Preview: Vikings still unbeaten when they don't lose turnover battle
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Who: Minnesota Vikings (7-6) at St. Louis Rams (6-6-1).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Edward Jones Dome (capacity: 66,965), St. Louis.
TV: Fox (Ch. 9).
Line: Rams by 3.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (2nd year, 13-22); Rams -- Jeff Fisher (1st year, 6-6-1; 18th year overall, 153-132-1).
Series: The Vikings lead 23-6-2 but are just 9-13 on the road.
Last meeting: Adrian Peterson ran for two touchdowns, Jared Allen returned a fumble 52 yards for another and the Vikings rolled over the Rams 38-10 on Oct. 11, 2009, in St. Louis.
At stake: The Vikings are in a three-way tie for seventh place in the NFC, one game back of wild-card leaders Seattle and Chicago. The Rams have won three in a row to get back to the .500 mark, 1½ games back. The winner stays alive for another week. The loser can probably kiss its faint playoff hopes goodbye.
Vikings: CB Antoine Winfield (knee) didn't practice all week and is listed as questionable (50% chance of playing). He's expected to play, but it's possible his snaps will be reduced to a degree. CB A.J. Jefferson (concussion), HB Adrian Peterson (abdomen), MLB Jasper Brinkley (shoulder), LG Charlie Johnson (ankle), RT Phil Loadholt (knee), TE Kyle Rudolph (shoulder), DE Jared Allen (shoulder), S Robert Blanton (neck), NT Letroy Guion (shin) and P Chris Kluwe (left knee/right groin) are probable (virtual certainty of playing). CB Chris Cook (broken arm) and WR Percy Harvin (ankle) top the list of five players on injured reserve, although Cook is eligible to return to the active roster on Thursday.
Rams: Backup DT Jermelle Cudjo (foot) is questionable. HB Steven Jackson (foot), CB Janoris Jenkins (illness), LB James Laurinaitis (back), LB Mario Haggan (elbow), S Craig Dahl (head), C Scott Wells (knee), CB Cortland Finnegan (ankle), TE Mike McNeill (thigh) and WR Danny Amendola (foot) are probable.
Five things to watch
In Peterson's hands: Asked after last week's win over Chicago about the Vikings' chances against the Rams, one player quickly responded, "How's their run defense?" Everyone -- including opponents -- knows their chances hinge on getting Peterson going to reduce the load on QB Christian Ponder and a depleted receiver group. The Rams rank 10th in total defense and 13th again the run, allowing 115.3 yards per game. However, they haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since the Oct. 28 blowout loss to New England in London and, taking away QB Colin Kaepernick's numbers in two matchups with the 49ers, have allowed only 440 yards on 137 carries (3.2 average) over their past five games. The Rams' entire front four is a handful, providing another challenge for a Vikings offensive line that turned in one of its better run-blocking efforts against the Bears.
Keep it away: To play their kind of game, the Vikings must stay on the "plus" side of the turnover battle -- and the statistical evidence couldn't be stronger. When the Vikings have at least as many takeaways as giveaways this season, they're 7-0. When they don't, they're 0-6. Their only road win came on Sept. 30 at Detroit, where SS Jamarca Sanford recovered a fumble and the offense didn't turn over the ball once. In their other five road games, the Vikings have turned over the ball 11 times and generated only four turnovers on defense. They want to stay in a position where they can pound Peterson and rely on Ponder only to convert some third downs. But one giveaway can change everything, as the Vikings found out the hard way in losses at Green Bay and Chicago. Protecting the football is vital on a team with so little margin for error, particularly on the road. Taking it away a couple times wouldn't hurt either.
Low-scoring affair?: The Rams' own offensive issues seem to play to the Vikings' favor. They've scored more than 20 points only twice in their past 11 games -- in a 24-all tie on Nov. 11 at San Francisco and a 31-17 win two weeks later at Arizona. They rank 25th in total offense (324.3 net yards per game) and 29th in scoring (18.2 points per game). QB Sam Bradford is completing only 59.7% of his passes (255-of-427) for 2,877 yards with 15 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and an 81.9 rating. Jackson is averaging 3.9 yards per carry and has forced only 18 missed tackles on is 238 touches. If there's a threat on offense, it's Amendola, who leads the Rams with 51 catches and is Bradford's favorite target. Winfield is expected to man the slot as usual, and Amendola's proficiency on third downs could lead to more man coverage in those situations.
Where's the rush?: Despite going 3-13 and regularly playing from behind, the Vikings defense recorded 50 sacks last season, ranking second in the NFL in per-pass play average. This season, they're on pace for 38 sacks and have plummeted to 19th in efficiency. It's easy to spot the difference in production -- Allen, who had 22 sacks last season, has only nine through 13 games -- but there are a variety of factors involved. Last week against the Bears, for instance, the Vikings saw more chips and extra protectors than they have all season. They haven't recorded more than two sacks in a game since Oct. 21 against Arizona, which has one of the league's worst protection units. Four days later, Cook was injured against Tampa Bay, taking the Vikings' most active outside corner off the field and perhaps giving offenses more confidence they can strike if the quarterback stays upright. Bradford has been sacked 31 times -- tied for fifth-most in the NFL -- and the Vikings need to find ways to get to him on the fast track here.
Take advantage: The Vikings yanked Sanford after he let what would have been Jay Cutler's third interception bounce off his chest last week. CB Josh Robinson and FS Harrison Smith held on to theirs, though, changing a game in which the Vikings needed all the breaks they could get. Those are the chances that can't be missed the rest of the way if they're going to what they probably must to make the playoffs -- run the table, beginning with road games at St. Louis and Houston. Veteran players know these opportunities come every ear. Would the Vikings make noise in the playoffs? There are reasons to doubt their chances. But sometimes, players just need to get dumb and believe they have a shot. Coaches have had a game plan to win the past four weeks. Poor decisions and execution cost the Vikings two of those games. At this stage of the season, it's on each player to make sure he's not the one to make the backbreaking mistake.
Judd Zulgad: As a young, rebuilding team, the Vikings are still looking to take a crucial step in their development -- being able to translate success at home to the road. They've won only one game away from the Metrodome this season, and in that victory over Detroit, the offense did not score a touchdown. The Vikings' road woes (1-5) aren't a surprise, and they won't end Sunday against a Rams team that is much improved under coach Jeff Fisher. St. Louis is 4-3 at the Edwards Jones Dome this season, having beaten Washington, Seattle, Arizona and San Francisco two weeks ago. Make it 5-3. Rams 21, Vikings 17.
Tom Pelissero: This is a coin flip if there ever were one. The Vikings have been brutal on the road and know their limitations on offense. But there is belief within the building they've found a formula that can succeed if the defense does its part. The guess here is they find a way again to keep their season alive. Vikings 19, Rams 16.