Time To Clinch – Minnesota Vikings Vs. Atlanta Falcons Preview

Today’s game is the best chance the Vikings have among the two remaining games of the season of controlling their own destiny. Though the Falcons boast the second best runner (second only to Adrian Peterson, of course) in the league, the Vikings match up better against Atlanta than they do against the last team on their regular season schedule, the New York Giants.

After an abysmal year with Michael Vick‘s legal troubles and the coach abandoning his team, this year’s Falcons squad is a great story. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has been stellar and running back Michael Turner has been the steal of free agency.

Still, like the Cardinals, Atlanta seems to be a better team on paper than they are in person. Yes, they have a winning record (9-5) but like Arizona, their victories have mostly come at the expense of soft teams. They’ve split their series with division rivals and only barely pulled out a win last week at home against a fading Tampa Bay team minus starting quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Division games are unique in that division opponents are much more familiar with one another since they play each other twice a season, every season.

Take away their division victories and the only team Atlanta has beat with a winning record has been Chicago, and that game they won by only two points. Outside of their division, they lost to the two teams they’ve played with winning records, Philadelphia and Denver. Atlanta’s losses within their division all occurred on the road.

The Vikings are coming off their first victory in which they really played together as a team for the first time this season. They made few mistakes. Even on the drive that began with two false starts, which earlier in the year would have derailed a drive, they overcame the penalties by capping the drive with a score.

Minnesota Vikings v Arizona Cardinals

Cedric Griffin had his best day as a Viking and has steadily improved over the course of the season. Matched up against Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald with league MVP candidate Curt Warner throwing them the ball, Griffin more than held his own. He jammed receivers off the line, stayed with them in coverage, and made an amazing one-handed interception (and he probably should have had two more). Griffin doesn’t give receivers nearly as much cushion and when he goes for the tackle now he’s not only quick but also under control. Remember how he used to fly off receivers because he came in too fast to wrap them up? No longer.

While Griffin can credit Jared Allen and the pressure the defensive line brings to bear on opposing quarterbacks, there’s no question his game has improved immensely.

Despite Arizona’s blocked kick return for a touchdown, special teams were uncharacteristically solid during recent weeks. I can only imagine that Childress heeded the screams of Bud Grant telling him to use more veterans on the unit.

It’s true that Tarvaris Jackson has looked a lot better during the game and a half since subbing for the injured Gus Frerotte, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I know the clamor among fans and media alike has been to start Jackson for the rest of the season but let’s be real. He rallied us to a win against…the Lions. And his primary job last week was to hand off to Adrian Peterson. It was Frerotte, after all, who got us to this point.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to be happy about Jackson’s recent play and hopeful about his future. He did not looked panicked under center, which is probably the most important improvement in his play. He made good reads for the most part and threw some very tough passes–the touchdown’s to Sidney Rice and Bobby Wade in particular.

A primary complaint I’ve had of Jackson during his entire tenure as a Viking has been his abysmal inaccuracy on the long ball. The commentators and post-game analysts proclaimed Jackson’s TD pass to Bernard Berrian “perfect” but it wasn’t; it was under thrown and Berrian had to pull up to haul it in. It was a great catch by Berrian. But at least it was catchable and I’ll take that over his typical unreachable overthrow.

But as we’re looking to clinch a playoff berth, shouldn’t we be dancing with the one who brung us? That’s why I’m a little surprised Childress has opted for inexperience over the unflappable veteran leadership of Frerotte.

The Vikings’ game plan against the Falcons should be pretty much the same plan they used against the Cardinals. Run the ball a lot on offense, control the clock to keep the ball out of the hands of Ryan and Turner, and to put Jackson in high-percentage passing situations.

Minnesota Vikings v Arizona Cardinals

A heavy dose of Peterson and Chester Taylor will help to neutralize pass rusher extraordinaire John Abraham. The Falcons will play Abraham on either side to take advantage of mismatches, so the Vikes can’t put Ryan Cook out on an island against him or we may see Jackson become panicky again.

On defense, the Vikings will need to do what they’ve done all season: Shut down the run and harass the quarterback. This will be much easier said than done. The Falcons have not only dynamic running back Michael Turner in their backfield but also Jerious Norwood, who, though he doesn’t get much action, is no slouch. You can’t have the second leading rusher in the league without having a great offensive line, regardless of the softness of your schedule. This line has given up precious few sacks, as well. And we’ll be facing Turner and Ryan minus Pat Williams. Today we get to see what kind of depth we’ve got at defensive tackle.

But that’s what we need to do to win. Shut ’em down and make Matt Ryan beat us. The Falcons haven’t fared too well when Ryan throws 30 to 40 passes. While he’s clearly talented, he’s still a rookie and he’s never played in a venue as loud as the Dome. We’ll need to get in his face and make him uncomfortable, if not sack him.

Our corners will need to bump the receivers off the line to delay their routes, especially Roddy White, who has finally decided to turn into the elite receiver many expected him to become.

While Darren Sharper ma y have plenty of fond memories of Eli Manning interceptions, the New York Giants are a very good team and the Falcons may not be. This is our best chance for victory of the two games that remain.

Purple Pain

Minnesota Vikings v Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It’s never been easy to be a Vikings fan but this year is more agonizing than most. We have plenty of talent but when they get on the field, they are often underwhelming.

Last week was a perfect example. Through nearly the entire first half against the Buccaneers, the Vikings appeared to have the game well in hand. Adrian Peterson was running the ball well and the defense was shutting Tampa Bay down.

But when the Vikings got the ball back with 47 seconds remaining in the half, they ran the ball. They didn’t even try to seize the opportunity. Still, they headed to the locker room with a 10-3 lead.

But the second half of the game was all Buccaneers; as so often happens, the opponent had clearly made adjustments while we hadn’t.

The Vikes had no answer to the tight end seam pass and they did not utilize Adrian Peterson. You’ve got the most talented running back in the league and you’re down in the fourth quarter and you don’t have Peterson on the field when you need him most? WTF?!?

Having only a handful of plays in the final quarter is no excuse for sitting Peterson. He should be on the field if for no other reason than seizing the attention of the defense. If you’re not going to actually use Peterson, at least use him as a diversion.

Yet again, this was a game the Vikings should have won.

And it is for that reason why this year has been an especially painful one for Vikings fans who have long ago learned pain management techniques.

If only…

If only the Vikings were more a bit creative offensively. If only the Vikings had started the season with Gus Frerrote at the helm. If only the Vikes made the most of the considerable talent they have. If only the Vikings displayed the killer instinct that good teams possess. If only the Vikings wouldn’t be timid when presented with an opportunity to put a dagger through the heart of their opponent.

So, yes, the Vikings are tied for first place in a weak division and despite uninspiring play, are poised to make a run at a division title. Being the true Vikings fan (read masochist), I will watch every game and enjoy what I can but it is so hard to get excited about this team.

This team does just enough to give you hope but not enough inspire confidence. One thing is sure, coach Brad Childress‘ future starts today against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Must Win?

…and no, I’m not talking politics for a change. I’m talkin’ Vikings.

The Vikings have got to beat the Texans at the Dome today to build some confidence and start some momentum during stretch of schedule that will make or break their season. After Houston, the Vikes face the Packers at home, travel to Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, two tough teams, and come home to face their second division opponent of this stretch in Chicago. These next five games will determine Brad Childress‘ fate as our head coach.

Houston is considered a team on the rise, with an offense that is fifth in passing and 11th in rushing. But their four losses have come at the hands of tough teams and their three wins at the expense of weak teams. They have yet to win on the road. And their defense is 26th against the run.

Now, the Vikings are no powerhouse but they are better than Detroit, Miami, and the Bengals, the three teams the Texans have beat.

Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears

The offensive line had better show up today and Tahi will need his A game (and it’s open to debate as to whether he has one) if the Vikings want to talk away with a win today.

They’ll need to grind it out with long drives and heavy doses of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor in order to take advantage of Houston’s weak run defense and to keep their dynamic offense off the field.

Though the mythical Madieu Williams is allegedly set to start for the first time this season, we have no idea what we have in the safety. And with our troubles at linebacker (the slow Chad Greenway and the still adjusting Napolean Harris), it’s probably best to try and limit the damage Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson are likely to do to the Vikings.

The last two things the Vikings need to improve are the offensive playcalling and the abysmal special teams coverage units. Sadly, I have little hope that either will be any better than what we’ve seen thus far.

Here’s hoping for the win but I’ve learned not to expect anything from this team.

Will The Vikings Show Up?

Before the Vikings game against the Lions last week I suggested the Vikes may be a tease with a soft part of the schedule coming up. My reasoning was that they were a better team that their upcoming foes and they would therefore look like a much better team than they actually were.

That was a disastrously wrong assumption.

The Vikings squeeked through with a victory against a Lions team and rookie quarterback against whom they should have dominated.

It was a very tough game to watch because the Vikes were uuuuug-ly.

The question today against a Bears team that looks fairly good and against surprisingly competent play of quarterback Kyle Orton is whether the Vikings can simply play consistently and minimize the mistakes. If they do that, they’ll have a decent chance of beating the Bears.

First, will the offensive line improve? Seriously, is this the same line that so dominated opponents last year? It sure doesn’t look like it. That line could produce running lanes for Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor even against defenses determined to shut down the ground game. That hasn’t happened this year. Last year they provided enough room for an indecisive quarterback to find receivers. This year, they have trouble giving the quick-trigger of Gus Frerotte enough time to find receivers downfield.

While we finally have an answer for the absence of fullback Thomas Tapeh, the fact doesn’t excuse starting Nahfu Tahi at fullback. Tahi was simply brutal last week. He consistently either got stood up by defenders at the line or blocked the wrong guy or simply whiffed. Oh, yeah; and Tahi dropped a pass. I’d love to see Jimmy Kleinsasser start at fullback; that would do a great deal to improve both the running and pass game.

The Bears, like everyone else, will be determined to shut down Adrian Peterson so it is imperative that our receivers catch the ball. And is it too much to ask Bernard Berrian not to stumble when chasing down the long ball?

This is a winnable game that would put us on top of the division. The only question is if the Vikes go for the jugular or continue to muddle through the season.

The Tease Stretch?

The Vikings enter a relatively soft part of the schedule, starting with today’s game against the winless Lions at the Metrodome, then to Chicago to play a 3-2 Bears team that may or may not be good (they beat a weakened Colts team in the opener, beat a disappointing Eagles squad, and dominated Detroit).

After the bye, we’ve got the Houston Texans and the Packers, both at home.

The Packers beat us in a close game in the season opener when Tarvaris Jackson was leading the team. Green Bay has two wins so far, the second of which came at the hands of the Lions.

The Vikings could easily go 4-0 during this stretch and face Tampa Bay with a 6-3 record. The question then will be are we really a 6-3 team?

Defensive Woes

Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints

Despite offseason upgrades, the Vikings pass defense remains poor. Jared Allen has brought more pressure on opposing quarterbacks but Ray Edwards has not been able to pay for opponents double-teaming both Allen and Kevin Williams. Our left end must be able to beat one guy.

Opponents have been picking on Cedric Griffin all season and that will not change. So, understanding how offenses are going to attack our defense, isn’t there some way we can get Griffin some help?

Our pricey free agent safety Madieu Williams has been AWOL all season. Rookie Tyrell Johnson has played as well as we could hope to expect for a rookie safety but he’s still been taken advantage of in a way I presume Madieu Williams would not.

Our biggest problem on defense, of course, is the loss for the season of E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker. We can only wait and watch to see how that plays out.

Offensive Hope?

Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints

The choice to start Gus Frerrote for the remainder of the season has given the Vikings a chance for a winning season when it was clear we couldn’t win two winnable games with Jackson at the helm.

But Bernard Berrian, our pricey free agent wide receiver, decided to show up just this last week; with him nursing an owie on his big toe, who knows how much we can rely upon him?

And, by the way, isn’t it important for your receivers to run the routes they’ve been assigned? Especially in an offense that requires precise route running?

Berrian may have caught a crucial touchdown last week, but he admitted the pass was not intended for himself and yet he still made a play for the ball. It’s a good thing he caught the ball because if the pass hadn’t been completed, he could rightly be criticized for brining his defender into the play.

Sydney Rice has missed the past few games while nursing a PCL injury and the running game has been bottled up of late.

Despite all that, we’ve been competitive for the most part, so there’s reason for hope.

Predictable Play Calling

Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints

The most exasperating aspect of coach Brad Childress‘ tenure has been the absolutely unimaginative offensive game plans. It was unbearable during Childress’ rookie year, when he insisted on three-yard passes on third and nine. Thankfully, it has gotten a lot better than that.

But the play calling remains unimaginative. Faced with defenses that refuse to allow Adrian Peterson beat them, the offense has turned more often to the passing game. Fair enough.

But when you’ve got one of the best players in the league, you’ve got to find a way to utilize him. Why are we not trying harder to get the ball to Peterson in space? Why don’t we send him out on pass routes to get him matched up with a linebacker more often? How ’bout sending him deep a few times? He’s certainly faster than most defensive backs in this league.

And why oh why are we not seeing both Peterson and Chester Taylor in the backfield at the same time more often?!? We’ve got two starting running backs; let’s use ’em. Keep defenses off balance by making them pick their poison. Both backs can catch the ball; let’s use a mix of run plays, play action, screens.

Why were we running Peterson outside nearly the whole game last week when the Saints were missing their starting defensive tackle and the replacement is not an every down player?

Special Teams

Kluwe’s not the problem. He certainly can improve his directional punting but the Vikings missed four tackles on one punt return last week, many more on others, and faired poorly on kick returns when Kluwe was not on the field.

This unit has been weak all year. Maybe adding more veterans to the unit but who knows? Veteran receiver Robert Ferguson took an inexplicable angle on one of Reggie Bush‘s TD punt returns last week that took Ferguson out of the play when he could easily have had a shot at the Saints’ running back.

So, given all this, will the Vikings simply be a tease again after the next four years or will we seriously have the contender we hoped for before the season began?

So It’s Kluwe’s Fault, Huh?

So Reggie Bush‘s two punt returns for touchdowns are all punter Chris Kluwe‘s fault? Really?

It’s more than a little pathetic to see coach Brad Childress taking out his special teams coverage unit’s incompetence on one player of that unit, or, as ProFootballTalk.com (the blog the pros read) says, .

The coverage units have been woeful all year and most of it has to do with missed tackles. And by the way, the coverage units are just as bad when Kluwe is not on the field during kickoffs.

So, , Childress is working out punters either for the purpose of signing one or to send a blunt message to Kluwe to get better at kicking the ball out of bounds.

That, and calling Kluwe out publicly, are pretty classless.

Kluwe has been a top-notch punter for several years. In 2005, he was the franchise. He doesn’t deserve the berating he’s getting.

Besides, the guy’s awesome at Guitar Hero ( via :