Preview: Despite denials, Donovan McNabb may be down to his last shot
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Who: Arizona Cardinals (1-3) at Minnesota Vikings (0-4).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111), Minneapolis.
Line: Vikings by 3.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 3-7); Cardinals -- Ken Whisenhunt (5th year, 39-39).
Series: Vikings lead 13-10.
Last meeting: Trailing 24-10 with less than 5 minutes to play, the Vikings rallied to tie the score with 27 seconds left, then drove for a 35-yard field goal that lifted them to a 27-24 win in overtime behind Brett Favre's career-high 446 yards passing.
At stake: The Cardinals can stay in the thick of the wide-open NFC West with a win, while the Vikings merely can stave off total irrelevance a little longer.
Vikings: CB Antoine Winfield (neck) is doubtful after missing the entire week of practice, although Frazier said on Friday the team was "holding out hope." P Chris Kluwe (hamstring) is questionable but downplayed the injury, saying he expects to play. MLB E.J. Henderson (knee), LT Charlie Johnson (elbow), C John Sullivan (ankle), FS Husain Abdullah (pelvis), SS Tyrell Johnson (hip), HB Adrian Peterson (ankle) and SS Jamarca Sanford (knee) are probable. Henderson is expected to once again play a reduced role, with his brother, WLB Erin Henderson, playing in the nickel defense.
Cardinals: TE Jim Draw (pectoral) is out. TE Todd Heap (hamstring), RT Brandon Keith (knee), WR Chansi Stuckey (hamstring), HB Beanie Wells (hamstring) and P Dave Zastudil (right knee) are questionable. CB Michael Adams (wrist), WR Early Doucet (hamstring), CB A.J. Jefferson (ankle), LB Joey Porter (knee) and C Lyle Sendlein (elbow) are probable.
Five things to watch
All eyes on McNabb: QB Donovan McNabb is doing everything possible to stay above the fray as calls continue for the Vikings to replace him with rookie QB Christian Ponder. He dismissed questions from local reporters about a potential change this week and said he "cleared the air" in meetings with Frazier and OC Bill Musgrave. In an interview with SI.com's Jim Trotter, McNabb called talk about him being benched "hilarious." It was eerily similar to McNabb's stance after his first benching in Washington last November, when he called reports he didn't know the Redskins offense "hilarious" and said -- you guessed it -- he had cleared the air with coach Mike Shanahan and OC Kyle Shanahan. That ended with McNabb benched a second time, for good, and traded to the Vikings this past summer. Whether he admits so or not, the reality is McNabb's deficiencies have played a significant role in the Vikings' struggles, there are diminishing returns with starting a 34-year-old quarterback on a rebuilding team and the Metrodome crowd will have little patience should he scuffle on Sunday. If things turn sour, this could end up being the day McNabb's career as an NFL starter comes to an end.
Nickel slots: Unless Winfield decides it's worth sticking out his neck for an 0-4 team at less than full strength, CB Asher Allen figures to cover the slot in the nickel defense, which will be on the field plenty with the way the Cardinals spread the field. That will test the progress of a player who started 11 games last season, gave up a 97.2 passer rating and five touchdowns into his coverage, missed nine tackles and proved again and again he's no more than a dime guy. The Cardinals use a lot of motion, stacks and bunches to confuse identification of their receivers -- particularly WR Larry Fitzgerald, who can create mismatches no matter where he lines up. If the first four games have proven anything, it's that teams can do damage by letting receivers run underneath the Vikings' zones, and now there's a good chance two of the team's best tackles, Winfield and E.J. Henderson, won't be on the field in passing situations.
Offensive adjustment: It remains to be seen whether Peterson benefits from the Vikings' decision to promote FB Ryan D'Imperio from the practice squad. But the move could pay dividends in other ways -- including the more efficient deployment of TE Jimmy Kleinsasser, who has been taking the majority of "F" snaps so far this season. Keeping Kleinsasser inline will make the Vikings stronger up front and perhaps make them less predictable, too, since he's such a key part of the protection unit. The question is, will D'Imperio perform better than he did in the preseason? There were times the converted linebacker looked so lost on lead plays it was as if coaches told him not to block anyone. Though Frazier praised his improved knowledge of the offense, D'Imperio rarely even got snaps in the Vikings' scheme while running with the scout team in practice. Peterson can make his line look awfully good, but he looked downright desperate at times in last week's loss to the Chiefs. The Vikings simply don't have the firepower to compete if Peterson isn't efficient, and his yards per carry has dropped each week this season.
Turn 'em loose: There's a case to be made RE Jared Allen and LE Brian Robison are playing better than any duo in the NFL so far this season. They've already combined for nine sacks and 23 quarterback hits, and Sunday's game presents another favorable matchup against perhaps the NFL's worst pair of starting tackles: Keith and LT Levi Brown, who have given up seven sacks between them. Will the Cardinals try to run their offense and get the ball out of QB Kevin Kolb's hands quickly, as the Lions did with QB Matthew Stafford in their second-half comeback two weeks ago? Or will they deviate from their offense and bunker down with extra protectors, as the Chiefs did on 77.4% of QB Matt Cassel's dropbacks last week? Either way, the Vikings' pass rush is capable of changing this game even without considering the noise in the Metrodome that is so tough for opposing tackles to overcome. DC Fred Pagac didn't blitz until late in the third quarter last week and it's not outlandish to suggest he may stand by the four-man rush again this week, although there's something to be said for confusing Kolb, too.
Turn the game: The Vikings are tied for 15th in the NFL with a net zero take-away/give-away margin. That they don't rank lower is largely the product of a quarterback who hasn't taken many chances into coverage and an offense that, for all of its faults, has been relatively careful with the football. The Vikings defense has generated only three turnovers -- fewer than any team except Pittsburgh (one), Miami (two) and Seattle (two) -- and none since Abdullah's interception of Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman's pass in the end zone with a little less than 8 minutes remaining in the third quarter on Sept. 18. One-hundred forty-two minutes without a take-away is way too long for a Vikings team that doesn't make enough "explosive" plays to tilt the game on the other side of the ball. Somebody needs to make a play.
Under different circumstances, the home team would get the nod here. But the Vikings have lost the benefit of the doubt. Plus, the Cardinals still can see light at the end of the tunnel in a bad division. The Vikings are buried at the quarter pole.
Prediction: Cardinals 34, Vikings 24.