Earning our stripes back: Vikings vs. Bengals
After the Vikings' anemic 30-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, debate has been wide-ranging this week about whether the performance was a true gauge of where the 10-2 Purple stand in the NFL power structure, or if the dud was an aberration -- perhaps a result of playing three-consecutive home games against teams who won't see the playoffs.
I'm of the belief it was the latter, just as I see this Sunday's throwdown with the Bengals as an ideal opportunity for the Vikings to prove they're deserving of being considered among the league's elite.
Upstart Cincinnati (9-3) comes to town as leaders of the confounding AFC North, a division the Bengals now lead by three games over the 6-6 Ravens and the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers, losers of five straight at 6-7. To briefly refresh: the Vikings felled Baltimore 33-31 back in Week 6 after the Ravens former kicker Steven Hauschka missed a 44-yard field goal with seconds remaining, and then suffered our first loss of the season to Pitt., 27-17, the ensuing week.
With their measured 23-13 win over the Detroit last week, the Bengals assured themselves of their first winning season since 2005 and just their second winning campaign since 1990. Their ascension from the NFL abyss has been one of the better stories in football this season -- but don't look for them to add another chapter on Sunday.
Although Cincy arrives with a trio of visible offensive talents in quarterback Carson Palmer, running back Cedric Benson and receiver Chad Ochocinco -- the name reason for their success in '09 can be attributed to the Bengals' defense. Cincy leads the league in points allowed, giving up an average of just 15.6 per contest.
The rub? On the season, the Bengals have played just one team presently ranking in the NFL's top-dozen in points per game. That came against the No. 7 Packers (26.9 ppg.), who ran up 24 points in their Week 2 home loss to Cincy. While the Bengals haven't surrendered more than 20 points since Week 6, keeping the Vikings below 20 won't prove easy -- the Purple has averaged nearly 32 points per in their six home games this season.
What will likely prove more diminutive on Sunday are the rushing yards accrued by both teams. The Vikings and Bengals offer two of the league's top-seven runners in Adrian Peterson and Benson, however the respective defensive units rank 3rd and 2nd in defending the run. The ex-Bear washout Benson has finally fulfilled the expectations long expected of him and, with 969 ground yards in just 10 games, looks to soon break the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his career. The accomplishment will likely come on Sunday, but don't look for much more.
Peterson may not have fumbled in the Vikings' loss to 'Zona, however his mere 19 ground yards on 12 carries represent a disturbing trend for the defending rush champ. Peterson now has just one 100-yard effort in his past six games and has scored just once in the last three. While the timing for a rebound game is ideal for the Vikings, this doesn't appear to be the matchup where A.P. puts up numbers befitting his status among the league's elite backs. Cincy has allowed just one 100-yard rusher on the year, and that came all the way back in Week 4 when Browns' runner Jerome Harrison went for 121.
The outcome should come down to quarterback play, a matchup in which I readily like our chances. Palmer has thrown for just three scores in his last five games and hasn't hit the 275-yard mark all season. For all the attention Ochocinco gets for his occasionally entertaining self-absorption, his QB, despite the Bengals success, isn't really worthy of much ink -- Palmer ranks outside the NFL's top-dozen in touchdowns, pass yards, completion percentage and QB Rating.
Look for Favre to avoid shutdown corner Leon Hall and disperse the rock readily to whomever Hall isn't covering. Rook wideout Percy Harvin has missed some practice time this week suffering from migraines, but come gameday he'll be suited up and giving the Bengals a few headaches.
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