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Previewing Wild Card Sunday

Posted by Ryan Cardinal on January 7, 2010 – 2:54 pm

Earlier today on the vikings.com Blog, we examined the Saturday Wild Card games.  Now, let’s look at Sunday’s matchups.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots – Sunday, Jan. 10 at Noon CST

Though the Ravens and Patriots didn’t play last weekend, they did square up earlier this season in New England, with the Pats coming out on top.  Can they go two-for-two vs. Baltimore?

New England Offense vs. Ravens Defense

The main storyline of this game is in essence Ravens LB Ray Lewis vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady.  Both are perennial Pro Bowlers and the leaders of their respective teams.  However, with the loss last weekend of Pats WR Wes Welker to a knee injury, Brady’s job just got a heckuva lot tougher, as the New England offense may have a difficult time replacing Welker’s 123 catches and nearly 1,400 receiving yards.

Welker had 6 catches in the Week 4 matchup between these teams last October, but had just 48 yards as the Patriots offense was largely held in check by Lewis and Co.  Randy Moss had 3 catches for 50 yards and a score, while Brady was 21 of 32 for 258 yards and the lone TD pass.

On the ground, like usual, New England struggled, as their 4-headed attack of Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Laurence Maroney combined for 25 carries for 74 yards.

With the absence of Welker and his ability to catch short and intermediate passes, establishing the ground game to setup play action and deeper passes down-field to Moss will be key for the Pats.

Ravens Offense vs. New England Defense

In the team’s prior meeting, the Ravens offense was driving down the field late in the 4th quarter with a chance to tie or win the game, but a drop on a 4th-down pass by WR Mark Clayton inside the New England 10-yard line ended Baltimore’s hopes of pulling off the comeback.

Despite the loss, QB Joe Flacco had a solid day, throwing 47 times, which is a number that Baltimore would likely want to cut in half this time around.  While the 2nd-year signal caller has the ability to do more than just be a care-taker, a game such as last week against Oakland is more of an ideal setup for the Ravens: Flacco threw 19 passes while the team ran the ball 31 times.

The trio of Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain is as deep of a backfield as there is, as the Ravens sport the 5th-best rushing attack in the NFL.  Despite not having Welker to worry about, the Ravens will want to try to keep Brady and the Pats offense off the field and their best bet to achieve that goal is to establish the running game early and often.

Prediction: Ravens over Patriots

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals – Sunday, Jan. 10 at 3:40 p.m. CST

Including their preseason trip to Arizona, this is Green Bay’s 3rd trip to the Phoenix area this season.  A nice reward for having to live in Green Bay I guess.

Arizona Offense vs. Green Bay Defense

Despite playing just a week ago, it’s tough to draw too much from that game as it relates to this week’s matchup since, by the time the game kicked off, neither team had anything to play for in terms of postseason positioning and both teams pulled its starters at various points during the contest.

However, this weekend’s game could be adversely affected by the knee and ankle injury suffered by Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin, who suffered an MCL sprain and high ankle sprain.  Even if Boldin is able to go this weekend, he clearly won’t be at 100 percent and his loss is a big blow to Arizona’s offense.  QB Kurt Warner will still have Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston at his disposal, and the Cards will likely need to score close to 30 points or more to win.

Due to the explosiveness of Green Bay’s offense and the likely loss of Boldin, look for the Cardinals to try to establish Beanie Wells and the rest of their running game to wear down Green Bay’s defense and, more importantly, keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline.

Green Bay Offense vs. Arizona Defense

No offense in the NFL has been better than the Packers over the 2nd-half of the season, as Green Bay rolls into Arizona averaging over 30 points per game over their final 8 regular season games.  Rodgers, who earned his 1st Pro Bowl birth this season, has thrown just 2 INTs over that 8 game span, shouldn’t have many issues in continuing his strong play and putting up points against an Arizona team that may be without Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, one of the team’s top CBs.  Arizona ranks 23rd against the pass, so missing one of their top defenders could be a blow too much to overcome if Rodgers-Cromartie can’t go due to his knee injury.

RB Ryan Grant had over 1,200 yards on the ground for Green Bay this season, and like the Cardinals with their running attack, Green Bay will want to control the clock to a degree and not let Warner and Fitzgerald beat them.

As fans saw last season in the playoffs, the Cardinals are a very dangerous team, particularly at home, so look for them to give the Packers a very spirited effort Sunday is the desert.


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Previewing Wild Card Saturday

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 7, 2010 – 1:57 pm

Let’s take a quick look at both of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff games, with a prediction of the AFC game. We’ll also have a preview of Sunday’s Wild Card playoff games here on the vikings.com Blog later this afternoon.

NY Jets at Cincinnati Bengals – Saturday, Jan. 9 , 3:30 p.m. CT
Winners of the AFC North division, the Bengals are the #4 seed and host the #5 seeded Jets, who earned a spot in the playoffs as a wild card. This game, as both of the NFC Wild Card matchups are, is a rematch of a Week 17 contest that New York won by a 37-0 score. I’m pretty sure this game will be closer. Let’s take a look…

Jets Offense vs. Bengals Defense
No team ran the ball more often or more successfully than the Jets this season – they led the NFL in rushing attempts and rushing yards. And in the playoffs that offensive philosophy will behoove them because they will be starting a rookie QB – Mark Sanchez – who has made his fair share of mistakes.

The Jets were able to run all over the Bengals in their Week 17 contest, but there are 2 major differences between that game and the one that will be played on Saturday. For starters, the Bengals had nothing to play for last week and it showed. There is more on the line this time and the Bengals will play like it. But Cincinnati will also perform better defensively because they’ll have their run-stuffing DT – Domata Peko – back from injury. Whether those 2 factors are enough to tilt the field in Cincy’s favor remains to be seen. It will be fun to watch, though.

Bengals Offense vs. Jets Defense
There might not be a more aggressive defense in the NFL than a Rex Ryan defense. Blitz-happy doesn’t even come close to describing Ryan’s philosophy, especially on 3rd down. What Cincy has going for it, though, is that even though they were also a run-dominated offense this year, they can also pass it. Carson Palmer is a playoff-proven QB and he has a #1 WR (Chad Ochocinco) who can play with anyone. There are 2 key matchups to watch here: 1) Palmer against the Jets blitz and 2) Ochocinco against perhaps the best cover CB in the NFL – Darrelle Revis.

Special Teams
Both of these offenses will come out running the football and running it a lot. That means controlling the tempo and winning the field position battle will be crucial. Special teams is a big factor in field position and the team whose special teams unit can perform better will have a leg up in this game.

Prediction: Jets over Bengals

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys – Saturday, Jan. 9, 7:00 p.m. CT
In another Week 17 rematch, the Eagles make a return trip to Dallas to play the Cowboys, winners of the NFC East. Dallas defeated Philly twice in the regular season, so the Eagles are out to exercise the demons while the Cowboys are preparing to complete a 3-game season series sweep of their division rivals.

Eagles Offense vs. Cowboys Defense
QB Donovan McNabb and Co. have displayed their explosive abilities often this season, but never against the Cowboys. The Eagles were shutout last week and scored just 16 points in the 1st meeting. As a result, I expect head coach Andy Reid to come out with a new twist in the offense – something we haven’t seen from the Eagles much this season. I don’t know if it will involve Mike Vick or not, but that’s one possibility. Maybe it’ll be an exclusive spread offense attack, a la what New England did to the Vikings in 2006. Something’s gotta change for the Eagles, and I know Reid has the offensive mind to figure something out.

Cowboys Offense vs. Eagles Defense
What you’ve got to like about the Cowboys offense is their versatility. They can hammer you with a 3-pronged rushing attack, which is paced by former Golden Gopher Marion Barber III, or they can beat you through the air with QB Tony Romo firing the rock all over the place to WR Miles Austin, RB Felix Jones and TE Jason Witten. The Eagles are dealing with injuries and it just feels as if they are a bit out-manned in this matchup. Dallas is hot and it’s tough to pick against them in this spot. But the Eagles do have some play-makers on defense – notably CB Asante Samuel – so if the Cowboys relax too much they will get in trouble.

Special Teams
The Eagles have a distinct advantage in this facet of the game. Although K David Akers missed a FG last week, he comes up big in big spots. No other kicker made more FGs than Akers this season. I will say, though, Dallas did a much better job this season in pinning their opponents inside the 20 with coffin corner kicks.

However, the special teams trump card goes to the Eagles because of WR DeSean Jackson, who is a lethal returner and will strike from anywhere on the field, at any time in the game. If the Eagles win, I bet Jackson makes a big play on special teams.


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Five Positive Trends For Vikings Heading Into Playoffs

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 7, 2010 – 11:24 am

1. Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson
This is less of a trend and more of just a statement of fact, but having Favre and Peterson on your team in the playoffs isn’t going to be a bad thing. Both Favre and Peterson have the ability to take over and win games. Favre did it this year against the San Francisco 49ers and twice against Green Bay, and we’ve seen Peterson do it several times over the course of his career, including this year in the season-opener at Cleveland.

2. A Bye and Home Playoff Game
For the 2nd consecutive year, the Vikings closed out the regular season with a huge win in Week 17 against the NY Giants. Last year they clinched the NFC North with a 50-yard Ryan Longwell FG at the buzzer. This year, they dominated the Giants 44-7 to help clinch a 1st-round bye in the NFC playoffs. The bye allows some key players (Bernard Berrian, Steve Hutchinson, Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield) to rest up and rejuvenate and then when the Vikings do return to action they’ll be playing their 1st playoff game at home, where they are 8-0 in 2009.

3. Pass Rush On Turf
The Vikings had 29.0 sacks in 10 games while playing on artificial surfaces during 2009, which included 25.0 sacks in 8 home games. Jared Allen and Ray Edwards love rushing the edge on the fast surfaces and they’ll be in line to play on the artificial stuff all the way up to Super Bowl XLIV, which is being played outdoors and on grass at Land Shark Stadium in South Florida.

4. Vikings On Fire In Last 7 quarters
The Vikings went on a tough run in December, losing 3 of 4 games and struggling to keep a rhythm on offense. But they have outscored their opponents 74-27 in the last 7 quarters and the offense is trending upward heading into the playoffs.

5. The Kicking Game
Often overlooked – except when something goes wrong – the kicking game is an important aspect of every game played in the NFL. And the kicking game is a broad spectrum that encompasses kickoffs, FGs, PATs and punts, from a general standpoint.

The Vikings kicking game in 2009 has been solid. K Ryan Longwell converted 26 of 28 FG tries this year, including 2 of 2 from 50+ yards, and he was 54 of 55 on PATs. On top of that, Longwell generally did a nice job of spotting his kickoffs. While Longwell doesn’t record many touchbacks, he’s improved over the last couple of seasons on his accuracy from the tee.


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Five (Good and Bad) Trends To Watch

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 7, 2010 – 10:45 am

The good news is that the Vikings earned a 1st-round bye and won’t play their 1st playoff game until 4 other teams are eliminated. The bad news is that means there will be no Vikings game to watch or talk about this weekend.

So we have to talk about something else in the meantime.

As a result, we’ve come up with 5 good and bad trends the Vikings have going as they enter the playoffs. The good trends are obviously ones we’d like to see the Vikings continue as the playoffs march on. The bad trends are ones we’d like to see eliminated, or at least tempered, as the postseason moves forward.

It’s always better to take the bad news first, so we’ll start with 5 trends we’d like to see eliminated. But come back around lunchtime because that’s when we’ll post the 5 positive trends.

1. Pass Defense
We all love the Vikings rushing defense – it’s #2 in the NFL. But at times the pass defense can make you nervous. While the Vikings aren’t terrible in yards allowed, there are 4 other areas of pass defense that need to be improved in the playoffs. They are:

1) Passing TDs allowed. The Vikings rank just 23rd in this category with 26 allowed, and only 2 other playoff teams have given up more passing TDs (Philadelphia, Green Bay).
2) The Vikings are tied for 26th with just 11 INTs. No other playoff team has fewer than the Vikings 11 INTs.
3) Opposing passers have a 92.5 passer rating against the Vikings and no other playoff team is allowing a better rating.
4) Opposing passers are completing 63.7% of their passes against the Vikings and only 1 other playoff team (Indianapolis) is allowing a higher percentage of completed passes.

2. Negative Plays On Offense
The Vikings were the league’s 2nd-highest scoring team behind New Orleans and only 4 other teams averaged more yards per game, those are great trends. On the flip side, though, the Vikings led the league with 116 negative plays. The Vikings were a great 3rd-down offense, converting 44.8% of their 3rd down conversions, but they could be even better on 3rd downs (and all other downs) if they could decrease their rate of negative plays.

3. Takeaways
The Vikings finished on the plus side of the turnover margin in 2009, but they finished in a tie for 22nd with just 24 takeaways. Vikings assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier stresses taking the ball away to his defense, and he’ll continue to do so as they prepare for their 1st playoff game.

4. Ball Security
Fumbling wasn’t a rampant problem for the Vikings in 2009, but at times it reared its ugly head. The most memorable fumble is of course RB Adrian Peterson’s in Chicago, but he wasn’t the only guy to put the ball on the ground. Favre lost one in Pittsburgh that was returned for 6 points and both Chester Taylor and Darius Reynaud fumbled against the Giants in Week 17. Maybe we’re being nit-picky here, but it’d be nice to see 0 fumbles during a long postseason run.

5. Kick Return Coverage
Before we get into this one, I want to qualify this trend by saying 2 things: 1) the Vikings kick coverage units were much improved from last year and generally performed well on a week-to-week basis and 2) the Vikings covered more kickoff returns than any other team during the regular season. With those 2 things said, the Vikings did allow 53 kickoff returns of 20+ yards, which was 2nd-most in the NFL, and they allowed 6 kickoff returns of 40+ yards, which was tied for the 4th-most. Again, maybe we’re being nit-picky here, but it’d be good to see a couple of 0s in those categories during a long postseason run.


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Vikings VPs Rick Spielman And Steve LaCroix With P.A.

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 7, 2010 – 8:40 am

Vikings VP of Player Personnel Rick Spielman and VP of Sales & Marketing/CMO Steve LaCroix appeared on our friend Paul Allen’s 9-noon show on KFAN-AM 1130 yesterday to talk Vikings.

To listen to the segments, click here.

LaCroix and PA announced that the Vikings and Clear Channel have reached a 2-year extension to keep Vikings games on KFAN.

Then, Spielman was on with PA as they discussed the 12-4 Vikings and also talked a little pro/college personnel.


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