The Vikings now sit at 4-9-1 after their improbable 48-30 thrashing of the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday. The Vikings will continue to try to play a spoiler role as the Bengals hold on to a one-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North.
It will be a tough task for the purple, as the Bengals are 6-0 at home in 2013 and have won eight in a row at home and 10 of their last 11.
For the first time since perhaps Week 1, nobody is wondering who will start at quarterback for the Vikings, as Matt Cassel has taken a firm grip on the starting job. Cassel was excellent in the win over the Eagles, throwing for a season-high 382 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
More uncertain for Minnesota is who will line up in the backfield behind Cassel. Both Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart are still nursing injuries from two weeks ago, and third-stringer Matt Asiata didn't practice Wednesday because of a sore ankle.
Asiata started against the Eagles last Sunday, and although he averaged less than two yards per carry on 30 rushing attempts, he did leave a favorable impression by picking up three touchdowns.
The Vikings will face a much tougher defense this week when they take on the Bengals. Cincinnati's 9-5 record is due largely to their defense, which is strong everywhere, ranking fifth against the rush, seventh against the pass and sixth overall in the NFL.
The Vikings are heading toward the end of their 2013 schedule with still far more questions than answers. From the front office to the coaching staff to starting spots on both sides of the ball, the final two weeks of the season should at least shed a little clarity on how the Vikings want to proceed heading toward next year.
Let's take a look at some matchups that might go a long way in determining who comes out on top this Sunday.
Andy Dalton vs. The Vikings Pass Defense
Andy Dalton is a name that's been a thorn in Vikings fans' sides since the 2011 draft. Most draft experts had Dalton and Christian Ponder rated very similarly following the 2011 combine, and both were expected to be taken somewhere in the second round.
The Vikings surprised nearly everyone when they decided to take Ponder with the 12th overall selection. While the Bengals picked up superstar wide receiver A.J. Green with the fourth overall selection in the first round, they then drafted Dalton in the second round with the 35th overall pick.
While Dalton certainly hasn't set the world on fire with the Bengals, he's been a much better quarterback than Ponder from the get-go. In three seasons, Dalton has compiled a 28-18 record and thrown for more yards and touchdowns than Ponder, who is 14-20-1 as a starter.
|Andy Dalton vs. Christian Ponder|
Unlike Ponder, Dalton's numbers have gotten increasingly better each year he's been in the league, and he's on pace to throw for over 30 touchdowns and 4,000 yards in 2013. As Dalton heads toward the playoffs for the third straight year, Ponder will ride the bench for the Vikings and is ever closer to joining the long list of first-round quarterback busts.
While A.J. Green is the clear star of the Bengals passing game, it's a deep bunch of options that Dalton has to throw to, with six players having caught at least 38 passes and all of them over 400 yards.
The Bengals have strung together some excellent draft classes, picking receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones in the third and fifth rounds, respectively, in 2012. Jones has been a late-round steal, catching 40 balls for 566 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns this season.
Dalton is also blessed with a pair of athletic tight ends in Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert, who followed both Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson at Notre Dame.
While the Bengals would like to see Dalton bring his completion percentage up and his interceptions down, he's improving his pocket presence and doing a nice job of surveying the field and finding open receivers.
All of the Bengals offense feeds off of Green, who's the team's best player and one of the top talents in the NFL. With 87 catches, 1,268 yards and eight touchdowns, Green is heading toward his third straight Pro Bowl.
The Vikings will once again need big games from all three positional units on defense to have success against the Bengals. Jared Allen and Brian Robison combined for four sacks against the Eagles, and both are playing their best football of the season in December.
Audie Cole continues to impress since taking over the starting role at middle linebacker, and the secondary seemed to take a huge step forward last Sunday with the return of its anchor, Harrison Smith.
The defensive backfield is a cobbled-together group right now, with the top three cornerbacks missing the Philadelphia game. The group surrendered a lot of yards to the Eagles, but came up with plays when they needed to. Robert Blanton, Marcus Sherels, Andrew Sendejo and Shaun Prater all pitched in with contributions.
Dalton is prone to throwing interceptions, and for the Vikings to win on Sunday, they'll need at least a couple of turnovers from their pass defense.
Look for the Bengals' receiving depth to give the Vikings' beat-up secondary fits and for Dalton to have a big afternoon.
Jerome Felton vs. Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict
While it remains unclear who will be healthy enough to run with the ball for the Vikings on Sunday, whoever it is will be behind a classic matchup of a power fullback against two nasty linebackers.
Jerome Felton is playing every bit as well as he did last year, clearing wide paths for both Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart. While third-stringer Matt Asiata didn't have much success running the ball against the Eagles, Felton helped pave the way into the red zone, and Asiata picked up his first three career touchdowns. (Fantasy footballers who were watching the Vikings injury list were paid off handsomely on Sunday.)
Felton will have his hands full on Sunday against the Bengals' pair of dynamic linebackers in Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict. While Maualuga might have been a part of one of the best linebacking corps in college football history (with Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing at USC), his pro career stumbled out of the gate, but he's improved every season.
Burfict, on the other hand, has been a revelation in his two years in the league. Tabbed as a first-round talent heading into his senior season at Arizona State, Burfict had a disastrous senior season that saw him benched for his last game. He interviewed terribly at the combine and tumbled off of every team's draft board.
|Bengals Dynamic Linebacker Duo|
The Bengals were smart enough to snap him up as an undrafted free agent, and he's been spectacular since his first day in Bengals stripes. Burfict leads the NFL with 151 tackles after putting up 127 as a rookie.
With star Geno Atkins sidelined with a torn ACL, eight-year veteran Domata Peko has picked up the slack, anchoring a defensive line that gobbles up blockers and frees up lanes for their talented linebackers.
The bottom line is that whoever is carrying the ball for Minnesota won't be at full strength, so even if Felton can hold his own against the Bengals linebackers, it would be a surprise if the Vikings can rush for over 150 yards.
Greg Jennings vs. Adam "Pacman" Jones
Greg Jennings is clearly a better player when Matt Cassel is on the field, and he had his best day as a Viking last Sunday, catching 11 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles.
With Cassel using his veteran savvy to buy an extra second or two in the pocket, Jennings, in turn, is able to use his veteran savvy to find openings in the secondary. The two combined for a beautiful 57-yard touchdown in the first quarter on Sunday on a play that was dripping with guile.
Jennings will need all of the tricks he's learned in his eight years in the league when he matches up against seven-year man Adam Jones of the Bengals. Pacman is enjoying a nice renaissance season in Cincinnati, with 52 tackles and three interceptions. Jones is an incredible athlete who's never really been able to harness all of his talent into being a dependable cornerback.
That's changed in 2013, as Jones is playing perhaps the best football of his career. Jones is teaming with Terence Newman to give the Bengals a pair of veterans on the corners who have seen just about every offensive wrinkle anyone can throw at them.
Jennings has assumed the lead role among Vikings receivers with Cassel at the helm, and Sunday's game should feature some some great battles between him and Jones.
Mike Nugent vs. Cordarrelle Patterson
Nobody who plays against the Vikings wants the football in the hands of electric rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson's return average of 33.3 yards on kickoffs was enough for the Eagles to kick away from him all game long last week.
Patterson didn't get a kickoff return against the Eagles, who kicked away from him all six times they teed it up. The strategy didn't exactly pay off, as the Vikings' average starting field position was their 37-yard line.
It will be interesting to see what type of strategy the Bengals use when kicking off. Cincinnati is only giving up an average of 22.3 return yards on kickoffs, and the longest return they've allowed all year is just 36 yards.
Patterson continues to impress every time he gets his hands on the ball, and with temperatures expected to be in the mid-50s with rain on Sunday, he should get his chances on kick returns. With 19 catches in his last four games, Patterson looks more comfortable at receiver, and the Vikings coaches seem determined to find ways to get him the ball.
Here's betting that following Sunday's game, 36 yards will no longer be the longest kick return the Bengals have surrendered.