Before the season began, back when we were still polishing the dust of our crystal balls, did any of us see either the Vikings or the Cardinals having 4-2 records heading into Week 7?
Come on now, don’t lie.
I admit before the season began I made some jokes about Minnesota in my Fantasy Football team preview. I wish I could take them back. Really, I do.
But the fact is the Vikings have shocked and awed people to this point in the season, and we didn’t even know they had it in ‘em.
Most analysts had them projected in the basement of the NFC North. Right now they’re wrestling for the Master Suite.
Out west, Arizona has done largely the same thing, albeit in much sloppier fashion. A win on Sunday for either team will give them at least a partial lead in their respective divisions. Maybe that’s impressive enough, but I think this win will do so much more.
At 5-2, the winning team will have further legitimized their ascension while showing an ability to withstand setbacks. For Minnesota, it’s a slight bump in road for their quarterback and slight exposure to their defense last week. For Arizona, it’s massive bad breaks for their quarterbacks and running back.
Minnesota, this is where I try to make it up to you. I’ve been wrong before, but lately my crystal ball has been just right.
1.) Kyle Rudolph outscores Larry Fitzgerald
Unless you’re a Vikings fan or a fantasy football addict, you might be asking, “Kyle who?”
The answer is Kyle Rudolph, second-year tight end out of Notre Dame. Rudolph was my “Potential Sleeper” when I previewed the Vikings in terms of Fantasy options. In recent games, Rudolph has been making that “fantasy” a reality while also increasing the value of my crystal ball.
Currently Rudolph is tied for sixth among tight ends in receptions (25), and leads all NFL tight ends in TDs with five. That’s right, the Minnesota big man has found the end zone more often to this point than either Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham.
The key has been Christian Ponder’s success. Or more specifically, the way Ponder is finding success. Ponder has the second best completion percentage in the league (68.6%), but is 24th in yards per attempt (6.8). Combined, those numbers tell me that Ponder is improving as a passer, but the Vikings are improving even more at how they utilize him.
Ponder is making the easy throws to keep the chains moving. Easy throws tend to mean plenty of short to mid-range targets for tight ends, the proverbial “QB’s best friend”.
On the other side of the ball is Larry Fitzgerald. I can’t say enough about this guy. Unfortunately, most of what I say is about how badly I feel for him.
Fitzgerald is a pro’s pro. Came about as close to winning a Super Bowl without winning a Super Bowl as you could get with Kurt Warner, sticks it out with the Arizona franchise (where it seems like he’ll probably be till the day he retires), and now he can’t catch a break. A consummate pro, one of the most talented and intelligent receivers in the league.
And on Sunday, he’ll have John Skelton throwing to him.
It’s nothing really against Skelton. But since Warner’s exit, the Cardinals have put Matt Leinart, Max Hall, Derek Anderson, Kevin Kolb, and our boy Skelton under center. In the end, each of them became punch lines with varying humor.
You have a once in a decade wide receiver talent in Larry Fitzgerald, who pays you seemingly unconditional loyalty, and you leave him drying out in the desert with no one to throw him a ball.
I’ll leave it as a short rant. Arizona, you can go to your room till supper time.
It’s truly amazing Fitzgerald is still able to put up the numbers that he does considering the quarterbacks he has passing him the ball. Through five games this season, Fitzgerald is still seventh among receivers in receptions, but has only found the end zone three times.
I think it’s clear Arizona will have tough sledding offensively in Minnesota, and the same goes for the Skelton-Fitzgerald connection.
On the other side, the Cardinals' secondary is a talented bunch, so Christian Ponder will go to Kyle Rudolph for a season high number of targets. Kyle Rudolph finds that end zone once, maybe twice. Rudolph outscores Fitzgerald. Write it down in permanent marker.
2.) Ponder throws more picks than Skelton, Vikes still find way to win
This is a two-headed monster because neither prediction would’ve been monster enough.
Ponder looked immensely sharp in his first four games of the season, then began to take a slide in the last two weeks. Four interceptions in the last two games has the harshest critics waiting for Ponder to complete the descent and return to last season’s ugly form.
Not this writer.
I think Ponder had a minor blip and is still on track for a highly successful season.
That said, Ponder enters Sunday’s game facing an Arizona secondary that is allowing only 216 passing yards per game. Their interception totals thus far have them only in the statistical middle of the league, but Patrick Peterson has been on a personal crusade against passing this season, and I think he has good to great odds of at least one take away in the ball game.
In addition to that, I think the Vikings will put themselves in positions where they may want to take a couple gambles and stretch some plays out.
After all, Ponder is still a young quarterback in this league, and there’s no dress rehearsal like the real thing. If the Vikings put their offense through a little trial here, expect there to be a touch of error to go with it.
On Arizona’s side, the offensive coaches must be scratching their heads wondering, “Where do we go?”
It’s a fair question, and Minnesota is still a tough place to ask it. The Vikings are allowing 217 passing yards per game, and only 96 rushing yards. The bad news for the Cardinals is that their offense averages less than each total already.
The rotation of injury-riddled quarterbacks has been well documented, but the loss of running back Ryan Williams for the year puts Arizona in a particularly nasty position.
Yet even with LaRod Stephens-Howling in the backfield (who’s getting an awesome one yard per carry), the Cardinals are going to be forced to run and run and run again to take the pressure of John Skelton. Who clearly I don’t trust.
In limited action this season, Skelton is 16-38 passing for 194 yards, no scores, and two interceptions. I expect those numbers to stay consistent through Sunday’s game.
“But I thought you said Ponder would have more interceptions than Skelton .”
You’re right, I did. Because John Skelton will be spending too much time on his back to throw any picks. The Vikings have a fearsome pass rush, led by tenacious defensive end Jared Allen, who has a sack in each of the last four games. The Cardinals have allowed 22 sacks in the last three games, so clearly they don’t like their quarterbacks either. Minnesota will find plenty of open lanes to bring Skelton down with frequency.
When Skelton does get a throw off, he’s going to have to pass with even more trepidation than Ponder has been. Skelton will ultimately be criticized for being too careful.
The Vikings win for fairly evident reasons despite Ponder throwing more interceptions than Skelton. I’ve been right on these interception predictions before.
3.) Bye Bye, Birdie: the beginning of the end comes early in Arizona
I don’t want to take away anything from what the Cardinals have done up to this point. You started so strong, rattling off four wins in a row and momentarily silencing any criticism. Along the way you beat a divisional foe, won a tight game in overtime with resolve, smashed the Eagles, and—perhaps most impressive—beat the Patriots in Foxboro.
My hat’s off to you. Your defense proved it is something to be respected and your coaching staff found ways to put you in the “win” column.
Then you lost to the Rams and the Bills. You lost your running back. You lost your quarterback, after losing your first quarterback…so now it’s back to your first quarterback…until your second quarterback comes back? Can anybody tell me if I got that one right?
The quarterback shuffle is no way to win with consistency. In a league where apparently all teams are neck and neck and anyone can win or lose on any given Sunday, the slightest wobble might just put you off track and out of the running for good.
Minnesota will be a tough place to play. The Vikings haven’t lost a game at home. After this, the road just keeps getting tougher. Go look at the schedule. It includes the Packers, Falcons, and Bears, San Francisco twice and a Seattle team looking for revenge.
Through the first few weeks of the season everyone looked like a contender, and you were right up there with the best of them. My desert friends, the skid begins here.
Despite a 4-0 start, I’m predicting Arizona winds up with either seven or eight wins, thus missing the playoffs. The NFC West is turning into a shootout of a division, and the Cardinals are running out of bullets.
I might be wrong, but I don’t think so.
The Vikings beat the Cardinals soundly. For Minnesota, this unlikely 2012 NFL odyssey continues.