MINNEAPOLIS – When the season began, the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings were expected to be among the top teams in the NFC.
The two teams had Super Bowl aspirations with talented rosters coming off last year's playoff appearances. Minnesota started the year 5-0, while Arizona was 1-3 a month into the season.
Since their undefeated start, the Vikings have lost four games in a row. The Cardinals (4-4-1) have used two wins against the San Francisco 49ers to jumpstart the second half of the season.
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Despite the differing paths, there is still a road to playoff contention as they meet Sunday in Minnesota.
“We've been fortunate with some of the other things that have happened in the league that we're still in a good place,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We can go out and win. I know everybody thinks I'm crazy, but my goal is to win the division. So, go out and get some wins and get going again. That's all.
“The last two ball games have been (close and), honestly, could go either way. We didn't win them, so we just need to get a couple of these either-way games and win. That's kind of what happened at the beginning of the season. So, it's a seven-game season now.”
Minnesota is tied for the NFC North lead with the Detroit Lions at 5-4. Arizona is two games behind Seattle in the NFC West but still in prime wild-card position.
Both teams have dealt with plenty of injuries, which will also impact Sunday's game.
The Vikings lost left tackle Jake Long for the rest of the season when he injured his Achilles in last week's 26-20 loss at Washington. Long, signed as a street free agent in October, had already been an injury replacement at left tackle after starter Matt Kalil was lost after two games.
Zimmer hasn't revealed his plans for his battered offensive line on Sunday. Jeremiah Sirles could join the starting lineup. Minnesota, which has also lost right tackle Andre Smith for the season, has T.J. Clemmings at the other tackle.
“We've definitely been a little bit unfortunate as far as some of the injuries that we've had up front,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “But like we've done in the past, we just have to keep moving forward. Obviously, Sirles and T.J., they started a couple of games together so we feel confident in them because they've been out there, they've done it before. They've played a lot of football. As bad as this is to continue to lose guys you've just got to try to stay positive and just keep moving forward.”
Arizona's injuries have hit hardest in the secondary.
Safety Deone Bucannon missed Wednesday's practice with an ankle injury. Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu was limited in Wednesday's practice with a shoulder injury. Mathieu missed last week's game with the injury. Both are questionable for the game.
“My shoulder feels fine, it's stable for the moment,” Mathieu told the Arizona Republic. “I'll continue to put it to work during practice and see where I'm at, at the end of the week.”
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and Zimmer know each other well dating back to their time as coordinators in the AFC North. Arians was the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator facing Zimmer's defenses for the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I've always respected Zim as one of the most sound, aggressive defensive coaches that I've ever gone against … They don't beat themselves,” Arians said via conference call. “I think our defense, our defensive line is playing at a very high level right now. I think both offensive lines have their work cut out for them.”
Arizona owns the league's second-ranked defense in terms of yardage, one spot ahead of Zimmer's Minnesota crew. The Cardinals are allowing 295.2 yards per game compared to the Vikings' 308.8 yards per game. But Minnesota is giving a league-low 16.9 points per game. Arizona is tied for third, giving up 17.8 points per game.
“I think this is going to be one of our biggest challenges of the year,” Bradford said. “Probably the best group that we've faced. So, I think it's important that we have a great week of practice and get ourselves ready to go.”
Both teams also made significant special teams changes this week. The Cardinals brought back punter Drew Butler after Ryan Quigley didn't prove to be an upgrade the past six games. Quigley had the league's lowest qualifying gross punting average at 41.6 yards per punt.
Minnesota parted with embattled kicker Blair Walsh and signed Kai Forbath. Walsh had only made 75 percent of his field-goal attempts and hit just 78.9 percent of his extra-point attempts.
“It was just something we felt like we needed to do, kind of move forward,” Zimmer said. “We're all accountable for the things we have to get done, and I think we gave him a lot of opportunities. Although, Blair's a great kid, and it was hard to do. It's just part of the business.”
Business this week, for both teams, will be trying to stay in the playoff race.