NFL countdown: Vikings at Cardinals
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer seems to prefer the role of an underdog, with most pundits counting his team out. In that respect, Zimmer might welcome Thursday night’s challenge.
Following last Sunday’s humbling, 31-point loss to Seattle, oddsmakers have installed Minnesota as a 7.5-point underdog for this Thursday night’s game at Arizona.
The Cardinals are 10-2 overall and 4-1 at University of Phoenix Stadium this season. The Vikings are seemingly reeling, with an offense that was shut out in its last outing, and with a star running back who felt the need to call out his coaches afterward.
But this is the NFL, where fortunes can change as fast as an Adrian Peterson jump-cut. Thus, the 8-4 Vikings could surprise you in this nationally televised contest. Below, we examine the key factors in this contest, which is filled with playoff implications.
3 THINGS TO WATCH
— Can the wounded Vikings field a respectable defense? Minnesota had several players listed on the injury report this week, and all of them were defensive players. While the Vikings would desperately love to see the return of defensive tackle Linval Joseph (foot injury; out) and linebacker Anthony Barr (groin; out) soon, their secondary looks especially decimated this week. Zimmer’s squad is extremely thinned out at safety, where Harrison Smith (knee, hamstring; out), Andrew Sendejo (knee; out) and Antone Exum (ribs, shoulder; placed on IR) are ailing. The Cardinals also have numerous players listed on their injury report this week, but only a couple who are truly impactful: running back Andre Ellington (questionable; toe) and receiver Michael Floyd (questionable; hamstring). Advantage: Arizona.
— Can the Vikings avoid a prolonged skid? Minnesota has had some rough outings this season, like its one-sided losses to San Francisco, Green Bay and Seattle. Yet, the Vikings have typically bounced back with a solid performance the very next week. That might be a tall order Thursday night, though, considering the strong season Arizona is enjoying in 2015. The Cardinals seem to especially thrive in their 63,400-seat home venue, where they beat AFC power Cincinnati in their last home appearance.
— Will the Vikings wilt under the bright lights of national TV . . . again? Minnesota looked lifeless in its first night game this season, losing 20-3 at San Francisco in Week 1. In recent weeks, Minnesota has endured one-sided defeats to both Green Bay and Seattle with much of the nation watching in featured Sunday afternoon games. Another embarrassment in front of a national audience could leave the Vikings with a crisis of confidence heading into the regular season’s final stretch. Minnesota badly needs a prompt return to respectability.
2 THINGS TO REMEMBER
— Adrian Peterson’s ornery — and he has enjoyed success against Arizona in the past. Peterson’s frustrations with last Sunday’s eight-carry, 18-yard performance against Seattle have been well-documented. So, you know he’ll be especially motivated against Arizona. The 30-year-old Vikings star has also had some big days against the Cardinals in the past, like this three-touchdown effort in a 34-10 home win on Oct. 9, 2011. In five career games against Arizona, Peterson has averaged 108 yards and one touchdown.
— The Vikings are in decent shape with regard to the playoff race — for the moment. Minnesota touched down in Phoenix still in possession of the No. 5 spot in the NFC’s postseason pecking order. A loss in Arizona, though, would mean Minnesota can essentially forget about entertaining any thoughts of a first-round bye in the playoffs. More realistically, Zimmer’s club needs to worry about holding off a couple hard-charging teams in its rearview mirror — 7-5 Seattle and 6-6 Tampa Bay.
1 KEY MATCHUP
Vikings secondary vs. Carson Palmer
Palmer, now 35 years old, rarely gets mentioned among the best QBs in the league. Yet, his stats suggest he’s as dangerous as ever. The veteran Cardinals signal-caller currently ranks first in the NFC in multiple stat categories, including passing yards (3,693), passing TDs (29) and passer rating (106.3). Palmer has only been sacked 19 times this season, and he presides over an offense that ranks first in the conference in points per game (31.8) and total yards per game (419.5). In other words, this is a truly unfortunate time for the Vikings to have an ailing secondary. Zimmer may need to dial up some exotic blitzes in this contest. Minnesota cornerbacks like Xavier Rhodes will also have to provide airtight coverage on Minneapolis native Larry Fitzgerald, who’s enjoying a career renaissance this season, with 91 receptions, 1,047 receiving yards and seven TDs. If Zimmer truly loves the underdog experience, he’ll relish the challenge this game presents.
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