Preview: Vikings vs. Cardinals
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (2-5) vs. Arizona Cardinals (3-4).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111).
Line: Vikings by 8.
Coaches: Vikings -- Brad Childress (5th year, 39-35); Cardinals -- Ken Whisenhunt (4th year, 31-23).
Series: Vikings lead 12-10.
Last meeting: The Cardinals won 30-17 on Dec. 6, beginning the Vikings' late-season spiral in a game that also saw MLB E.J. Henderson suffer a significant leg injury.
At stake: For the Vikings, a win would cap a tumultuous week by providing hope entering consecutive NFC North Division games against Chicago and Green Bay. A loss would push them to the brink of falling out of playoff contention, and Childress' job could be in imminent jeopardy. Like the Vikings, the Cardinals have lost two straight, but they're only one game back of Seattle in the pitiful NFC West.
Vikings: WR Percy Harvin (ankle) missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, barely could limp through individual drills on Friday and officially is listed as questionable. CB Frank Walker (hamstring) also is questionable. G Chris DeGeare (ankle), CB Asher Allen (back), QB Brett Favre (foot/ankle/chin), LB Ben Leber (knee), CB Lito Sheppard (hand), C John Sullivan (calf), DT Pat Williams (elbow) and WR Bernard Berrian (groin) are probable. WR Sidney Rice (hip surgery) was removed from the reserve/physically unable to perform list and returned to practice on Wednesday, but he's at least another week away from game action.
Cardinals: LB Clark Haggans (groin) is doubtful. RB Beanie Wells (knee) is questionable but has said he'll play. DT Alan Branch (back), WR Steve Breaston (knee), LB Will Davis (groin), WR Early Doucet (groin) and DE Kenny Iwebema (shoulder) are probable.
Five things to watch
Atmospheric nonfit: A week that saw the Vikings lose to New England, drop to 2-5, waive Pro Bowl WR Randy Moss under cloudy circumstances -- no matter how justified -- and reportedly mull a coaching change has set the stage for a do-or-die afternoon at the Metrodome. And considering fans at Friday's Minnesota Timberwolves game chanted "Fire Childress!" at one point, there's little question the Vikings' coach will take the field amidst hostile conditions. The Vikings finally scored first in last week's loss at New England, snapping an 0-for-13 streak on their first two offensive drives in each game, and nothing would take the pressure off Childress and his staff like a fast start. But if the Vikings once again scuffle out of the locker room -- or anytime, for that matter -- the atmosphere could get vicious in a hurry. Owner Zygi Wilf will be in his box witnessing the entire scene, and fan reaction almost surely will play some factor in his ongoing evaluation of Childress' program.
Pounding it out: The Vikings won't have Moss. They may not have Harvin. And it might not matter against an Arizona team that's been gashed plenty on the ground this season. The Cardinals are 21st in efficiency against the run (4.4 yards per carry), 29th in total rushing defense (143.1 yards per game) and have allowed eight runs of 20 yards or longer -- a big reason they're next to last in scoring defense (28.3). They've gone away from their hybrid defense in favor of a one-gap, 3-4 scheme centered around rookie NT Dan Williams, whom Sullivan and the guards will be charged with moving to get the inside-zone scheme going. The Cardinals also like to play SS Adrian Wilson as an extra man in the box, leaving them in single-safety looks the Vikings can exploit on the perimeter -- if Berrian, WR Hank Baskett or someone else finally can hook up vertically with Favre. But the Vikings' ability to ride the NFL's leading rusher, HB Adrian Peterson, seems likely to play a pivotal role in this one.
How bad can you be?: The drought has gotten ridiculous -- zero sacks for the Vikings over nearly 14 quarters since just after halftime Oct. 11 against the New York Jets, and zero for RE Jared Allen since a trash sack Sept. 19 against Miami. Those are the longest streaks in Vikings history and Allen's career, respectively, one year after the team led the NFL with 48 sacks and Allen had 14½ for a second straight season. Allen has a highly favorable matchup this week against Cardinals LT Levi Brown, but can he actually capitalize? LE Ray Edwards has fallen off on the other side, too, and DC Leslie Frazier's Cover-2 scheme is somewhat limiting in terms of manufacturing pressure with blitz patterns. Playing with a lead always helps the rush, because the offense tends to become more one-dimensional. But regardless of score, one of the league's most talented front fours simply has to figure out a way to produce -- and prevent Cardinals QB Derek Anderson from having all day to find WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Breaston down the field.
The Percy problem: Moss' departure only increases Harvin's value to the Vikings, who have seen their second-year playmaker blossom in recent weeks. After catching just six passes for 44 yards (7.3 average) and rushing once for 2 yards in the season's first two games, Harvin has 25 catches for 349 yards (14.0 average) and three touchdowns, plus 72 yards on seven carries -- not to mention his production on kick returns. But Harvin's ankle injury hobbled him in practice this week, and he reportedly had a heated exchange with Childress on Friday about his effort -- which could be construed as fallout from the release of a veteran player he idolized, befriended and played off of the past four weeks. Harvin showed last season he's capable of producing without Moss drawing away attention, but putting roles in flux (again) can't help. That Harvin and Moss remain in close contact also makes it worth wondering how soon an impressionable 22-year-old can move on from what surely was one of the great shocks of his young career.
Under center, under the rug: Only this Vikings team could produce enough drama to make people forget about a 41-year-old quarterback who continues to operate with multiple foot/ankle factors, got knocked out of last week's game with blood gushing from his chin and remains under investigation for allegations of sexually charged misconduct. Favre played his most even game at New England, completing 68.8% of his passes for 259 yards and one interception before departing. But now he must deal with another significant adjustment to a receiving corps that seemingly was settling down for the first time all season prior to Moss' release. Age, injuries, issues and all, no one is capable of galvanizing the Vikings quite like Favre, and he surely sees an opening within the current circumstances to play the hero. Coaches want to rein in Favre's risk/reward play to limit the turnovers that have proven damaging all season. However, big-chunk yardage plays remain vital to any team's success, and the Vikings are one of only two teams in the NFL this season without a single pass play of 40 or more yards. The other? Arizona.
This has the feel of a game that could end up a runaway, one way or the other. The Vikings are the more talented team and have plenty of frustration to take out. But the bizarre events of the past week, coupled with a crowd that won't hesitate to take out its own frustration on the home team, means things could completely unravel as well. The guess here is talent wins out, the fanbase is appeased (at least temporarily) and Childress buys himself another week.
Prediction: Vikings 30, Cardinals 17.