EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. How uptight are the Minnesota Vikings with the playoffs on the line over the season's final two weeks?
So uptight that they staged a dance-off between defensive linemen Fred Evans and Everson Griffen recently. Minnesota is focused on trying to win its third road game of the season Sunday when it travels to 12-2 Houston before the season finale at home against Green Bay. But the Vikings (8-6) won't be uptight, either, with the stakes raised this season after missing the playoffs the past two years and going through a 3-13 debacle last year.
"You don't want to go into a game like this tight or tense because of the circumstances," Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. "You really want to go out there and play with great confidence and not be all wound tight. They are not wound tight. That is definitely the truth."
Here are five things to watch as the "loosey-goosey" Vikings travel to face the Texans and try to boost their playoff chances:
1. A slightly less-clouded picture.
There are several factors at play in Minnesota's playoff possibilities, none more important than two games against Houston and Green Bay, two teams that have already clinched playoff berths and are trying to lock up home-field advantage. The Texans could clinch the top-overall seed in the AFC with a win against the Vikings. Minnesota currently sits in the final Wild Card spot, but doesn't even control its own destiny. The Vikings could win their final two games and still be out of the playoffs depending on what happens in the NFC East. Minnesota also could be in the playoffs with two losses, but in a much more difficult manner.
The easiest route for the Vikings is to win their final two games and hope the New York Giants lose one of their final two games (at Baltimore, home against Philadelphia). Minnesota won't be eliminated with a loss this weekend and can't clinch a spot with a win, but the myriad scenarios will become clearer following this week's games. And make no mistake, the Vikings really could use a win to ease their position heading into the final week.
2. The chase that is second to the race.
In an only slightly-less interesting case, running back Adrian Peterson continues his pursuit of a 2,000-yard rushing season and Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2,105 rushing yards set in 1984. While chasing such a prestigious record could take over the attention, Frazier says the emphasis is on the playoffs first and said no player is focused more on the playoffs than Peterson.
Peterson is 188 yards shy of 2,000 and is 293 away from Dickerson's record, a lofty projection for any back. But Peterson has proved to not be just any back during his eight-game 100-yard streak. He's crossed the 200-yard threshold in two of the past three games and has averaged 164.1 in the past eight games. Peterson needs to average 147 in the final two games to break Dickerson's record.
The chase doesn't get much more difficult than this weekend against Houston's fifth-ranked run defense. At his current 6.4 yards-per-carry average, Peterson needs 30 carries over the final two games to reach 2,000. He needs 47 carries to break Dickerson's record. And Minnesota's playoff hopes need Peterson as much as he needs the carries to break the record.
3. Watt can you do to stop J.J.?
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, in his second season since being drafted No. 11 overall out of Wisconsin, is putting together one of the most dominating, all-around seasons by a defensive lineman in several years, especially one who plays most of his snaps on the interior of the line. Watt is tied for the league-lead with 19.5 sacks, has 33 tackles for loss, 38 quarterback hits, 15 passes defensed and three forced fumbles. He's the only player in NFL history with at least 15 sacks and 15 passes defensed in a single season, breaking Hall of Famer Reggie White's single-season record for passes defensed by a defensive lineman (13) in the process.
A year after Vikings' end Jared Allen came close to breaking the single-season record for sacks, Watt and San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith are three away from Michael Strahan's record of 22.5. Watt has also become an elite run defender, as well. According to the Texans, Watt has been a part of 84 plays this season that have resulted in zero, or negative yards.
Watt, most often lined up at left defensive end for Houston, will be matched up on Minnesota's second-year guard Brandon Fusco and backup Geoff Schwartz, when he is rotated in. Fusco, who's had an up-and-down season in his first season as a starter, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press this week that the Vikings "will run the football right down his throat." Strong words, now to see if Fusco can back them up.
4. Cooking up a key matchup.
When Minnesota put Chris Cook, its top cover cornerback, on injured reserve with the team's one-time ability to designate him to return this season, this was the situation everyone had in mind. Cook had a six-to-eight week timeframe in his recovery from a broken arm, which put his return at the end of the regular season at the time. Cook has returned on the short end and is ready to play this week, six weeks after being put on injured reserve. Cook, if his conditioning is in place and he's up to the task, could draw Houston's standout receiver Andre Johnson on many snaps.
These were the types of matchups Minnesota had in mind for Cook when it made him the team's first pick in the 2010 draft and the kind of matchups Cook has relished, but hasn't had the chance to establish because of injuries and last year's legal issue. Cook is 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds and has the size and ability to match up with receivers like the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Johnson. Johnson is sixth in the league with 93 catches and third with 1,398 yards. Cook's return would also give Minnesota its preferred set of corners against Houston's sixth-ranked offense with Cook joining Antoine Winfield, A.J. Jefferson and rookie Josh Robinson.
5. The best two running backs in the league?
With the season Peterson has put together he leads the league with 1,812 rushing yards and 2,023 yards from scrimmage and is tied for fourth with 11 touchdowns he's cemented his status as the league's top back. Entering this season, Houston's Arian Foster might have had the best claim at the title off three straight seasons of at least 1,224 rushing yards and with Peterson coming off his knee surgery.
Foster is fourth in the league in rushing this year with 1,313 yards, and he leads the league with 16 touchdowns. He has a league-high 325 carries as well. For comparison, Peterson has the exact same total of rushing yards (1,313) in his past eight games. Foster will test Minnesota's run defense, which currently ranks 13th in the league, giving up 113.3 yards per game.
Asked this week if this weekend features the two best running backs in the NFL, Allen disagreed. Allen gave Peterson his credit, but he gave Seattle's Marshawn Lynch the spot as No. 2 on the list because Lynch rushed for 124 yards against the Vikings' earlier this season. Allen said he could change his mind, but for now, his vote would go to Lynch, who is second to Peterson in rushing yards this season with 1,379.
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