This Sunday's battle between the 4-2 Arizona Cardinals and the 4-2 Minnesota Vikings features two surprising teams looking to make their way back to the playoffs. The Cardinals find themselves in a three-way tie for first in the NFC West with San Francisco and Seattle, while the Vikings are currently one-half game behind Chicago in the NFC North.
In their 93rd season of the franchise, the Cardinals have only made the postseason eight times. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt has led the team to two of those appearances in 2008 and 2009. Currently with a 44-42 record, Whisenhunt is the all-time leader in wins and a mere three games from coaching the most games in the history of Cardinals football.
They face one of the early surprises of the NFL in the Vikings. After two consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC North, including a 3-13 finish last year, the Vikings had plenty of NFL pundits believing in them after three straight wins against the 49ers, Lions and Titans—two of them playoff teams from last season.
Both teams suffered what might be considered bad losses last week. The Cardinals lost 19-16 in overtime at home to the Buffalo Bills. At the same time, Robert Griffin III blew away the Vikings with 320 total combined yards and three touchdowns, leading the Redskins to a 38-26 win.
Both teams will be looking to get back on the winning track in order to keep pace within their respective divisions and hopefully position themselves for a playoff position.
Here are 10 keys for the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings are 3-0 at home this season and have outscored their opponents 80-43. Working in their favor is a Cardinals team that comes to town with a 4-14 record on the road since 2010.
However, the Vikings cannot take Arizona lightly; one of those four wins came this season on the road at New England in Week 2.
After the Cardinals' home loss to the Bills last week, I'm eager to see which two teams show up on Sunday.
Hopefully, one of them will be the Vikings team that defeated the 49ers in Week 3.
Since the Cardinals moved from St. Louis to Arizona in 1988, the Vikings have dominated the series between the two teams, with an 11-3 record.
The average score in these games has been 28-17 in favor of Minnesota, with all three losses coming on the road.
In the 10 games between the two teams prior to the move, St. Louis won seven of 10 meetings.
Antoine Winfield leads the Vikings with two interceptions.
Last season, the Vikings set the dubious mark of going nine games without an interception. They also finished the season last in the NFL with only eight interceptions.
Through six games this season, they are not any better in that category. With only three interceptions, they are on a pace to finish the season again with only eight.
The Vikings defense needs to find a way to get their hands on more passes.
Jerome Simpson was supposed to the the Vikings' down-field threat when they signed the free agent who had played the four previous seasons in Cincinnati.
After serving a three-game suspension, Simpson made his Vikings debut in Week 4 against the Lions. He finished the game with four catches for 50 yards. He also drew two pass interference penalties for 31 and 26 yards.
The following week, he suffered some leg weakness due to a back ailment in the game against the Titans. It also kept him out of the lineup against the Redskins.
Hopefully, his return to the Vikings lineup will be as productive as his debut in Week 4.
Since joining the NFL in 2004 as the Cardinals' first-round draft pick, Larry Fitzgerald, a six-time Pro Bowl player, has averaged 5.6 catches for 77.3 yards per game.
In five games against the Vikings, he has averaged seven catches for 108 yards. His best day against Minnesota came in 2006, when he caught 11 balls for 172 yards.
The one area where the Vikings have excelled, however, is the fact that Fitzgerald only has one touchdown catch in those five games.
The Vikings secondary, much improved behind the safety play of rookie Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford, has only allowed one player to exceed 100 yards this season. That was Donnie Avery, who finished with nine receptions for 111 yards in the Week 2 loss to the Colts.
After finishing last in the NFL last season having yielded 34 touchdown passes, the Vikings defense has only allowed seven this season.
It would seem as if this is the perfect storm for the Minnesota Vikings, and in particular for Jared Allen.
The Arizona Cardinals have allowed the most sacks in the NFL with 28. Kevin Kolb has been sacked 27 times in five starts, while John Skelton once in one start.
No doubt Allen will be licking his chops as he lines up across from D'Anthony Batiste, looking to bolster his sack total.
The NFL leader with 22 last season, Allen only has four through sacks through six games. As a team, the Vikings are only 11th in the NFL with 15 sacks on the season.
Anything less than five sacks on the afternoon for the Vikings defense should be considered a failure.
That puts him on a pace to rush for 1,330 yards this season. The problem is, those are the only two touchdowns through six weeks. At this rate, he will finish with only six touchdowns for the season—a career low.
Leading up to this season, Peterson averaged 13 rushing touchdowns per year, leading the NFL with 18 touchdowns in 2009. Even though he was limited to only 12 games last season, he still led the team with 12 touchdowns.
The Vikings need Peterson to find the end zone again, preferably a couple of times against a tough Cardinals defense.
Percy Harvin has been the Vikings' most explosive weapon.
He currently leads the NFL with 49 receptions and 1,048 all-purpose yards. He's either a running back who plays like a wide receiver, or a wide receiver who plays like a running back.
His 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the game in Detroit gave the Vikings a lead that they never surrendered. It also set the tone for the special teams and helped to win a game where the Vikings offense only had 227 total yards—100 passing and 127 rushing.
The last time Christian Ponder threw a pass, it resulted in his fourth interception of the season. On the afternoon against the Redskins, he had a total of three turnovers and another interception along with a fumble.
In his first four starts of the season, Ponder threw 123 passes without an interception. In his last two games, he has four interceptions in 87 pass attempts. After throwing two interceptions against the Titans, he finished the game completing 11 of 12 passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
He will need this kind of performance against an Arizona defense that is ranked 10th in yards and fourth in points.
For Ponder, his touchdowns come in pairs. In the six games this season, he has thrown two touchdowns in four of them while being shutout in the other two. It will take a two-touchdown game for Ponder if the Vikings are to win at home.
The Vikings need more 7's and less 3's.
Rookie Blair Walsh is currently third in the NFL in scoring with 60 points. The Vikings would actually be better off if he didn't have to kick so many field goals.
Last week against the Redskins, the Vikings looked like they were ready to dominate the game. Unfortunately, their three scoring drives in the first quarter ended in field goals instead of touchdowns.
The 12 points they failed score ended up being the difference in the game, as the Vikings lost 38-26.
This is the biggest key for the Vikings, not only against the Cardinals, but for the remainder of the season.
The Vikings have a 50 percent touchdown efficiency when they reach the opponent's 20-yard line. It won't get any easier this week when they face the fourth-ranked scoring defense that the Cardinals will bring to Mall of America Field. They are allowing only 16.2 points per game.
It will be a good test for the Vikings who have yet to face the top scoring defense of Chicago, who leads the NFL allowing only 14.2 points per game.