Preview: Vikings vs. Bills
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (4-7) vs. Buffalo Bills (2-9).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome.
Line: Vikings by 6.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (interim, 1-0); Bills -- Chan Gailey (1st year, 2-9; 3rd year overall, 20-25).
Series: Vikings lead 7-4.
Last meeting: J.P. Losman threw for 224 yards and a touchdown as the Bills beat the Vikings 17-12 on Oct. 1, 2006, for their second consecutive win in the series.
At stake: The Vikings just are trying to keep the good vibes rolling in the Frazier era -- and keep their long-shot playoff hopes alive for one more week. Frazier knows that winning games like this is a requirement to be considered for the permanent job, too. Buffalo had its two-game win streak snapped last week in a 19-16 loss to Pittsburgh and is long-eliminated from playoff contention.
Vikings: CB Chris Cook (knee) is out. HB Adrian Peterson (ankle), LG Steve Hutchinson (thumb), LE Ray Edwards (ankle), WR Percy Harvin (illness), WR Greg Lewis (concussion) and S Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) are questionable. SS Husain Abdullah (ankle), WR Bernard Berrian (groin), QB Brett Favre (ankle/neck/right shoulder), S Eric Frampton (hamstring) and WR Sidney Rice (hip) are probable.
Bills: RG Eric Wood (ankle), DE Dwan Edwards (hamstring), LB Reggie Torbor (shoulder) and TE Shawn Nelson (illness) are out. CB Terrence McGee (knee) is doubtful. NT Torrell Troup (fibula) is questionable. T Demetrius Bell (knee), RB C.J. Spiller (hamstring), DE Spencer Johnson (hamstring) and LB Chris Kelsay (illness) are probable.
Five things to watch
Rookie watch: Four Vikings starters are listed as questionable, and three of them -- Peterson, Hutchinson and Edwards -- are expected to test their injuries on Sunday morning. If any of those three can't go or are limited, rookies stand to get extended playing time. Peterson practiced on Friday and is expected to play, but his sprained right ankle means he likely will cede more snaps than usual to Toby Gerhart, who had 76 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in last week's win at Washington. Hutchinson hasn't missed a game since 2002 and probably won't start now, even though he'll have to play with a cast and heavy wrap on his broken right thumb. If it doesn't go well, the next man in would be Chris DeGeare, who has been inactive for eight games and has yet to play a snap on offense. Brian Robison seems likely to start in place of Edwards, who has a high ankle sprain. But Everson Griffen's production in limited snaps means the fourth-round pick probably would factor more heavily in the rotation, too.
Run, run, run: Hutchinson's ability to function with one good hand will be important against a Bills team that's been highly pregnable against the run (167.4 yards per game, 4.6 average). Vikings C John Sullivan is coming off his best game of the season last week against declining Redskins NT Ma'ake Kemoeatu. But Sullivan and the rest of the Vikings' offensive interior will face a far taller task against Bills DT Kyle Williams, who has been as good as defensive tackle in the league despite the struggles of the players around him. With one replacement guard already in the lineup -- RG Ryan Cook in place of Anthony Herrera (knee) -- and Peterson hobbled, thrusting DeGeare into extended action could make it a challenge to get the inside-zone game going. Odds are Hutchinson at less than 100% remains the Vikings' best option, but if he can't hold up better than he did in the fourth quarter against Washington, coaches may have no option.
Secondary concern: Frazier praised the play of his defensive backs at Washington, but their performance would have proven costly if not for five dropped passes by the Redskins' depleted receiver corps and a badly underthrown ball after FS Madieu Williams blew coverage. The reality is without Cedric Griffin and a healthy Cook, the Vikings lack any cornerbacks who can play outside, leaving CBs Asher Allen, Lito Sheppard and Frank Walker in perpetual mismatches on the perimeter. Statistically, Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has been mediocre, completing 58.2% of his passes for 2,226 yards with 19 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and an 85.2 passer rating (20th among qualifying passers). But Buffalo has to like its matchups with WR Stevie Johnson and Lee Evans on the perimeter, and it's up to Frazier and de facto DC Fred Pagac to limit the one-on-one opportunities Fitzpatrick gets downfield.
Timing is everything: Favre didn't practice on Wednesday. When he returned on Thursday, he had exactly three receivers on the field with him -- Berrian, Greg Camarillo and Hank Baskett. Rice sat out one day to rest his hip, Lewis missed the whole week and Harvin wasn't seen again after dropping out of Wednesday's practice with a migraine. So much for working on the rhythm timing that's been lacking since the start of the season -- and in particular since Rice's return at a new position. Favre and Rice did spend a few minutes together following Friday's practice, but that's hardly enough to make up for months of missed of reps. And while Harvin has overcome missed practice again and again to play on Sundays, the duration of his latest migraine-related illness and a Friday trip to the doctor's office don't bode well for his production this week. Frazier has made clear he espouses a run-first attack, and that probably will be especially true on this day. But there should be mismatches to exploit downfield -- provided there are enough receivers available to put on the field -- against a Bills defense that might be without McGee at one corner and has seen safeties Donte Whitner and Jairus Byrd beaten for 115-plus passer ratings this season.
Noise invitation: Frazier's pleas bordered on saturation -- yes, he wants Vikings fans to be loud on Sunday. Just staving off the catcalls might be a good start. In five home games this season, the Vikings have been booed off the field at halftime five times. And even with Brad Childress gone, fans surely won't hesitate to turn on the home team if another game in this disappointing season gets off to a lousy start. Owner Zygi Wilf is expected to attend the game as usual, meaning fan response to Frazier's team will count for something when it comes to judging the interim regime. As much as turning up the volume can help the Vikings' defense, playing well enough to keep the crowd on their side in the first of three consecutive home games may be more vital for convincing Wilf things really are different.
Last week's loss was the Bills' fifth this season by one score or less. They haven't lost by more than a field goal since Oct. 10 against Jacksonville. So, expecting a beat-up Vikings team that's gotten its last three victories by 10 points total to cover a six-point spread probably is unrealistic. But they played turnover-free football in their first game under Frazier, who placed heavy emphases on ball security and penalty reduction since taking over. The guess here is the Vikings will squeak by again.
Prediction: Vikings 26, Bills 23.