The Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings, and both teams are essentially two sides of the same coin—loads of talent, but seem to be heading in opposite directions in 2012.
To many, the Buccaneers (2-4) were the 2012 offseason champs. With a great draft and big money spent in free agency, it was sure to pay immediate dividends. On top of that, new head coach Greg Schiano provided a promise of better discipline.
The Vikings (5-2) have been a surprise team this year to anyone who wasn't watching them last year. While the Vikings didn't win much in Christian Ponder's rookie season, they came awfully close and just failed to seal the deal. This year, not a ton has changed, but the team looks more mature and ready to play to its talent level.
If anything has improved, it is the Vikings' offensive line, which looks a lot better with Matt Kalil at left tackle and the subsequent shuffling that happened after that.
So which of these young and talented teams wins on Thursday night?
Key Storyline No. 1: Are These Teams For Real?
Both of these teams are second in their divisions and both, conceivably, are still in the playoff hunt with just over half the season to go. Plenty of time left means plenty of time for the Vikings to stay the course and for the Buccaneers to smooth out their rough edges.
Both teams, however, have rivals on their heels—for the Buccaneers, New Orleans; for the Vikings, Green Bay. Neither of those teams will allow any real misstep from their respective divisional rivals.
More importantly, this is a "should win" game for both teams. At some point, good teams need to start easily putting away the teams that are at or below their talent level. This win would go a long way for the season-long psyche of whoever comes out on top.
Key Storyline No. 2: What Happens When Irresistible Force Meets Unmovable Object?
The Vikings are averaging 123 rushing yards per game (seventh in the NFL) and the Buccaneers are only allowing 76 (third). So, what happens when rubber meets the road and the NFL's best running back meets a defense that will sell out to stop him?
We know two things about the Vikings. First, they will not abandon the run. Peterson is famous for getting numerous runs of two or three yards, but eventually he'll always bust off a reward for sticking with him. Secondly, we know the Vikings are comfortable "running" with "extended handoffs"—short-to-intermediate passes that coaches like Bill Walsh considered akin to establishing the run.
The problem is teams try all of that against the Buccaneers and, to some extent, the Buccaneers still stop them.
Keys for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Offense:
Balance has to be the key here. Both the Buccaneers' offense and the Vikings' defense (in terms of both rushing and passing) are middle of the road. There's really no clear advantage either way.
While the Josh Freeman-to-Vincent Jackson connection is probably the most reliable method of moving the ball down the field, it would also be foolish to let the Vikings' pass rush tee off by getting pass happy.
Keys for the Minnesota Vikings on Offense:
Already discussed above, the Vikings need to commit to both running the ball and "running the ball" (short passing). The Buccaneers, more often than not, are going to stop it, but you have to keep putting the ball into the hands of Peterson and Percy Harvin and trust they will make a play.
They also need to be more creative with Harvin—making sure they're handing it to him, throwing it to him on short passes, taking shots deep and moving him all over the field to exploit matchups. If the Buccaneers' defense has to expend mental energy thinking about him pre-snap, they'll get burned.
Keys for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Defense:
The Bucs have a sound scheme and have done little bending against the run and have only broken against truly elite offenses. The defense has a great opportunity to control the tempo of this game early, but close does not cut it.
Michael Bennett and Gerald McCoy are near the top of their respective positions in QB hurries this season, but do not have the sacks to match. Against the Saints (especially early in the game), Brees was being forced to move around more than he wanted, but the Buccaneers allowed him to settle into a rhythm.
Ponder is not Brees, but if he's allowed to stand and deliver in the pocket, the Bucs' efforts will be wasted before they've even begun.
Keys for the Minnesota Vikings on Defense:
The Vikings need to trust Antoine Winfield on the outside against Vincent Jackson and sell out in the box against Doug Martin. Force the Bucs into third-and-long situations and their pass protection will have no chance against Jared Allen and company.
The talent levels of these teams screams that it will be a close game, but the Vikings can turn it lopsided if they don't let Doug Martin settle in.
Bold Prediction: Christian Ponder Has a Career Day
Ponder has two 300-yard games in his career and both were losses. Expect that number to increase on Thursday night—even if the passing game looks, schematically, the same as weeks past.
Three of the Buccaneers' defensive backs—Ronde Barber, Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald—are among the worst tacklers in the league this year. Getting Harvin, Peterson or even Kyle Rudolph rolling could mean lots of yards after the catch.
Player of the Game Prediction: Percy Harvin
As good as I think Ponder will be against the Buccaneers, it will be Harvin that takes Player of the Game. I expect him to be the Vikings' leading receiver, pitch in with a few change-of-pace carries and at least one big special teams play.
The Bucs don't have anyone to match up with Harvin and the Vikings have been looking for better ways to feature him.
Final Score Prediction: Vikings 24 Buccaneers 23
The talent level on these teams is so close that unless one team makes a bunch of self-inflicted errors, this one should stay close throughout. The Vikings are winning close games this year and nothing about the Buccaneers makes me think that will change on Thursday Night Football.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."