The Minnesota Vikings have won their last four games and six of their last seven, making them the hottest team in the NFC this side of Carolina.
The Vikings will close out their slate of games with the AFC, leaving them playing all seven of their remaining games against NFC teams. While this game won’t have any tiebreaking postseason implications, the chance to improve to 7-2 on the season would match the Vikings’ win total for all of 2014 just past the halfway point of the 2015 season.
These are the 10 points of emphasis that will go a long way to determining who will win and who will lose on Sunday.
It Takes Two – The Raiders have a pair of new receivers this year that have caused an enormous shift in the Oakland offense after years of struggling to have a receiver who could catch 50 passes and even come close to reaching 1,000 yards. Free-agent signee Michael Crabtree is on pace to catch 94 passes for 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns while rookie Amari CooperAmari Cooper is on pace to catch 90 passes for 1,306 yards and eight TDs. Most teams have a primary receiver they throw to, but the split between Crabtree and Cooper has gone almost right down the middle, giving Oakland a dynamic duo that will need to be under constant coverage or they will make the big plays that kill opponents.
Road Warriors – The Vikings have reversed the curse on the road, winning their last two divisional road games. The Raiders are 2-2 at home, so going to the Black Hole isn’t a death sentence for the Vikings. With a bad taste still in their mouths from their last trip to the Bay Area, the Vikings will look to keep their road strength building, because the Raiders can be had on the road.
How Low Can You Go – The Vikings have made a living this year on keeping scores down and winning the close games late. They are allowing just 17½ points a game and nobody has scored more than 23 against them. They have excelled as being the better team in the second half, outscoring opponents 86-61 after halftime. The Raiders are averaging almost 27 points a game and allowing the same amount. In their four wins, they have scored 37, 27, 37 and 34 points. Whichever team plays to its own strength – Oakland scoring points or the Vikings limiting points – will go a long way to determining who wins Sunday.
Running Out of Gas – The Raiders have outscored their opponents 213-211 this year. However, in the fourth quarter when games are won or lost, they have been outscored 83-50 after outscoring their opponents in each of the first three quarters. The difference between a good team and a great team is how they close out games and win in the fourth quarter. The Vikings have proved they can do that. The Raiders have yet to do that.
Blanket Coverage – The Vikings’ punt return defense has been smothering all season long. Opponents have fielded 26 Vikings punts – 14 of them returned and 12 fair catches – and have just 67 yards to show for it, an average of less than 5 yards per return. The Raiders don’t believe in calling fair catches. They have been on the receiving end of 26 punts as well, returning 22 of them and calling just four fair catches. The Vikings have become accustomed to teams not bringing back punts on them. Whether they cover as well as they have Sunday or not, one thing would seem clear – punt to the Raiders and they’re going to try to return it.
Chopping Wood – At age 39, Raiders safety Charles Woodson remains one of the game’s top ball hawks. He is tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions, one more than the Vikings have as a team through eight games. He is a veteran who makes quarterbacks pay for their mistakes and, while he may have lost a step over the years, when there is a contested ball in his area, don’t be stunned if the future Hall of Famer comes away with pick No. 6 Sunday.
Feed the Beast – Adrian Peterson leads the league in rushing at the midway point of the season and is on pace to rush the ball 338 times for more than 1,500 yards. In six of his eight games, Peterson has rushed the ball 19 times or more. In those games, the Vikings are 6-0. In the two games he has rushed 16 times or fewer, the Vikings are 0-2. Coincidence? Don’t bet on it.
Third Is the Word – The Raiders have a top 10 third-down offense, converting on almost 44 percent of their opportunities. The Vikings have the second-ranked third-down defense in the league, allowing conversions on less than 30 percent of opponent opportunities. Both teams are extremely good at what they do on third down. Whichever unit – Oakland’s offense or Minnesota’s defense – can dominate in this specific facet of the game could well determine the winner.
Best Foot Forward – Rarely are kicker battles viewed as very important, but the numbers in the battle between Blair Walsh and Sebastian Janikowski are just too good to ignore. In the six games the Vikings have won, Walsh has scored 59 points. In the two they’ve lost, he has scored just 11. Even more pronounced is Janikowski. In the four games Oakland has won, Seabass has scored 45 points. In the four games the Raiders have lost, he has scored just 18. No team wants to settle for field goals as opposed to touchdowns, but it would appear the team that kicks more field goals will win Sunday because the disparity between winning and losing for the Vikings has been huge.
Teddy Time – Teddy Bridgewater’s passing numbers have been pretty weak. He has average barely over 200 yards passing and has just six touchdown passes through eight games. But Oakland has the worst pass defense in the league. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging 325 yards a game, so clearly there is yardage to be had through the air. Bridgewater may never have a chance to be as prolific through the air as he might be against the Raiders, because they’ve allowed half the quarterbacks they’ve faced this year to throw for more than 330 yards in a game.