The Minnesota Vikings open the second half of the season on the road in Seattle on Sunday. At 5-3, the Vikings have surpassed the expectations of people. Their back-to-back wins over the 49ers and Lions—both playoff teams from last season in Weeks 3 and 4, actually had people thinking playoffs. Now, after losing two of three games, there are some concerns as the Vikings open the tougher half of the season.
This game features the top two ground gainers in the NFL in Adrian Peterson, perhaps the story of the year coming off major reconstructive knee surgery in January, with 775 yards and Marshawn Lynch who has 757 rushing yards for the Seahawks.
It's a matchup of two teams that struggle in the passing game. The Seahawks are 31st in the league behind rookie Russell Wilson, averaging 171.1 passing yards per game. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars average fewer yards. The Vikings are not much better at 27th in the NFL with an average of 206.6 passing yards per game.
With the fifth-ranked defense in yards allowed, this will be the fifth team the Vikings have faced in the top 10 of the NFL. This bodes well for the Vikings as they are 3-1 in those games. The puzzling fact is that the Vikings are 2-2 against teams whose defense is ranked 23rd or lower, with losses to the Redskins (32) and the Buccaneers (31) in two of the last three weeks.
Here are 10 keys for the Vikings if they want to prevent their first two-game losing streak of the season.
The Minnesota Vikings have been looking for someone to replace Sidney Rice's performance since 2009. He was the last Minnesota receiver to amass 1,000 yards in a season, and his 1,312 yards were the most since Randy Moss had 1,632.
Just as the Vikings have been looking for someone to duplicate Rice's performance, so has Rice been trying to come back from two injury-shortened seasons.
While still nowhere near the receiver he was in 2009, he leads the Seahawks with 28 catches for 367 yards. Rice is coming off a season-high six catches in last week's 28-24 loss at Detroit.
This will be the Vikings' first game without Chris Cook, who suffered a broken arm last week against the Bucs. A.J. Jefferson and rookie Josh Robinson will get plenty of playing time in his place, and the opportunity to make sure Rice isn't getting on a roll.
As mentioned in the introductory slide, Adrian Peterson leads the NFL with 775 yards rushing. With a 64-yard touchdown run last week, he is averaging 5.1 yards per attempt—the highest since his rookie season of 2007.
The problem is Peterson only has four touchdowns on the season. At this pace, he would finish with the fewest touchdowns in a season, including last year when he only played in 12 games.
Heading into this season, Peterson has averaged 13 touchdowns each season over the past five years. In 2009, he led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns.
Just as the Vikings need to establish the run on offense, they need to slow down the Seattle run game that ranks eighth in the NFL with 131.9 yards per game.
The Vikings are coming off three straight games having allowed a player to rush for at least 100 yards. First it was quarterback Robert Griffin III in Washington, who rushed for 138 yards. Then LaRod Stephen-Howling for the Cardinals rushed for 104 of his 133 yards this season against the Vikings. Last week rookie Doug Martin ran all over the defense for 135 yards.
The Vikings defense has dropped to 16th in the league against the run, allowing an average of 107.6 rushing yards per game.
Perhaps they will rise to the occasion when they face Marshawn Lynch, who is second in the NFL, behind Adrian Peterson, with 757 rushing yards. The defense was able to stop Chris Johnson in Week 5, holding him to 24 yards on 15 carries.
If the defense doesn't contain Lynch, it will be another long afternoon for the Vikings as Seattle grinds it out on the ground.
At this point in his career, no one is asking Christian Ponder to single-handedly to win the game. But, with seven interceptions in the last four games, he needs to do a better job of protecting the ball.
When the Vikings traveled to Washington in Week 6, Ponder was second in the NFL in completion percentage. Since then, he has dropped to eighth in the league. While still not bad, that drop occurred in only three games—the low point coming against the Cardinals when he finished 8-of-17 in passing for only 58 yards.
The Vikings offense has turned the ball over 14 times this season. Their only game without a turnover came against the 49ers, so far their biggest win of the season.
The propensity for turnovers has increased as the season has progressed, with 10 of them coming over the last four games—seven of them interceptions from Christian Ponder.
This is a case where numbers don't lie.
In their five wins, the Vikings came out even or on the plus-side in turnovers in every game.
In all three of their losses, they came out on the negative end of the turnover battle, coughing up the ball seven times, with only a single takeaway.
In the loss to Tampa Bay last week, three Vikings' turnovers cost them 10 points.
This was supposed to be a breakout year for second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph. Coming to the team in the same draft as quarterback Christian Ponder, these two were going to become a dynamic passing combination that leads the Vikings for a decade.
There's no doubt that Rudolph has an incredible catch radius. He has made some spectacular catches.
That seems to be the problem. It's either a spectacular catch, or nothing for Rudolph. He's a distant second on the team behind Percy Harvin with only 27 catches.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave needs to find a way to get the 6'6" Rudolph involved in the offense.
While he leads the Vikings with five touchdown receptions, he has only two in the last six games.
Rookie field-goal kicker Blair Walsh has been better than expected. However, the Vikings need to keep him on the sidelines more often. Currently, Walsh is fourth in the league in scoring with 68 points. The Vikings would gladly have him drop down on this list if it meant he was kicking more PATs in place of field goals.
Against the Redskins in Week 6, the Vikings opened the game with the first three scores. Unfortunately they were all field goals for a 9-0 lead. By the time the Redskins answered with three scores of their own, it was 17-9 at the half.
In total, Walsh hit four field goals for the Vikings in that game. The final margin of victory, to no surprise, was 12 points—the exact number of points the Vikings missed out, by not being able to finish their drives in the end zone.
In their game against the Buccaneers, six of the Vikings' 14 drives lasted no more than four plays. Not only did Chris Kluwe have the second-most punts in a game this season, his 37.8-yard average was the lowest in any game this year.
His 13 punts in the last two games are the most in consecutive games.
The Vikings have only had three scoring drives all season that have lasted more than seven minutes, with two of them coming at home against the 49ers.
With a touch second-half schedule, the Vikings need to sustain drives, and keep their defense on the sideline. By at least getting one first down per drive, they can push the ball deeper into the opponent's end of the field, and tilt the field-position battle in their favor.
Sunday's game in Seattle could be the last chance for the Vikings to win a road game. So far this season they are 1-2 on the road.
Their five road games in the second half of the season starts in Seattle and includes Chicago, Green Bay, St. Louis and Houston. The Vikings have not won in Chicago since 2007, and have lost four straight to the Packers since their last win in Green Bay in 2009, when Brett Favre led them to a 38-26 victory.
The Vikings will need all aspects of the game to contribute like they did in the win over the Lions in Week 4, when two returns for touchdowns led the Vikings to a 20-13 win in Detroit.
At home this year, the Seahawks are 3-0 with big wins over the Cowboys, Packers and Patriots. All right, there was some help from the replacement officials in the Green Bay game, but it still counts as a win.
The Minnesota Vikings have two whiffs against rookie quarterbacks.
Of course those came against the top two picks in the draft in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
Luck led the Colts to 23-20 victory as Adam Vinatieri kicked a 53-yard field goal with 0:23 left in the game. Griffin III dominated the Vikings with 320 combined rushing and passing yards and scored three touchdowns in the Redskins' 38-26 win.
This week they face Russell Wilson. Wilson was selected in the third round with the 75th pick in the draft. Don't let that fool you. He has more wins than Griffin, his 10 touchdowns passes are two more than either Luck or Griffin, and his quarterback rating at 82.4 is higher than either of the first-round draft picks.
And while he is not the same rushing threat as Griffin III, he is third on the Seahawks with 128 rushing yards.
The Vikings need to push some pressure on Wilson and not let him escape the pocket. It won't be easy as he has only been sacked 14 times all season.