The Vikings have four games left on the schedule for 2013, and all four opponents find themselves squarely in the playoff hunt, with three of them being probably division winners.
Playing the role of spoiler is a far cry from 2012, when the Vikings rolled off four straight December wins that vaulted them from a mediocre season into the playoffs. While Minnesota would obviously like their final quarter of the season to matter more than it will in 2013, job security will have to suffice.
Anyone worrying about the Vikings not putting forth their best possible effort in the coming weeks need only scan the team's depth chart to see that the majority of the roster is fighting to prove that they deserve to continue being employed by an NFL team.
From the head coach and his staff to the starting quarterback to the last man on the practice squad, the Vikings, like any losing team, are full of people fighting to keep their jobs.
Backup quarterback Matt Cassel relieved the injured Christian Ponder and led the Vikings to a second half comeback and an eventual 23-20 overtime win over the Chicago Bears last Sunday. Cassel passed for 243 yards and a touchdown and now has Minnesota's top three passing games on the season.
Which, of course, begs a lot questions as to who's playing quarterback for Minnesota.
Don't expect any of them to be answered this week, as Ponder goes through the league's "concussion protocol" to determine if he's healthy enough to play against the Ravens. If the Vikings decide to start Cassel against Baltimore, they'll surely chalk it up to Ponder's health and not his ability as to why he's not playing.
The quarterback carousel aside, the Vikings have a tall order playing at Baltimore on Sunday; the Ravens are 5-1 at home, and Minnesota is still looking for its first road win on the season.
Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-30s with early flurries giving way to afternoon rain in Baltimore.
Let's take a look at some of the key matchups for the Vikings if they expect to beat a Ravens team that is battling to make the playoffs.
Joe Flacco vs. the Vikings Pass Defense
Many football observers thought that Raven's quarterback Joe Flacco had made some sort of progressional leap during last year's playoff run, which ended with the Ravens defeating the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.
Flacco was magnificent during Baltimore's four-game postseason run, and the Ravens rewarded him with a gigantic six-year, $120.6 million contract.
They haven't exactly gotten their money's worth so far in 2013, with the team just 6-6 and Flacco's passing numbers firmly in the middle of the NFL's quarterback pile.
Flacco has three 300-yard passing games in 2013 and the Ravens have lost all three games.
One has to sort of skip the numbers however, when trying to evaluate Flacco. What the Ravens signed him to the big deal for, and what they saw in the 2012 post-season, is a 6'6", 245-pound, strong-armed quarterback who is ideal for bad weather football.
It's December now and the weather is about to get pretty bad.
Flacco was brilliant in three outdoor playoff games last season, and the hope in Baltimore is that he can replicate that performance down the stretch in 2013. He has a big arm that can cut through cold and windy air that is the norm in December football.
It will be another tough matchup for the Vikings pass defense, which ranks 30th in the NFL. The Vikings have just eight interceptions on the season and none from any defensive backs who will be in uniform on Sunday afternoon.
On the bright side for the Vikings defense, they've played a bit better as of late (they rank first in the NFL in third down conversion defense over the last three weeks). Brian Robison, Xavier Rhodes and Audie Cole have all stepped up to be big contributors in the last month.
Xavier Rhodes vs. Torrey Smith
One player who is certainly trending in the right direction for the Vikings is rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes, like many rookie cornerbacks, struggled early on but seems to have turned a corner in the past three weeks.
Rhodes now leads Minnesota with seven passes defended, including two in the end zone in the last two weeks. Heralded as an elite press coverage man coming out of Florida State, Rhodes has lived up to that billing when given the chance to play main coverage.
Tasked with covering Brandon Marshall, who's killed Minnesota in the past, Rhodes held the Bears No. 1 wideout to just 45 yards on four catches. This came a week after Rhodes had his best game as a pro, notching four passes defended against the Packers.
Sunday's game with the Ravens will see Rhodes matchup up with Torrey Smith, the Ravens leading receiver, who has 54 catches for 952 yards and four touchdowns. Smith has improved in each of his three years in the league and now finds himself among the elite wideouts in the AFC. His 17.6 yards per catch this season ranks third in the NFL for receivers with over 50 catches.
For Rhodes, it's another good test in a season that has seen him help keep the likes of Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Dez Bryant all under 70 yards of receiving. For the Vikings to be successful against the Ravens, Rhodes will have to have another statement game.
Adrian Peterson vs. the Ravens Rush Defense
The Baltimore Ravens have a long history of having one of the most intimidating, suffocating defenses in the NFL. Even with the offseason departures of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Paul Kruger, the Ravens still have a scary defense.
Anchored by mammoth nose tackle Haloti Ngata and dynamic linebackers Terrell Suggs, Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens rank sixth in the NFL in rush defense, giving up just over 100 yards per game.
Of course, the Ravens haven't faced Adrian Peterson in 2013.
Although a nagging groin injury has kept Peterson from running wild like he did in his MVP season of 2012, he still leads the league with 1,208 yards rushing following his 211-yard performance against the Bears last Sunday.
It was Peterson's fifth 200-yard rushing game of his career, which, according to NFL.com, ties him for second all-time with Tiki Barber and LaDainian Tomlinson, just one behind O.J. Simpson.
|vs. Bears 2012||31||154||5.0||2 TD|
|vs. Packers 2012||34||199||5.9||1 TD|
|vs. Packers 2013||32||146||4.6 avg.||1 TD|
|vs. Bears 2013||35||211||6.0 avg.||0 TD|
Peterson has logged 65 carries over the last two games and only seems to be gaining steam heading into the last month of the season. It's the first time he's ever had 30 carries in back-to-back games and only the fifth and sixth times in his career period. His 146 yards against the Packers is his lowest total in a game where he's had 30 carries.
Expect the Vikings to try to continue to feed the ball to Peterson in Baltimore, especially considering the expected poor weather and the Vikings continuing uncertainty at quarterback.
Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt vs. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil
The Vikings quarterback carousel continues to spin, as Wednesday afternoon head coach Leslie Frazier said that backup Matt Cassel is "most likely" to start Sunday against the Ravens, according to Vikings.com.
Cassel played very well coming off of the bench against the Bears last Sunday, throwing for 243 yards and a touchdown in leading the Vikings to a thrilling 23-20 overtime victory. Cassel replaced Christian Ponder, who struggled before leaving the game in the second quarter with concussion-like symptoms.
For Cassel and the Vikings passing offense, the first order of business against the Ravens will be taking care of the Ravens pair of speed-rushing linebackers, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. While neither is having a career year, they've still combined for 18.5 sacks on the season and are a threat to any passing game.
It promises to be a tough matchup for Vikings tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, who both tend to fare better against bigger defensive ends than linebackers. Recognition and help will be the key for the Vikings to keep their quarterback clean. The Ravens typically disguise their blitzes and rush patterns as well as any team in the league, so it's crucial that everyone pass blocking for Minnesota is on their A-game.