(Reuters) - Blair Walsh booted a 29-yard field goal as time expired to earn the Minnesota Vikings a heart-stopping 37-34 home win over the Green Bay Packers and a playoff berth on a pulsating final Sunday of the National Football League regular season.
The Vikings’ victory denied the Packers the second seed in the NFC and a first round bye leaving the stage to East division rivals the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, who will clash later on Sunday in the last game on the schedule that will decide the final piece of the playoff puzzle with the winner advancing.
For sheer drama, the Vikings and Packers left the Cowboys and Redskins a tough act to follow as they engaged in a furious seesaw battle that was not decided until Walsh, the Vikings’ rookie kicker drove his kick through the uprights sending the Mall of America Stadium crowd home for a happy New Year.
The North division rivals will not have to wait long to renew hostilities with the Vikings making the trip to Lambeau Field next weekend to face the Packers in an NFC wildcard matchup. The other wildcard contest will see the Seattle Seahawks take on the winner of the game between the Cowboys and Redskins.
The AFC matchups will see the surprising Indianapolis Colts visiting the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Houston Texans.
While Walsh clinched the victory it was Adrian Peterson, who did most of the heavy lifting. The Vikings’ dynamic running back rushed for 199 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries, including a punishing 26-yard romp to set up the winning field goal.
If there was one disappointment for the capacity crowd it was watching Peterson fall just nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record.
Peterson, coming back from a career-threatening knee injury, terrorized opposing defenses this season rushing for 2,097 yards, the second most ever behind Dickerson who rumbled for 2,105 in 1984.
”Ultimately we got the W (win) and that was our main focus coming into the game,“ Peterson told reporters as a wild celebration erupted around him. ”I said coming into the game, if it (the record) happens, it will happen but don’t focus on it.
“It will be good to play another week.”
In Denver, Peyton Manning tossed three touchdown passes as the Broncos secured top seed in the AFC and a first round bye by extending their winning streak to 11 games with a 38-3 demolition of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The New England Patriots will also have next weekend off after shutting out the Miami Dolphins 28-0 to take the AFC’s number two seed while the Texans watched their road to the Super Bowl get a little bumpier.
The Texans began the day as the top placed team in the AFC but watched it all slip away with 28-16 loss to the inspired Colts, who had head coach Chuck Pagano back on the sidelines for the first time in three months after undergoing cancer treatment.
A day of drama began in New York with the defending Super Bowl champion Giants battling to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Needing a win over the Philadelphia Eagles and plenty of help from other teams the Giants came out firing on all cylinders at a bitterly cold MetLife Stadium, charging to a 35-7 halftime lead then coasting to 42-7 victory.
A sputtering New York offense that scored a total of 14 points the previous two games, scored three times in the opening quarter, Eli Manning finding Rueben Randle with a pair of touchdown strikes and David Wilson for another.
Manning tossed two more in the second half, giving the Super Bowl most valuable player five touchdown passes in a game for the first time in his career.
It wasn’t nearly enough, though, with the Giants needing the Chicago Bears, Vikings and Cowboys all to lose to extend their season.
The suspense ended early as Chicago held on to tame the Lions 26-24 with the help of four field goals from Olindo Mare.
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who set a single season receiving record last week, came up just short in his bid to become the first to reach the 2,000-yard plateau, grabbing five passes for 72 yards to finish the season with 1,964 yards.
The NFC West division title was also decided on the final day, San Francisco 49ers grabbing the crown with a 27-13 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The Seahawks closed out the campaign with a fifth straight win beating the St. Louis Rams 20-13 to take second.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto, editing by Gene Cherry