Vikings vs. Cardinals: Full Arizona Game Preview

Jaime Oppenheim@JustOppFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2015

Vikings vs. Cardinals: Full Arizona Game Preview

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    The Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings are looking to cram a full week's worth of preparation into a few days ahead of their NFC landscape-altering clashing on Thursday night.

    Arizona, Minnesota and the Green Bay Packers are fighting for the second seed and first-round bye in the NFC playoffs. The Cardinals currently hold a two-game lead over the Vikings and Packers, with Green Bay paying a visit to the desert in Week 16.

    After a string of close calls, Arizona appeared to get its early-season mojo back last Sunday with a 27-3 dismantling of the St. Louis Rams. While the result represented its sixth consecutive victory, it was also the Cardinals first win by more than one touchdown since Week 8.

    The Vikings are sitting on the other end of the spectrum, coming off their worst performance of the season, a 38-7 home loss at the hands of Seattle. Minnesota's offense failed to produce any points on the day, with Cordarrelle Patterson providing the team's lone touchdown on a kickoff return.

    A win for the Cardinals on Thursday night would put them firmly in control of the second seed in the NFC with three weeks remaining, while a loss would turn the race into a free-for-all. 

    Click ahead for the full midweek preview of this all important Week 14 matchup.

    Date: Thursday, Dec. 10

    Location: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

    Time: 8:25 p.m. ET

    TV: NFL Network (National)/CBS (Local)

Latest News and Notes

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    Earl Watford placed on IR

    News broke Tuesday afternoon (H/T Darren Urban of the team's official website) that reserve guard Earl Watford was being placed on IR with a hand injury. He has been replaced on the roster with safety D.J. Swearinger.

    Losing Watford is hardly significant for Thursday's matchup, as he was behind starters Mike Iupati and Ted Larsen, as well as Jonathan Cooper in the pecking order at guard. Swearinger's promotion from the practice squad could indicate some level of concern for Tony Jefferson and Rashad Johnson, both of whom remain on the injury report (next slide). 

    The most interesting note to come of this story is a small update on first-round pick D.J. Humphries, who, as it turns out, is not only alive, but apparently thriving. Via Fox Sports 910's Mike Jurecki, Humphries has shown improvement since the season started. That said, it remains unlikely we see him on the field in 2015.

    Mike Zimmer backs Carson Palmer in the MVP race

    It's hardly a surprise that Carson Palmer's name has come up in MVP discussions since the first quarter of the season, and now we can add Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer to his growing list of supporters.

    According to ESPN's Josh Weinfuss, Zimmer was not shy about heaping praise on Palmer during a midweek conference call with the media:

    "Honestly, watching tape, I hear about all these people talking about MVPs, and he really should be in the consideration with the way he's playing. And that's not media talk, either. That's true. That's what I believe."

    Zimmer does have a history with the Cardinals quarterback, formerly serving as defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals during Palmer's tenure in Ohio.

Key Injuries

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    With the short week, the Cardinals released an injury report following practice on both Monday and Tuesday. The updated report can be found on the official website.

    As it has in recent weeks, the injury report remains rich in scope and narrative drive. Here's a look at the biggest injuries.

    Andre Ellington

    Andre Ellington sat out Sunday's win with turf toe and has yet to practice this week. Bruce Arians told Alex Marvez on SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday night that he doesn't expect Ellington to play against Minnesota. 

    Rookie David Johnson and third-year back Kerwynn Williams handled the rushing duties in place of Ellington and Chris Johnson against St. Louis, and they seemed to provide a much-needed spark for the offense. The duo combined for 158 yards on 28 carries.

    While having Ellington available to play is better than not, it may just turn out the Cardinals are fine in the short-term without him. 

    Cory Redding and Frostee Rucker

    Again via Marvez and SiriusXM NFL Radio, Arians expects Redding to play on Thursday but Rucker to sit out.

    Rucker's the far more important player to Arizona's defense, but Redding's return is a nice boost to a defensive line that's been forced to rely on inexperienced players in recent weeks. The likes of Rodney Gunter and Ed Stinson have fared well, but it never hurts to have another veteran around.

    Tony Jefferson and Rashad Johnson

    Jefferson and Johnson have both dealt with nagging injuries in recent weeks, but neither have been forced to miss any time. In fact, they wouldn't get much of a look this week if not for the promotion of Swearinger to the active roster.

    Swearinger, an in-the-box safety taken in the second round by Houston in 2013, has bounced around a bit this season after being cut by the Texans in May. He was picked up Tampa Bay but released again in November.

    Jefferson did not participant in Monday's practice but was considered a limited participant on Tuesday. Johnson was a limited participant on both days. While the expectation is that both play on Thursday, their status is worth monitoring up until kickoff. 

    Jerraud Powers

    Jerraud Powers, still dealing with a lingering calf injury, has not yet practiced this week and is not expected to play on Thursday.

    Justin Bethel took Powers' place in the starting lineup on Sunday and played well, giving up only two completions on 11 attempts, according to Pro Football Focus. Bethel will again take up outside responsibilities on Thursday night.

Key Matchup

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Arizona's run defense vs. Adrian Peterson

    Depending on your view of things, Minnesota is either well-balanced or nondescript for an 8-4 football team. It is, at worst, reasonably competent in all facets of the game, although it tends not to "wow" you with anything it does.

    The one place the Vikings do stand out is in the running game, ranking fifth in the league in rushing yardage. As it happens, it helps to have Adrian Peterson active instead of suspended.

    If Arizona's defense can choke off Minnesota's running game early, it will have a far easier time shutting down the Vikings offense.

    The Vikings failed to get Peterson going in recent losses to Green Bay and Seattle, with their star back gaining only 63 yards on 21 carries in the games combined. It was the same story in their baffling lose to San Francisco in Week 1, where Peterson managed only 31 yards on 10 rushes.

    Stopping Peterson is easier said than done, particularly when the Vikings commit to the ground game. But the Cardinals defense is coming off an impressive performance against St. Louis and should have some momentum on its side. It limited Todd Gurley to only 41 yards on nine rushes, with 34 of those yards coming on one carry.

    A similar performance will go a long way in propelling Arizona to victory.

3 Things to Watch

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Will Teddy Bridgewater bounce back?

    Perhaps the most inflammatory comments to come out of Week 13 belonged to Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin. Following his team's win over Minnesota, Irvin told NFL.com that Teddy Bridgewater "was so scared" during the game.

    It seems inarguable that Seattle's defense was inside Bridgewater's head, holding the second-year quarterback to only 118 yards passing and zero touchdowns. How will he respond against Arizona?

    The Cardinals surely don't boast the same kind of pass rush the Seahawks can generate, but James Bettcher has proven to have a trick or two up his sleeve. Can Arizona jangle Bridgewater's nerves?

    What will David Johnson do for an encore?

    The rookie made the most of his first career start last Sunday, totaling 99 yards on the ground and adding a touchdown through the air. He did fumble once, but that turned out to be harmless as St. Louis only managed to recover the ball out of bounds.

    Johnson, along with backup Williams, reinvigorated Arizona's dormant running game against the Rams. We'll find out on Thursday night if that was just a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come for the Cardinals.

    J.J. Nelson

    J.J. Nelson continues to make plays when given the opportunity and provided Arizona's first touchdown against the Rams with a 22-yard reception from Palmer. 

    With Michael Floyd and John Brown getting closer to full health, will Nelson still see opportunities in the passing game? His speed could eat up nickel-and-dime defensive backs, so it will be interesting to see how Arians uses his wide receiver depth going forward. 

Prediction: Arizona 24, Minnesota 13

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    This is a matchup that is lacking neither in incentive or narrative. We have two good teams playing on a short week with a lot at stake. 

    Beyond playing at home, Arizona has two key advantages. First, it expected to be in this position when the season began. Mentally, it's ready for these kind of games, or at least it's more ready for these kind of games than the younger Vikings.

    The second advantage is that the Cardinals have more playmakers. There are no shortage of players capable of changing this game for Arizona. While Minnesota is talented, it doesn't have the variety of difference-makers that Arizona boasts.

    So there's your difference, a difference the Cardinals absolutely have to have as they chase the second seed in the NFC. Are they ready for it?

    Final score: Arizona 24, Minnesota 13

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