MINNEAPOLIS — Steven Jackson and the St. Louis Rams played like contenders with a promising performance. The Minnesota Vikings still have plenty of work remaining on their reconstruction project.
Jackson had a career-high four touchdowns and 142 yards rushing, helping the Rams finish the year with three straight wins in a 41-21 victory over the Vikings on Sunday.
“Definitely a great way to end the season. We caught stride a little bit too late, but it’s something to definitely build off of,” said Jackson, who entered the final week 75 yards behind Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson for the league lead in yards from scrimmage.
Minnesota (6-10) and St. Louis (8-8) each qualified for the postseason in 2004 as 8-8 wild-card teams, but their mediocrity was not rewarded this year, even in the diluted NFC. Problems scoring points and moving the ball marked a season of obvious disappointment for the Vikings, their fans and first-year coach Brad Childress, whose conservative approach to the offense drew increasing criticism throughout the fall.
“It’s like remodeling a house when you’re in it,” Childress said. “It’s not comfortable, and the neighbors don’t like looking at it with the family room knocked off. ... It’s a little bit painful sometimes, a little bit uncomfortable sometimes.”
With his team leading 34-7 early in the fourth quarter, Jackson raced up the left sideline for a 59-yard score. That prevented Minnesota from establishing a post-merger (since 1970) NFL record for fewest yards rushing allowed in a season, missing by 15 the mark of 970 yards set by the Ravens in 2000.
Though the Rams were eliminated from the playoff chase at their hotel Saturday night when the Giants beat the Redskins, the challenge of facing the league’s best rushing defense gave them incentive, and they were confident they could succeed.
“I definitely thought so. My offensive line thought so,” Jackson said.
The Vikings were mathematically dropped from contention last week in a 9-7 loss to the Packers when they managed only three first downs, leaving rookie quarterback Tarvaris Jackson’s first home start as the only real intrigue for the fans.
Minnesota’s sellout streak was officially extended to 95 games, but there were plenty of empty seats on a gloomy afternoon of rain and snow. At one point in the first half, the T-shirt gun used by stadium workers to shoot out souvenirs was louder than the crowd, and many customers had exited by the end of the third quarter.
They mostly came to see Jackson, Tarvaris, that is, give them some hope for next year, and the rookie showed mixed results. He was intercepted on his second pass by Ron Bartell, who returned it 38 yards for a touchdown to open the romp.
Bartell picked Jackson off in the second quarter, too, but the kid from Division I-AA Alabama State went 20-for-34 and finished with 213 yards and one touchdown passing plus another rushing score.
“There’s a lot of things I have to get better at,” he said. “It’s a learning experience.”
Though Childress declined to give Jackson the starting job for 2007, the coach indicated he’s satisfied with what he’s got at the position between the second-round draft pick and backup Brooks Bollinger.
“I’m OK with that right now,” Childress said.
Brad Johnson, who started 14 games but was benched three times this season, probably will not be back. He received a warm welcome and completed a third-quarter pass when Jackson left briefly for medical attention following a sack. Johnson, ironically, was booed repeatedly just two weeks ago by fans who were frustrated with the offense and eager for Jackson to play.
“We’ll have a great discussion this week, I’m sure,” Childress said. “I appreciate his professionalism and his being right there for the young guy.
First-year St. Louis coach Scott Linehan returned to the Metrodome, after serving as the offensive coordinator under Mike Tice from 2002-04. It was an up, then down, then up season, but Linehan was pleased with the late momentum.
“Our guys never stopped believing, and that’s the thing I’m most proud of,” Linehan said.
Pro Bowl-bound Steven Jackson was the show, finishing his third year in the league with an impressive display of power and speed. He finished with 1,528 yards rushing and led all NFL running backs with 806 yards receiving.
“A very dangerous offense to look for next year,” Jackson said.