Friday, October 22, 2010

Contenders or Pretenders?

To call the Vikings' season bizarre would be an understatement of epic proportions. Imagine if I'd told you two months ago that Randy Moss would return to the Vikings, Kendra Wilkinson would bring the twins to the Twin Cities, and Brett Favre's privates would no longer be private. You simply can't make this stuff up. The Winter Park Circus has taken center stage, but for all the wrong reasons. The product on the field hasn't been nearly as entertaining as the extravaganza off of it. At 2-3, the enigmatic Vikings are an immensely talented group of underachievers who probably don't deserve the opportunity they still have. However, the NFC North has been lousy, and as you're about to find out, a third straight division crown is still well within reach.

You may find it hard to believe, but I don't hate the Packers. Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings, and Jermichael Finley are among my favorite players in the league. It's their uber-obnoxious, glue-sniffing fan base that drives me up a wall. The Vikings catch a couple of major breaks here. First, they get the outdoor portion of the series split out of the way early, meaning that the weather will be a month warmer for brittle Brett Favre. Second, and more importantly, the Packers are decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball. The headliners are season-ending injuries to Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, and Finley (who torched the purple for 6/128/TD in his only contest last year). The running back tandem of Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn are better suited for bagging groceries. While Rodgers will still make some plays when the Pack goes four-wide, he was sacked 14 times in the two matchups last season, and another nine in his last two games. On the other side of the ball, Brett Favre wasn't sacked once in the two matchups last year, and he chucked seven touchdowns. He's started slow, but he has a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio in his last two games. Adrian Peterson has scored in the last four matchups between these teams, and overall, the Vikings are simply too talented across the board for a short-handed team that's being held together with duct tape. Other notable Packers whose availability is in question are: Al Harris, Atari Bigby, Donald Driver, A.J. Hawk, Brandon Chillar, Chad Clifton, Cullen Jenkins, Clay Matthews, Ryan Pickett, Mark Tauscher, and Charles Woodson. The Packers opened tryouts to the public this morning, but the only "prospect" who passed the breathalyzer was a 460 pound bearded hoarder-woman who bore a striking resemblance to Gilbert Brown. He/she will battle Bryan Bulaga for playing time Sunday night. All kidding aside, this game was won three weeks ago, when in a 24-hour span the Packers passed on Marshawn Lynch and the Vikings added Randy Moss. It should be a tightly contested game, and for what it's worth, Aaron Rodgers is 1-11 in games decided by four points or less.

This is a scary Halloween matchup for the Vikings. In case you're wondering, I'll be dressing up as a matador this year, in my purple #74. Ole! There's three factors the Vikings will struggle to counter in this one: a hostile crowd, possibly the best quarterback of all time, and a colossal coaching disadvantage. The Vikings will still hold a statistical advantage in most areas of this matchup, most notably over the Patriots' 30th ranked defense. But Bill Belichick is the ultimate trickster, and I'm not betting against him on All Hallow's Eve. The Vikings are hoping that Randy Moss will come back to haunt the Patriots, but the Brady/Belichick combination has won their last 23 regular season home games!

The Cardinals are 26th against the pass and 29th against the run. Their starting quarterback, Max Hall, is an undrafted rookie. Hall replaced Derek Anderson, who couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. Why am I even wasting time on this one, anything less than a 20-point shellacking should be considered a major disappointment. Welcome home, Larry!

The Bears are an average team, and they're an epic blown call away from an average 3-3 record. They tripped up the Vikings late last season, but like the Packer home/road series split, the Vikings luck out again getting the outdoor game early. I know, it sounds weak, but I'll take Brett outside on November 14th over December 20th any day. The frigid weather stiffens his creaky joints, and it also causes shrinkage and shoddy cell phone service. If you need any further convincing, in six career games, Adrian Peterson has scored a ridiculous 11 touchdowns against the Bears and has averaged 138 yards per contest.

The Packers should be much healthier in the rematch. However, Sidney Rice should be back in the fold for the Vikings as well. With matchup nightmares Moss and Rice on the outside, Harvin working the slot, Shiancoe working the middle, and Adrian being Adrian, this is the week that the Vikings' offense hits full throttle for the first time. Additionally, the Vikings have won 12 of their last 13 games at the stadium formerly known as the Metrodome. Skol.

For some reason, this one has me a little worried. The Vikings are a markedly better team than the Redskins, who rank in the bottom half of the league on both sides of the ball. However, there's always one unexpected loss that you don't account for. There's the hostile crowd. There's the cold weather. There's Randy Moss hitting the FedEx Field showers early in 2005. There's Fred Smoot covering 1/3 of the Earth. This game just feels a lot like the late-season losses in Carolina and Chicago last year. I'm calling it a tentative victory for now.

The Bills might be the worst team in the NFL. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a Harvard grad, scored 48 out of 50 on his Wonderlic Test, and might be the smartest player in the league. That's neat. However, he sucks at football.

As of October 21, the Giants may be the cream of the NFC crop. They're talented, balanced, well-coached, and have recent Super Bowl cred. The Vikings have won their past four against New York, which is refreshing when you consider that our Twins have lost 17 of their last 19 to the Yankees. As of right now, however, the Giants are the more solid, consistent team.

In the Week 10 matchup, the only advantage I could find for the Bears was their home turf. They've lost three straight in the bubble, and they'll be outclassed again in this one.

As a Viking fan, I know all too well how dangerous Michael Vick can be. The Philly fans may decide to spare Santa this year and save their snowballs for the Vikings. Between the weather, the stout opponent, the hostile environment, and Andy Reid's clear psychological edge over former understudy Brad Childress, I'm very pessimistic about this potential playoff preview. If that's not bad enough, the Vikings will be coming off an emotional victory with a short week of preparation.

I expect this to be a "win and you're in" matchup for the Vikings. Thank you, schedule makers! This isn't your older brother's Detroit Lions -- this bunch is plucky. However, the Vikings won the first matchup handily. That made six straight over Detroit, and with Minnesota angling for a playoff birth, this should be a blowout.

I found it difficult to pick against the Vikings in most matchups. Not because I love them, but because on paper they are easily one of the most talented teams in the league. They've invented some interesting methods of self-destruction over the last year, but that's a difficult thing to figure in to this kind of exercise. Randy Moss not only brought game-breaking ability back to the purple, but he brought his air of swagger and confidence that's been striking fear into opponents since 1998. I've predicted a 10-6 finish, but I have six "swing games" on the schedule -- games that I can see going either way (within two notches of center in either direction). In those six swing games, I have the Vikings going 4-2. That means that in my estimation, their record could range anywhere from 6-10 to 12-4. Their stretch of three swing games from Week 10-12, which includes two crucial home divisional matchups, may ultimately decide their fate.

What do you think? Am I a jaded homer? Am I being too critical of the home team? Let's hear it!

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