Preview: Texans' talented front awaits Adrian Peterson's record push
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (8-6) at Houston Texans (12-2).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Reliant Stadium (capacity: 71,500), Houston.
TV: Fox (Ch. 9).
Line: Texans by 9.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (2nd season, 14-22); Texans -- Gary Kubiak (7th year, 60-52).
Series: The Vikings have won both meetings.
Last meeting: Gus Frerotte threw three touchdown passes and Sage Rosenfels couldn't rally the Texans after replacing starting quarterback Matt Schaub in a 28-21 Vikings win on Nov. 2, 2008, at the Metrodome.
At stake: For the third consecutive week, the Vikings need a win to keep their wild-card playoff hopes alive, with Dallas, the New York Giants and Chicago all tied for the final spot at 8-6 as well. The Texans already have wrapped up the AFC South Division title, but they need to win, too, with Denver (11-3) and New England (10-4) still pushing for home-field advantage and first-round byes.
Vikings: As expected, CB Chris Cook (arm) was activated off injured reserve on Saturday. LE Brian Robison (shoulder) is listed as questionable (50% chance of playing). LT Matt Kalil (illness), HB Adrian Peterson (abdomen/groin), CB Antoine Winfield (knee), RE Jared Allen (shoulder), P Chris Kluwe (left knee/right groin), RT Phil Loadholt (knee), S Mistral Raymond (ankle), DE Everson Griffen (elbow) and CB Marcus Sherels (quadriceps/elbow) are probable (virtual certainty of playing).
Texans: CB Alan Ball (foot) is out. NT Shaun Cody (back), LB Tim Dobbins (shoulder/thumb), CB Johnathan Joseph (groin), T Derek Newton (knee), S Glover Quin (hip), LB Brooks Feed (groin), LB Darryl Sharpton (toe), DE Antonio Smith (ankle), G Wade Smith (knee/ribs), LB Bryan Braman (knee), FB Tyler Clutts (abdominal), DE Jared Crick (neck), RB Justin Forsett (knee), LB Barrett Ruud (knee), RB Ben Tate (hamstring/foot), QB T.J. Yates (right elbow) and TE Owen Daniels (hamstring) are probable. ILB Brian Cushing (knee) is the most notable of six players on injured reserve.
Five things to watch
Eyeing the record: Peterson's 1,812 rushing yards already rank 19th in a single season in NFL history. Only an injury or two remarkably inept performances could prevent him from surpassing Shaun Alexander's 1,880 yards in 2005 to crack the top 10. But Peterson has his sights set on Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old standard of 2,105 yards -- which he would eclipse by keeping the record pace he has established over the past eight games (164.1 average). He'll have more than 100 friends and family members watching from two suites on Sunday. And the Vikings will give Peterson a chance -- because riding their MVP candidate is their best shot to pull the upset anyway. It won't be easy on either front. The Texans rank seventh in total defense (325.9 yards per game), seventh in scoring defense (20.0) and fifth against the run (93.2), led by DE J.J. Watt and one of the NFL's most talented fronts.
Ponder's progress: The Vikings can live with what they've gotten from QB Christian Ponder the past two weeks -- 28-of-41 passing (68.3%), two key runs early in last week's win at St. Louis and only one turnover. Is he making much happen down the field? No, but that's not the Vikings' plan right now anyway. They're content to pound Peterson, work underneath routes off play-action and ask Ponder to take chances only when they have to. Several throws he made against the Rams showed why the Vikings still believe he gives them the past chance to win. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Vikings take a couple shots on Sunday either, given the matchup and the amount of man coverage Houston runs on the back end. The unknown is what Ponder can do if the Vikings end up in a situation where they have to play catch-up through the air -- and they hope they don't have to find out.
New faces: Cook's activation means he figures to have some role on defense, though it's unclear if coaches are willing to play him every snap after a six-game absence. At minimum, Cook figures to return to his outside spot in the nickel defense, with rookie Josh Robinson or perhaps A.J. Jefferson on the other side and Winfield in the slot. The Vikings haven't used a shadow all season but might consider putting Cook on WR Andre Johnson in the red zone, given the way Robinson and Jefferson have struggled to take the ball away from bigger receivers. The Vikings also signed DE George Johnson off the practice squad on Saturday -- a strong indication Robison will be inactive. That would push Griffen into a starting role and free up rotational snaps for DE D'Aundre Reed and/or Johnson, who appeared in nine games over the past two seasons with Tampa Bay.
Keep kicking: It can't be overstated what PK Blair Walsh has accomplished as a rookie. He has converted 29 of 32 field-goal attempts (90.6%), including all eight attempts from 50 yards and beyond, tying an NFL record. He is 30-for-30 on extra points. He has 47 touchbacks in 73 kickoffs (64.4%), and his hang time is a big part of the reason the Vikings haven't allowed a return past the 25-yard line since Oct. 7 against Tennessee. Houston's ability to hold stand tall in the red zone (16 touchdowns in 33 trips, 48.5%) means Walsh figures to get more chances. With a projected high temperature of 77 degrees on Sunday -- research has shown direct sunlight can add 15 degrees -- there is a good chance the roof stays closed and this is, in essence, another indoor game.
Hold on: It will bear repeating every week until it doesn't hold true. When the Vikings are at least even in the turnover battle, they're 8-0. When they lose the turnover battle,
they're 0-6. They haven't trailed the past two weeks against Chicago and St. Louis in part because they've taken away the ball four times on defense and given it up only once, improving their turnover margin to minus-3 (tied for 20th in the NFL). Now they face a Houston team that is plus-15 (second only to New England's plus-22) and tied with Washington for the fewest give-aways in the league (13). At this time of year, it's all about somebody finding a way to make a play. The Vikings will need as many as they can get.
Judd Zulgad: The Vikings have a two-game winning streak and will be looking to keep their playoffs hopes alive. That isn't going to be easy against Texans team that is 12-2 and looking to secure the top seed in the AFC. Adrian Peterson might have another big day, but winning at Reliant Stadium is going to be very difficult. Texans 27, Vikings 21.
Tom Pelissero: The Texans have stumbled at times since the bye, holding on to beat the sorry likes of Jacksonville (43-37 on Nov. 18) and Detroit (34-31 on Nov. 22) and getting blown out at New England (42-14 on Dec. 10). But they're the superior team here, hands down. Texans 34, Vikings 23.