Peterson keying Minnesota Vikings' renaissance in 2015

OAKLAND, Calif. -- As an autumn wind whipped across the visitors' sidelines at Coliseum on Sunday afternoon, and an unlikely division leader's fifth consecutive win loomed, three Minnesota Vikings at different stages of their football lives converged to lament what might have been.

The triumphant trio -- Terence Newman, a cornerback who launched his NFL career before the dawn of Facebook; Teddy Bridgewater, a second-year quarterback on a quiet path to stardom; and Adrian Peterson, a rejuvenated running back rebounding from a lost, scandal-plagued season to reaffirm his status as one of the best the sport has ever known -- spent the timeout following the two-minute warning discussing a hypothetical: Could the 37-year-old Newman, after adroitly intercepting Raiders quarterback Derek Carr's fade to the right corner of the end zone, have sashayed his way to a 100-plus-yard touchdown had he elected not to take a knee?

"I thought you were gonna take that to the house," Peterson told Newman. "You had a lot of green in front of you. You would have got there, too. But I'm not mad that you didn't."

Then Peterson, Newman and Bridgewater began laughing in unison -- the 13th-year cornerback's second interception of the game, after all, was the takeaway that kept on giving. On the ensuing play, Bridgewater handed the ball to Peterson, who ripped through the Raiders' front seven, sped into the secondary and pulled away like American Pharoah down the stretch of The Belmont.

You know, the usual.

As Peterson completed the 80-yard touchdown run that finished off the Vikings' 30-14 victory over the Raiders, moving Minnesota (7-2) ahead of the rival Green Bay Packers and into first place in the NFC North, it seemed quite possible that the football landscape had undergone a surprising shift. When the Vikings host the reeling Packers (6-3) at TCF Bank Stadium next Sunday, don't expect the upstarts in purple to be overwhelmed by the four-time defending division champs.

"We're just gonna stay in our shell, and hopefully continue to stay under the radar," Peterson told me as he stood at his locker following Sunday's game. "But yeah, inside this locker room, we're a pretty confident group."

When it comes to confidence-boosters, the 30-year-old runner known affectionately as "Purple Jesus" is as potent as they come. As 54,700 fans at the Coliseum and millions of television viewers were reminded on Sunday, any chatter about Peterson having been surpassed by Marshawn Lynch, Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles or anyone else is entirely premature.

As Vikings wideout Mike Wallace put it after Sunday's game: "Stop. Just stop. There's only one. And he's ours."

For those who still haven't figured out why the player often erroneously referred to as "AP" is called "AD" by friends and family members, Peterson's unparalleled excellence (26 carries, 203 yards) was on full display All Day against the Silver and Black. His sixth career 200-yard rushing day matched O.J. Simpson for the most in NFL history, and he joined Jim Brown as the only players to have surpassed 11,000 yards and 90 touchdowns in their first 113 games.

Five years after he retires, Peterson will join Brown, Simpson and the game's other great runners in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the meantime, Peterson, who leads the NFL with 961 rushing yards, is well on his way to earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. This would be a truly amazing feat, given how far he had fallen in 2014, when he was indicted on felony child-abuse charges (he later pleaded to a misdemeanor) and spent all but the first game of the season on the league's Commissioner's Exempt List. His future with the Vikings -- and in football, period -- was very much in doubt.

Now, he's part of a Vikings Renaissance under second-year coach Mike Zimmer that few saw coming before this season. In fairness, even fewer could have envisioned it the last time the Vikes, who'd gone 7-9 in 2014, visited the San Francisco Bay Area: On Sept. 14, the first Monday night of the 2015 campaign, Minnesota endured a 20-3 thrashing at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers and looked pretty damned far from respectable.

"We got lambasted," Zimmer recalled as he exited the Coliseum and headed to the team bus Sunday. "I was shocked. Honestly, I'd never seen that team before. Normally, we practice hard, we study hard, work hard and play hard, but that night was just horrible. I remember saying at halftime, 'I don't even know who this team is.' "

He does now, and a whole lot of others are starting to figure it out. The Vikings have won seven of eight games since that regrettable night in Santa Clara, dropping a 23-20 decision to the Denver Broncos in early October before launching their current five-game winning streak.

And though Bridgewater doesn't garner as much national attention as some of the league's other promising young quarterbacks -- including Carr, the passer drafted four spots below him in 2014 who had a typically prolific game on Sunday -- he is playing a significant role in Minnesota's success.

On Sunday, Bridgewater completed 14 of 22 passes for 140 yards and one touchdown (one fewer than he should have had, given that wide-open tight end Kyle Rudolph dropped a first-quarter throw in the back of the end zone), which doesn't sound all that impressive. However, watching the former Louisville star do the little things -- keeping plays alive, resisting the temptation to force throws, avoiding a third-quarter sack by stiff-arming onrushing Oakland linebacker Malcolm Smith before flipping a no-look pass to Matt Asiata for an 11-yard gain -- it's clear that Bridgewater's true impact doesn't translate to the fantasy-football masses.

Said Bridgewater when we spoke at his locker after the game: "I really don't care about fantasy football. I know it's the big trend now, and everybody plays it, but that's not my concern. We're playing real football here, and doing what it takes to win games. Sorry I can't get all those points for fantasy owners, but that's not what's important."

(Note to Teddy: If you do decide to take up fantasy football, and you have the first overall pick, you might want to draft Peterson. Just saying.)

"He's taking care of the ball and playing really good complementary football, and coming up with big plays when we need them," Zimmer said of Bridgewater, for whom the Vikings traded up to take with the last pick of the first round two offseasons ago. "How can I say this in a nice way? ... We have deficiencies on this team, and I think he understands that. There are times he knows he's got to move in the pocket, and he makes plays with his arm, his legs and his eyes.

"I tell him all the time, 'Me and you are stuck together.' I'm glad he's my guy."

If there were any doubt about that, Zimmer affirmed it with his salty, affronted reaction to the illegal hit by the Rams' Lamarcus Joyner that knocked Bridgewater out of Week 9's victory over St. Louis with a concussion.

"It was great hearing that from your head coach, knowing that he's gonna go to war for you," Bridgewater said. "I love Coach Zimmer. He's a tough head coach who stands behind his players 100 percent."

After a game in which numerous Vikings players took star turns, including near-forgotten receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (whose 93-yard kickoff return for touchdown late in the second quarter put Minnesota ahead for good) and ageless wonder Newman (two interceptions, four tackles, one tackle for loss, five passes defensed, one thumbed-nose at Father Time), it was abundantly clear that one stands above all others.

"I'm starting to feel like myself again," Peterson said, shortly before leaving the Coliseum. "The crazy thing is, those big runs have been right there, and I've just been missing them. ... If I'd been just a little sharper, I could've already had three or four 200-yard games by now -- honestly.

"We've been winning, so I haven't been beating myself up too much. But I feel like I'm on the verge of really breaking out."

Put it another way: While he hopes the Vikings can "stay in our shell," rest assured that Purple Jesus is alive and well, and possibly ascending.

And when Peterson runs like he did Sunday, no one has a prayer of stopping him.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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