The Minnesota Vikings finally turned their star running back loose after months of caution, and he rewarded their trust with a typical two-touchdown game. Seemed as if he'd never been hurt.
Rookie Blair Walsh kicked four field goals, including a 55-yarder as regulation ended and another in overtime, and Peterson returned a little more than eight months after reconstructive surgery to lift the Vikings to a 26-23 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
"My legs are loose. Seriously, I'm feeling really good. I'm ready to carry the load," Peterson said.
Peterson ran 17 times for 84 yards for the Vikings, who led for most of the second half until Blaine Gabbert's 39-yard touchdown pass and 2-point conversion with 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter gave the Jaguars a 23-20 lead.
"We just wanted to give y'all a show," said Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, who rebounded from an erratic start. "We could have ended the game a little sooner ... but everyone knew the rule and was well aware of what was going on."
For the first time since the NFL's new overtime scoring rule was installed last season, the first team to score didn't immediately run off the field a winner. The replacement officials were right on top of that and most of the rest of the action, avoiding any game-changing contested calls or blatant mistakes.
After Walsh's 38-yard kick, the Vikings had to play defense again so the Jaguars had their turn to match. But Gabbert was hurried into a fourth-down overthrow, spoiling the debut for new Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey, who played for the Vikings in the 1980s.
"Nobody likes to lose, especially myself," Gabbert said. "Maybe I'm just doing a good job of hiding it. It makes my blood boil when you lose games like that."
With no timeouts, 91 seconds left and starting at his 24-yard line, Gabbert put together perhaps the best drive of his brief career. He completed a fourth-down pass to rookie Justin Blackmon and then found Cecil Shorts III open for a 23-20 lead after the 2-point conversion, putting a stunned silence over the stadium.
But the Vikings still had two timeouts, and with two quick passes by Ponder they hustled in position for Walsh to kick the tying field goal with room to spare.
They won the coin toss and, with 27 yards on three carries by Peterson to become the franchise's career leading rusher, set up the sixth-round draft pick from Georgia for his go-ahead kick.
"I've been bragging on this guy," Peterson said.
Ponder finished 20-of-27 passing for 270 yards, though he lost a fumble in the third quarter that led to one of Josh Scobee's three field goals. Peterson, who tore his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments last Christmas Eve, had 17 of Minnesota's 29 runs.
Gabbert went 23-of-39 passing for 260 yards and two scores, but he dropped a snap in the third quarter that was recovered at the Jaguars 44 by Kevin Williams to set up Peterson's second touchdown run. His Superman-like leap over the line from 2 yards gave the Vikings a 14-9 lead he celebrated with a somersault up from the turf.
Peterson's first carry was unremarkable in style, a simple 4-yard gain after a stutter step at the line of scrimmage. But the crowd realized the significance and applauded Peterson almost as loudly as they did when he sprinted out of the tunnel during the pregame introduction.
"I got up and knew it was going to be a pretty good day," Peterson said.
At the end of a rough first half, going almost an hour between first downs, the Vikings were suddenly within 9-7 after Peterson's first touchdown.
"I told him afterward: 'I'm not sure you weren't just faking that ACL,'" Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "He looked pretty good to me."
Gabbert showed more good than bad. But despite some tough inside running by Maurice Jones-Drew, who skipped training camp in protest over his contract, the Jaguars had too many stalled drives. Vikings rookie Matt Kalil blocked Scobee's extra point in the second quarter, too.
Jones-Drew, who was also supposed to be in a limited role, gained 77 yards on 19 carries for the Jaguars because starter Rashad Jennings hurt his knee.
"I still think he's got some work to do, but I think he's pretty proud of the way he picked up the system," Mularkey said.
Down the hall, the Vikings couldn't have been more proud of the way Peterson readied himself after months of grueling rehabilitation.
"It changes the game," Ponder said. "He ran with a purpose today. He was so dynamic."
NOTES: Peterson passed Robert Smith into first place on Minnesota's all-time rushing list, with 6,836 yards in his 74th career game. The Vikings showed a videotaped congratulatory message from Smith, who played eight seasons for the Vikings, on the scoreboard. ... Jennings had 31 yards on eight carries. Mularkey said his injury wasn't serious. ... Attendance was announced at 56,607, ending Minnesota's sellout streak that began in 1998. But the Vikings used a new NFL rule this year to lower their sales mark to 90 percent for avoiding a local TV blackout. ... The Vikings are 4-1 all-time vs. the Jaguars, losing here in 2001. This was their first season opener since 2007 at home, where they went 1-7 last year.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press