Preview: Suck for Luck? Not if Vikings coaches want to keep their jobs
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (2-12) at Washington Redskins (5-9).
When: Noon Saturday.
Where: FedEx Field (capacity: 91,704), Landover, Md.
Line: Redskins by 6½.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 5-15). Redskins -- Mike Shanahan (2nd year, 11-19; 18th year overall, 165-122).
Series: Redskins lead 11-9.
Last meeting: Brett Favre led two touchdown drives and the Vikings overcame Adrian Peterson's ankle injury to beat the Redskins 17-13 in Frazier's debut as interim coach on Nov. 28, 2010, on the same field the teams will meet on Saturday.
At stake: Mostly draft position, which could get interesting for the Vikings after Indianapolis won its second straight on Friday. If the Colts (2-13) lose their Jan. 1 finale at Jacksonville, they'd get the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft. However, if the Colts win again and the Vikings lose their last two, either the Vikings or St. Louis Rams (2-12) would ascend into the top slot based on record and strength of schedule.
Vikings: CB Chris Cook (not injury related), CB Asher Allen (concussion/shoulder) and LG Steve Hutchinson (concussion) are out. RG Anthony Herrera (knee), S Jarrad Page (hamstring), DT Kevin Williams (knee) and WLB Erin Henderson (illness) are probable.
Redskins: T Jammal Brown (groin) and HB Roy Helu (toe/knee) are questionable. DE Stephen Bowen (knee), LB London Fletcher (ankle), P Sav Rocca (left ankle), FB Mike Sellers (elbow) and CB Josh Wilson (head/chest) are probable.
Five things to watch
No time to tank: Don't expect the Vikings to fold in hopes of getting a shot at Stanford QB Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick. For one thing, players couldn't care less about draft choices. If anything, they care about making sure they put something positive on tape, knowing the Vikings' rebuilding operation could yield significant roster turnover in the offseason. Also, it's not a given Frazier will return in 2012 if the Vikings have two more flat-line efforts such as the one in last week's 42-20 loss to New Orleans. The coaching staff -- at least those members whose fate hasn't been all but sealed -- needs to do whatever it can to put a competent product on the field. And rookie QB Christian Ponder's apparent regression notwithstanding, the Vikings surely would be tempted by the hefty ransom -- multiple first-round picks at minimum -- that could be had for trading out of that No. 1 pick at a time they need all the picks they can get.
Ponder this: The decision to start Ponder despite a hip pointer and limited reps on Dec. 11 at Detroit, then bench him after four turnovers remains a head-scratcher -- especially in light of how admittedly tentative the rookie was last week against New Orleans. The surest way to sap a young quarterback's confidence is to put him in a position to fail and yank him when it happens. By and large, Ponder still has support within the building and it'd be foolish to judge him by 10 starts. But two more games without a step forward would yield more questions about the most important position than anyone at Winter Park wants to deal with only eight months after using the No. 12 overall draft pick to fill it.
To history and beyond: The Vikings defense broke an NFL record last weekend, going a ninth consecutive game without an interception. Redskins QB Rex Grossman already has thrown 18 picks in 372 pass attempts this season (4.8%) and his 71.4 passer rating is one of the league's worst. But he'll be going against a depleted Vikings secondary that will start another new combination in Allen's absence this week and figures to roll three cornerbacks -- Marcus Sherels, Brandon Burton and Cedric Griffin, who hasn't played on defense since getting benched in the first quarter on Dec. 11 -- opposite Benny Sapp. It's weakness against weakness, and it could decide the outcome here, especially since the Redskins really can't run the ball.
Sack quest: With 17½ sacks, Vikings RE Jared Allen is a half-sack behind Eagles DE Jason Babin for the NFL lead and five short of matching Michael Strahan's decade-old standard of 22½. But Frazier made clear coaches will do whatever they can to help Allen topple the record over the final two games -- perhaps by moving him around the line more than usual to combat the persistent chips and double teams the Saints deployed to shut him out last week. Then again, Allen's best matchup will be against LT Willie Smith, an undrafted rookie out of East Carolina who is playing the blindside because Trent Williams is suspended. The Redskins rank 20th in sacks allowed per pass play and Grossman has taken 21 in 11 starts this season (1.91 average). Find a way to get a couple on Saturday, and Allen probably would feel optimistic about gunning for the record against one of the NFL's worst protection units in the season finale on Jan. 1 against Chicago.
Final auditions: Injuries have thinned the herd at several positions, creating opportunities for young players and some veteran backups to get on the field -- perhaps providing a preview of next year's position battles. Joe Berger is expected to start in Hutchinson's place on Saturday, and rookie Brandon Fusco could rotate in for a series or two. Both could compete for a starting job next season, depending what happens with Hutchinson and Herrera. Former CFL star WR Emmanuel Arceneaux, promoted from the practice squad last week, could compete for one of the last spots in a remodeled receiver group. Burton played extensively against the Saints and, along with fellow rookie FS Mistral Raymond, has a couple of more weeks to show the secondary game isn't too big for him. Two games won't make or break anyone -- in most cases, the Vikings' personnel department knows what it wants to do with players already -- but flashing in game situations sure never hurts.
The line seems a little strong, but there's no reason to bet on the Vikings to win any game at this point. A seventh consecutive defeat would assure them of at least matching the 1984 Vikings for the worst record in the franchise's 51-year history.
Prediction: Redskins 23, Vikings 20.