The Vikings have begun the 2013 season in a very frustrating fashion, losing two very winnable road games to division foes. They've failed to come up with big plays on either side of the ball in crunch time and now face the daunting task of trying to fight back from an 0-2 hole.
On the bright side, they're not the Cleveland Browns.
The Vikings will welcome the Browns to Mall of America Field on Sunday with open arms. If there's a quick cure for Minnesota's 0-2 blues, it's certainly the Browns.
Only time will tell if the deal works out for the moribund Browns, who seem to have taken a knee for the 2013 season. They'll head to Minnesota to play the Vikings with their third-string quarterback, Brian Hoyer, scheduled to start in place of the injured Brandon Weedon and a starting running back who hasn't had a carry all season.
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Browns signed Willis McGahee off the street on Thursday and he'll pair with undrafted second-year man Bobby Rainey to fill the void left by the trade of Richardson.
It's hard to say if the Browns are worse off at quarterback or running back heading into Sunday's matchup, but needless to say it's a game the Vikings would have to go out of their way to mess up.
The Browns might provide a perfect tonic for the Vikings, who are in desperate need of a win and a confidence boost that would come with it. Opening the season with two heartbreaking losses has the Minnesota fan base on edge and a convincing win over Cleveland would at least be a step in the right direction.
Through two weeks on the schedule we still don't know exactly what we have with this year's version of the Vikings, they've shown both good and bad in all facets of the game. While a win over the hapless Browns won't prove much of anything, it will at least be a shot in the arm for the team moving forward.
If the Vikings don't beat the Browns on Sunday, well, we won't even go there.
The Browns, however bad, are still an NFL team and will show up on Sunday with the light burden of zero expectations. The front office has the team playing for the future, so the outcomes of their games are almost secondary at this point. There might be a freedom in that for the Cleveland players.
Here are three matchups to keep an eye on Sunday as you watch the game (1 p.m. EDT, CBS). It's a football game the Vikings have to win in order to have any hope of staying in the playoff hunt.
If you can't beat the Cleveland Browns, much less this particular version of the Cleveland Browns, you aren't a playoff contender, plain and simple.
Jared Allen vs. Joe Thomas
This is simply as good as it gets. There are 11 Pro Bowls between these two in a matchup of one of the game's elite pass rushers against perhaps the game's best left tackle.
Thomas has been the one constant bright spot during his six-year tenure in Cleveland, making the Pro Bowl in every season in a span that has seen the Browns go just 33-63.
The 6'6", 312-pound Thomas has been a dominant player since the Browns selected him with the third pick in the 2007 draft. (A draft that saw the Vikings get Adrian Peterson four picks later.) Thomas has been called for holding just six times in six seasons, a simply amazing number for someone who is almost always locked up against the opponent's best pass rusher.
Thomas has given up just 22.25 sacks in 98 career games.
Allen is ready to lock horns with Thomas. Although he's just recorded one sack in the Vikings first two games, he looks to be back to being his disruptive self after an injury-plagued 2012 season. Allen has 10 tackles, three for loss, two batted passes and a forced fumble in two games.
He's fully recovered from a shoulder injury and wants to prove that he's worth one more big contract, as his current deal with the Vikings ends after this season.
Allen has been a dominant pass rusher his entire career because he's a phenomenal athlete. He combines speed and strength with a relentless motor that makes him a nightmare matchup for most left tackles. In Thomas, however, he'll have his athletic equal. Thomas is simply one of the best athletes to ever play the left tackle position in the NFL.
The Browns have given up 11 sacks in two games, tied for most in the league, and their 27 quarterback hits and 51 pressures allowed are the most in the NFL. The Vikings pass rushers should have a field day against quarterback Brian Hoyer, who is making just his second NFL start.
Xavier Rhodes vs. Josh Gordon
The Browns rolled the dice in the summer of 2012 when they used a second-round selection to take Josh Gordon in the NFL's supplemental draft. Gordon had been suspended from Baylor after failing a drug test. The second-year receiver had a phenomenal rookie season for the Browns, catching 50 passes for 805 yards and five touchdowns. His five touchdown catches averaged 46 yards.
The 6'3", 225-pound burner missed the first two games of the 2013 season after being suspended by the league for failing a drug test. Gordon certainly has a checkered past and will have to toe the line at some point if he wants to get the most out of his NFL career.
The Vikings have a prized youngster of their own that they will matchup across from Gordon in Xavier Rhodes, who they drafted in the first round last spring. At 6'1", 220 pounds, Rhodes gives the Vikings a physical corner who can match up against the bigger receivers in the league.
Rhodes has four tackles in two games, but has yet to defend a pass. With the Browns starting untested Brian Hoyer at quarterback, the Minnesota secondary should have plenty of opportunities to make some plays.
Rhodes has now been on the field against Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall in his first two NFL games. While Gordon certainly isn't nearly as accomplished as those two, he's a big, young receiver who's athleticism will be a challenge for Rhodes.
Phil Loadholt vs. Paul Kruger
After four stellar seasons that ended with a Super Bowl victory with the Baltimore Ravens, outside linebacker Paul Kruger signed a five-year, $40-million deal with the Browns, who are hoping Kruger can be one of the faces of a resurgent defense.
Kruger excelled in the Ravens 3-4 scheme and takes on the same role with the Browns. He has one sack and two tackles for loss in two games so far.
The Vikings made Loadholt their first priority when it came to re-signing their own free agents last offseason, locking up the big man with a 4-year, $25 million deal that solidifies the Vikings at right tackle.
At 6'4", 270 pounds, Kruger is the type of speed rusher that can give Loadholt problems. Loadholt has put together back-to-back good games for the Vikings and a third against the Browns would be a good sign that he can play at a consistently high level for an entire season.
Kruger can be a tough matchup for Loadholt, as he's working with more space playing in a 3-4 scheme. Loadholt will be forced to be more active than he is when playing against a standard 4-3 defense.
The simple fact is that the Vikings have far more quality players than the Browns. The Browns are in a total reconstruction mode, signaled clearly by Wednesday's trade of Richardson.
It's a game the Vikings should win easily as they have matchup advantages all over the field. The Vikings need a game like this to give them a shot of confidence before they head off to England to take on the Steelers next week.
As bad as the Browns look on paper, they do rank sixth overall in the NFL in total defense after two weeks. The Browns offense is awful, and with a third-stringer in Hoyer starting at quarterback, the Vikings defense should have an easy time of it.
The more interesting part of Sunday's game will be how well the Vikings offense, specifically Christian Ponder, can execute against a team that is reeling psychologically.
Look for a big win for the purple, and even though it will be against one of the worst teams in the league, a solid performance could kick-start Minnesota for the rest of the season.
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