The Minnesota Vikings like to split their season into quarters and are coming off a third quarter in which they were 2-1-1. The final quarter opens Sunday at Baltimore against the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens.
Minnesota hasn’t been officially eliminated from the playoffs and is hoping for another late-season run for momentum and positivity.
Here are five things to watch as the Vikings (3-8-1) test themselves on the road against Baltimore:
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1. A rare bad-weather game
Minnesota will need to get used to playing in cold, maybe sloppy conditions for the next two years at TCF Bank Stadium while the team’s new stadium is being built. The Vikings haven’t had many weather-affected games in recent years. They could be looking at one this weekend and a good preview of December games the next two years.
Temperatures are predicted to be around freezing on Sunday in Baltimore with a high of 34 currently forecast. The forecast also includes the fun term “wintry mix.” Snow and a mix of snow and sleet is forecast for the area with a 100 percent chance of precipitation, according to the National Weather Service.
Turnovers could play an even bigger role in the poor conditions. The Vikings’ run-first philosophy, and success, will be important. Baltimore over the past few years has turned from more of a ground attack to being led by quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing game. The Ravens are tied for 29th in the NFL in rushing this year and three-time Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice has struggled this season with only 482 yards rushing and 2.9 yards per carry.
2. Cassel gets his chance
The conditions might lessen the potential impact of Matt Cassel, who is getting the start at quarterback for Minnesota with Christian Ponder dealing with a concussion. Cassel has thrown for 241 yards or more in three of his five games this season, but the Vikings surely will stay committed to the run in wet conditions. However, Cassel might still be able to make a big impact if he avoids turnovers, which has been Ponder’s biggest struggle.
Cassel has seemingly been in more control of Minnesota’s offense when he has gotten the chance and he’s been able to give the Vikings a credible passing threat to go along with Peterson and the running game. Cassel has also gotten more out of top receiver Greg Jennings. Cassel might not need to make many plays Sunday if Peterson is having a strong game, but he’ll need to connect when it matters to keep the offense going and help control the time of possession.
Cassel might not have many more opportunities left with the Vikings. A win and another good effort from Cassel could possibly keep him in the starting role, but nothing is certain beyond Sunday. Ponder’s health and the team maybe needing to take a look at Josh Freeman will dictate the final three games, as well as Cassel’s play. A bad game might be the end of Cassel’s time.
3. Classic Peterson
Peterson may be playing through a groin injury, but he’s proven little is able to slow him down. Peterson’s 211 yards rushing last week marked the fifth time in his career he’s gone over 200 yards, which is one off the NFL’s all-time record. He also pulled ahead of Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy in the rushing race. Peterson now leads the league with 1,208 yards rushing and is coming off consecutive 100-plus-yard games as he looks to make another late-season charge.
Peterson has maybe taken advantage of two poor run defenses the past two weeks (Chicago last week is the league’s worst and Green Bay is 26th). But Minnesota also seems to be finding its stride in the running game. Up next is Baltimore’s strong defense, which ranks sixth in the league in rushing, giving up 100.1 yards per game. Opponents are averaging 3.7 yards per carry against the Ravens, who still feature big run-plugging nose tackle Haloti Ngata in the middle.
Asked about which defensive player he worries about with pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumveril, Minnesota left tackle Matt Kalil said Ngata might be the biggest concern.
4. Cole stays, Henderson slides
Cassel wasn’t the only player to get a chance to stick as the starter this week. Coach Leslie Frazier announced Audie Cole, after two solid games, will stay as the starter at middle linebacker. Cole earned his chance when Erin Henderson missed a game for a personal matter and then was benched last week as discipline for an arrest. With 27 tackles and one sack in the past two games, Cole earned the right to keep starting and has displaced Henderson.
Henderson now slides back to the weakside linebacker position where he started the past two seasons. Henderson’s shift to the middle was a necessity in the offseason without any clear-cut successor to Jasper Brinkley, who signed with Arizona. Henderson embraced the move and said his pride took a hit in being told he’d move back to weakside instead of staying in the middle. But Henderson has had success as the ‘Will’ linebacker and the defense could be better off with having Cole and Henderson on the field together in their more natural positions.
5. Two special teams
Sunday’s game could be decided by turnovers. It also could turn on the play of the special teams. Minnesota and Baltimore are very similar on special teams and have made big plays all season with their specialists.
For the Vikings, second-year kicker Blair Walsh continues his steady play and is 22 of 25 on field-goal attempts this season with a long of 54 yards. The Ravens’ own second-year kicker is Justin Tucker, who is third in the league with 109 points and is 29 of 31 on field-goal attempts with a long of 53.
Jacoby Jones and Cordarrelle Patterson are two big, speedy returners and receivers. Jones has been one of the league’s best returners for a few seasons and is currently averaging 26.5 yards per kickoff return. Patterson is the new kid on the block and leads the NFL with a 34-yard average on kickoff returns. With Patterson and Jones, the two teams are among the league’s best in average starting field position. Minnesota leads the league with an average start of the 26.2-yard line. Baltimore is third, with starting drives averaging the 23.7-yard line.
The Ravens’ Tandon Doss leads the NFL with a 15.6-yard punt return average and Jones will return punts as well. The Vikings’ Marcus Sherels is third in the league with a 13.1-yard punt return average.