Pregame: Cassel, Peterson try to get first road win in Vikings-Bengals
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The Minnesota Vikings (4-9-1) could continue to play the role of spoiler when they kickoff at the Cincinnati Bengals (9-5) on Sunday.
After trouncing one division-leading opponent last week in the Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings are set up with a tough task of securing their first road win at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals are 6-0 this season.
Quarterback Matt Cassel was named the NFL's FedEx Air Player of the Week after he commanded a 48-point effort in a win over the Eagles. The 31-year-old veteran will get his fifth start of the season as he's had the third-most passing yards (890) since Week 12, trailing only Tom Brady (1,153) and Peyton Manning (1,089).
Quarterback Christian Ponder will watch fellow 2011 draft pick and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton from the sideline as he's pegged to backup Cassel for the second straight week following his recovery form a concussion on Dec. 1.
Five last-minute losses have the Vikings officially out of the playoff race, despite a despondent division in which the 8-6 Chicago Bears currently hold a half-game lead over the Green Bay Packers.
However, after a dismal 1-7 start to the season, coach Leslie Frazier has two games left to build on his case to keep his job as the Vikings are 3-2-1 since the midpoint of the season. Frazier has been fired once in his coaching career, by Bengals coach Marvin Lewis in January 2005 after two seasons as his defensive coordinator.
If the Vikings hand the Bengals (9-5) their first home loss of the season, the Baltimore Ravens' (8-6) afternoon matchup with the New England Patriots is meaningless from the defending Super Bowl champions' standpoint as they face the Bengals in Week 17, which would decide the AFC North.
However, a Vikings' loss will force the Ravens to win out against the Patriots and Bengals to capture the division crown. The only scenario that will hold Dalton and Lewis out of the playoffs for the first time together is if they lose to the Vikings and Ravens, who would have to also win Sunday - and the Miami Dolphins (8-6) win out.
Running backs Adrian Peterson (groin/foot) and Matt Asiata (ankle) are questionable, though both Frazier and Peterson were confident he would play after missing last week's win over the Eagles. Guard Brandon Fusco (knee), cornerback Chris Cook (knee) and running back Toby Gerhart (hamstring) are listed as probable after sitting out last week.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (ankle) and tight end John Carlson (concussion) are both out and doubtful, respectively.
Let's take a look at the five key matchups heading into Sunday:
For the Vikings
Go long - Prorate Matt Cassel's numbers with receiver Greg Jennings in 19 quarters of football (four starts, second half and overtime on Dec. 1) and the $45 million offseason addition would have 104 receptions for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. Instead, with three different quarterbacks, Jennings' pace has him at 73 catches for 902 yards and five touchdowns in a 16-game season.
Since taking over for Ponder in the second half of a Dec. 1 win over the Chicago Bears, Cassel has the third-most passing yards in the league as Jennings, receivers Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright have notched season and career marks with Cassel under center. Patterson's 141 receiving yards in Week 14 at the Ravens is his career high, Wright's 95 receiving yards last week is his career high and Simpson's first receiving touchdown in 26 games with the Vikings came in Week 14 as well.
Even if Peterson returns, the Vikings will need to continue to stretch the field with Cassel against the Bengals' seventh-ranked pass defense that allows just 220 passing yards per game. The Bengals are sixth in the NFL in scoring defense as they allow just 19.6 points per game.
The line of scrimmage - Peterson averaged 1.9 yards per carry before exiting with a mid-foot sprain in the Dec. 8 loss at Baltimore, while Asiata averaged 1.7 yards on 30 carries last week in the NFL MVP's absence. The Vikings will return guard Brandon Fusco to the lineup, displacing reserve lineman Joe Berger, and they'll also catch a break as the Bengals placed their best defensive player, tackle Geno Atkins, on injured reserve last month. However, the Bengals' stingy defense is one of six NFL teams that allows fewer than 100 yards rushing per game.
The Vikings defensive line will have to apply pressure to quell one of the NFL's most explosive offenses at home. The Bengals have averaged 44 points per game in their last three home wins. Dalton has taken as many sacks (27) as Ponder, despite having 273 more passing attempts and five more starts this season. Defensive end Brian Robison has six sacks in the last five games and defensive end Jared Allen notched his first multi-sack game last week since Sept. 29.
The Cordarrelle Patterson Effect - The Vikings' average starting field position last week was their own 33-yard line despite Patterson not returning a single kick. Despite the inactivity, Patterson still leads the NFL in total kickoff return yardage (1,199), average return (33.3) and touchdowns (2). The Vikings continue to reap the benefits on offense as well. Patterson has accounted for 228 total yards and three touchdowns on offense across the last three weeks, not including the 111 return yards against the Ravens.
For the Bengals
A.J. Green - The Bengals' top receiving threat has seen 157 of Dalton's 512 pass attempts [31%] this season and averages six catches and 90 yards per game. Without cornerback Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings will have to rely on their remaining contingent of Cook, cornerbacks Shaun Prater and Marcus Sherels, along with safety convert Robert Blanton to defend Green. In two of the last three weeks, the Vikings have allowed an opponents' receiver to thrive as the Eagles' Desean Jackson tallied 195 yards and a touchdown last week. Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery caught 12 passes for two touchdowns and 245 yards on Dec. 1. The Vikings' 30th-ranked pass defense allows 291 passing yards per game and a league-leading 32 touchdown passes.
Trends - The Vikings have lost five of their past six trips to Cincinnati as many historical numbers trend toward the Bengals' favor on Sunday. The Bengals are undefeated at home, the Vikings are the only NFL team that is winless on the road (0-6-1). The Bengals allow just 17.2 points per game at home this season, while the Vikings average 22 points per game on the road. However, a handful of Bengals' defensive players are questionable, including linebacker James Harrison and defensive end Carlos Dunlap.
Out - CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle)
Doubtful - TE John Carlson (concussion)
Questionable - RB Adrian Peterson (groin/foot), RB Matt Asiata (ankle)
Probable - LB Chad Greenway (wrist), CB Marcus Sherels (shoulder), RB Toby Gerhart (hamstring), LS Cullen Loeffler (hand), LB Larry Dean (knee), S Harrison Smith (toe), G Brandon Fusco (knee), CB Chris Cook (knee)
Out - P Kevin Huber (jaw/neck)
Doubtful - CB Terrance Newman (knee)
Questionable - DE Carlos Dunlap (concussion), LB James Harrison (concussion), DT Devon Still (back), G Andrew Whitworth (concussion), G Kevin Zeitler (foot)
Probable - TE Jermaine Gresham (abdomen)