NFL rivalries typically involve division teams, but occasionally, like the seemingly annual New England-Indianapolis matchup, there are times when records and schedules result in two teams from outside their own divisions playing each other more often than most. The Washington Redskins and the Minnesota Vikings have become one of those unanticipated rivals.
When the Vikings travel to FedEx Field Sunday, it will be the third straight year that the Vikings and Redskins have met in suburban Washington D.C. While the Vikings call the Metrodome their home field, FedEx Field has been like their home away from home. In the last two years, the Vikings had a record of just 9-23, but were 2-0 at the home of the Redskins – winning 17-13 in 2010 and 33-26 in 2011. They have found a nice road-field advantage in the nation's capital and hope to make the third the charm. However, this is a very different Redskins team than what they've faced the last two years – for better and worse.
The better side of the equation has come on offense. The Redskins have made significant additions to their offense this year and the dividends are already being paid. The team mortgaged its future to move up in the draft in a trade with St. Louis – giving up three first-round draft picks to get the right to draft Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.
In just five games, RG3 has made the Redskins look like geniuses for taking the huge risk. Not only has Griffin run 42 times for 241 yards and four touchdowns, but has thrown for 1,161 yards and four touchdowns and has a passer rating of 101.0 – behind only Alex Smith, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. For those who think Griffin is a running specialist at the QB position, they will be shocked to see what a polished passer he is and that he is capable of making every throw an elite quarterback needs to make in the NFL. He is a complete quarterback and is only getting better, but after suffering a concussion last week against Atlanta, the Redskins might try to keep the wraps on him running the ball with such reckless abandon.
Another new face on the Redskins offense is a draft pick taken 171 picks after RG3 – running back Alfred Morris. As has been the habit of head coach Mike Shanahan, he gleans gem running backs in late rounds of the draft and Morris is his latest find. Though five games, he has rushed 100 times for 491 yards and four touchdowns. He is fourth in the league in rushing and has become a go-to type player that is the centerpiece of the Washington offense. Given the Vikings' strength against the run, a between-the-tackles runner like Morris will be a direct challenge to that strength.
The other new look on offense is at wide receiver. With a non-descript receiving corps behind an aging Santana Moss, the Redskins gave Indianapolis wide receiver Pierre Garcon an eye-popping contract and also signed former 49er Josh Morgan. Both have become integral parts of the passing offense and give the Redskins reason for optimism in the future that, along with tight end Fred Davis, Washington has all the weapons it needs to be a playoff contender. For Sunday, however, Garcon remains a question mark with a foot injury.
The new look on defense for the Redskins is not by design. In a Week 2 loss at St. Louis, the Redskins lost two of their best defensive players – linebacker Brian Orakpo and defensive end Adam Carriker to season-ending injuries. Without them, the Redskins have struggled badly on defense. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 13 touchdowns and have a combined passer rating of 97.0. Perhaps most troubling for the Redskins is that they have had difficulty closing out games. In the first three quarters of their 2012 season, Washington has outscored its opponents 113-84. They have been dominant at times. However, when the clock turns to the fourth quarter, the Redskins defense falls apart.
Washington has been outscored 63-27 in the fourth quarter of games, and when opponents dial up their offense late in games it looks like the Redskins defense wears down and surrenders big plays. There is still talent on the defense, led by ageless wonder London Fletcher and cornerback DeAngelo Hall. But the Redskins defense has problems that can be exploited. The Vikings will have their chances to take advantage of these weaknesses, which include having a pair of Vikings castoffs – Madieu Williams (a starting safety) and Cedric Griffin (the nickel cornerback).
Washington's fourth-quarter struggles have directly led to all three of their losses. Against St. Louis, Washington led 28-23 entering the fourth quarter but were outscored 8-0 in the fourth and lost 31-28. Against Cincinnati, the Redskins and Bengals were tied entering the fourth quarter. Cincinnati outscored the Redskins 14-7 in the fourth quarter and lost 38-31. Against Atlanta last week, Washington led 10-7 entering the fourth quarter, but was outscored 17-7 and lost 24-17.
The Vikings have a lot of reasons to be confident they can go on the road and beat the Redskins. They've done it each of the last two years on unsuccessful teams and the Redskins are 0-2 at home this season. The Vikings seem to be living a charmed life this season after a couple of down years and the Redskins have the look of a team that won't be easy to beat, but they have proven they are very beatable at home, which is all you can ask for when going on the road in the NFL.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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