Some are already looking towards week 15 against the Chargers as the biggest game of the year for the Bengals, limiting the importance of this weekend's game against the Minnesota Vikings. However, in an odd world of things, both the Vikings and Bengals have proven very little against winning teams this year. If it wasn't for the Packers, neither team would have won a game against a team that has a winning record at this point in the season. So while Sunday's game has little to do with playoff implications, it does have a lot to do with proving that they belong with the NFL elite. Confidence is a big thing in the NFL and from Cincinnati's perspective, they'll need to beat the Vikings to prove that they can travel to California and beat the Chargers with the second seed in the AFC on the line.
But what about these Vikings? What should we expect? I sat down with Gonzo from Daily Norseman, who gives us some knowledge on our opponent this weekend, in a game that features two teams with a combined 19 wins this year.
1) The Vikings have played the Packers twice already. This is significant because before losing to the Cardinals, the Vikings had only beaten one team with a winning record. Then they lost by 13 to the Arizona Cardinals during last week’s Sunday Night football. Is there a feeling that the Vikings have a lot to prove against the Bengals, who are the third-ranked team in the AFC?
This week's game against the Bengals is, in my opinion, the most vital game of the season for Minnesota, because it could really set a tone for the team the rest of the way. If they beat the Bengals, it becomes easier to write the Cardinals' game off as simply a one-time bad performance, which I'm sort of under the impression it was. A loss to the Bengals, however, means that we could end up completely out of control going into what should be a relatively easy final three games of the season. The Vikings DO have a lot to prove against the Bengals this Sunday, and I think they'll be more than up for the challenge. I'm of the opinion that Sunday night in Arizona was the perfect storm of the Vikings coming out flat, the Cardinals being fired up, and Minnesota putting together their worst game of the season. I would be shocked if they played as badly against the Bengals as they did against Arizona.
2) Brett Favre is arguably having his best statistical season in his career. It seems that he’s willing to check down more often. Are there any concerns that Favre could take a downward spiral late in the season like last year when he played through an injury with the Jets?
With a guy Favre's age behind center, the concern obviously has to be there, but I don't think it's completely warranted. As you stated, last season Favre got injured during the course of the season, and it affected his ability to throw the football. As anyone this year that's watched Favre can see, his ability to physically throw the football is as good as ever. He's not playing through an injury this year or anything like that. What worries me more than that, however, is his admission that he let his emotions get the better of him against the Cardinals, which led directly to one of his interceptions. He can't afford to have that happen if the Vikings are going to continue to play well in the regular season and the post-season. He needs to continue playing smart, solid football, check it down when he has to, and just do what he's been doing through the first 3/4 of the season.
3) How will losing E.J. Henderson impact the defense?
The loss of E.J. Henderson is a significant one, to be sure. After he missed most of 2008 after dislocating his toes, it looked like he was finally back to being the old E.J. Henderson. Henderson is also one of the linebackers in the nickel package for the Vikings, as well as the defensive signal caller. Ben Leber will most likely take over Henderson's responsibility on both those fronts, and Jasper Brinkley, Minnesota's fifth-round pick in the 2009 draft out of South Carolina, will man Henderson's spot in the middle on first and second down. Brinkley has a world of potential, and with the Williams Wall in front of him, hopefully there won't be a lot of drop-off for Minnesota.
3a) The Vikings have one of the best rush defenses in the league. We’ve argued at Cincy Jungle that the Bengals need to attack the Vikings secondary. What would you say is the weakness in the Vikings defense this year?
Minnesota's front seven can compete with any team in the league, but the secondary has been no better than average for most of the year. More specifically, the safety play for most of the year has bordered on atrocious. Granted, the team has been without Antoine Winfield since Week 7, and you obviously have to change up your schemes when you lose someone of that caliber, but it doesn't excuse what we've seen from Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson for most of the year. (Johnson is unlikely to play on Sunday, and he'll likely be replaced by Jamarca Sanford, the Vikings' seventh-round pick in the 2009 Draft out of Ole Miss.) But the safeties are definitely the weak link in the Minnesota defense, because I think the Vikes have been pretty solid at CB for most of the year despite the loss of Winfield.
3a) Reports suggest that Antoine Winfield could return this week after missing the previous six with a foot injury. What does his return mean to the secondary?
Winfield's return is huge, particularly when you're lining up against a team with one of the most talented receivers in the league. Winfield goes back to being the #1 guy, which allows Cedric Griffin to go back to the #2 spot and Benny Sapp can go back to being the nickel guy instead of starting. Winfield's presence in stopping the run also can't be underestimated, as there's no better run-support corner in the NFL, in my opinion. Every account I've read says that he's rested, healed, and ready to go, and I hope to heck we see him out there tomorrow afternoon. His presence against the Bengals could be huge, both against the run and against the pass.
4) Jared Allen is a beast. How should the Bengals game plan against one of the league’s best pass rushers?
I think you have to do what the Cardinals did against him... you constantly have to have someone over on his side along with the tackle, whether it's a tight end, a running back, or sometimes both. If you try to block Jared Allen one-on-one for the better part of a game, he's going to beat you unless you have a truly elite left tackle like a Joe Thomas or someone along those lines. You need to double-team him, you need to chip him, try to get him frustrated... and then hope that the rest of the line does their jobs against the Williams Wall and Ray Edwards (who is having a surprisingly good season thus far).
5) Sidney Rice is having a career year, already surpassing the 1,000-yard receiving mark. However, he only has four touchdowns. Does the Vikings offense tend to look away from their receivers in the red zone?
I'm not sure if it's that they "look away" from Rice in the red zone. . .it's just that Favre has been so good about spreading the ball around to all of the options he has this season that Rice has just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, for lack of a better way to put it. Whenever a Favre-led offense gets into the red zone. . .and it's been this way ever since he was in Green Bay. . .the tight end is the guy he loves to look for, and the nine touchdown catches for Visanthe Shiancoe this season are a testament to that. The go-to guy in the red zone can change from one day to the next. . .it might be Shiancoe, it might be Rice, it might be Bernard Berrian, it might be Percy Harvin...it just depends on matchups and who's open at that particular time. That's the thing that Favre has brought this year, the fact that defenses can't just key on one particular guy in the passing game.
6) Arizona limited Adrian Peterson to 19 yards rushing on 13 attempts. What did the Cardinals find out that shutdown Peterson?
They found out that the Vikings were way too quick to give up on the run, which is something that's been rare this season, and something that absolutely can not happen against the Bengals. As good as Brett Favre has been this season, the Vikings' offense needs to run through Adrian Peterson. Granted, Peterson seems to be a bit more impatient this season than he was his first two years. . .he's not letting his blocks develop at times. . .but he's also not getting a ton of help from the offensive line. According to the folks at Football Outsiders, the Vikings have the most "stuffed runs" in the NFL this season, and after what the Vikings' offense has done on the ground the last two seasons, that's completely unacceptable. I would be thoroughly shocked, however, if Peterson had a performance against Cincinnati as bad as his performance against the Cardinals.