The Vikings need a win to assure themselves the NFC North crown. How will they attack the Cardinals in Arizona? Get that and all the key matchups from both teams' perspective.
VIKINGS GAME PLAN
The Vikings hope to give the Cardinals the 1-2 backfield punch of Michael Bennett
's speed and Onterrio Smith
's power. Bennett's sprained right ankle is better than 80 percent healthy, allowing him to start against the NFL's 29th-ranked run defense.
Bennett won't carry the load. In fact, the rookie Smith is better suited for this game, which will be played on grass. Smith won't outrun defensive backs, but he makes linebackers miss with a quick juke and burst through the hole.
The Vikings ran for a season-high 223 yards in last week's 45-20 rout of Kansas City. The Chiefs eventually dropped safeties into the box, but that's when Daunte Culpepper
audibled into deep passes to Randy Moss
, who caught seven passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
If the Vikings can control Sunday's game in a similar fashion, they will snap their four-game road losing streak. They're 1-15 in their past 16 games on grass. The victory came at Green Bay in the season-opener.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Vikings running backs against Arizona's front seven. Michael Bennett returned from a sprained ankle last week, but wasn't much of a factor. The Vikings pulled him after six carries to make sure he didn't re-injure himself. They had that luxury because rookie Onterrio Smith was in the process of becoming the first Vikings rookie to rush for 100 yards in back-to-back games. Smith also tied team rookie records for touchdowns in a game (three) and a season (five). The Cardinals rank 29th in the NFL in run defense (117.7). The Vikings rank fifth in rushing (146.2).
WR Randy Moss against CBs Renaldo Hill and David Barrett. The Vikings might have a hard time motivating Moss, especially if Seattle loses to San Francisco on Saturday and clinches a playoff berth for the Vikings. Moss plays great in the big games on national TV. This game will be played in front of about 25,000 fans — if that — against a 3-12 team. Hill leads the Cardinals with five interceptions, including one for a touchdown. Barrett has one interception.
Vikings pass defense against WR Anquan Boldin. Boldin has an NFL rookie record 96 receptions. He has 1,350 yards and eight touchdowns as well. He also has the motivation to see how he stacks up next to Moss on the same field. Vikings CB Ken Irvin has a mild knee sprain. CB Brian Williams has five interceptions and probably is a year away from making the Pro Bowl. CB Denard Walker, the team's top offseason free agent acquisition, is the nickel back. He might have to play more in the base defense because of Irvin's injury.
Vikings safeties Corey Chavous and Brian Russell against QB Josh McCown. Chavous, a former Cardinals cornerback, is a Pro Bowler with eight interceptions. Russell, a former Vikings practice squad player in his first season as a starter, didn't make the Pro Bowl, but is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with nine. McCown, who has taken over the starting job of Jeff Blake, is completing 56.4 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and five interceptions. The Vikings have 27 interceptions, tied for first in the NFL.
Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper against Arizona defense. Culpepper was named to the Pro Bowl before the Chiefs game and lived up to it with three touchdown passes by halftime. The Cardinals shouldn't pose too much of a risk to Culpepper. They have only 20 sacks, 12 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries. Culpepper, however, has thrown seven of his 10 interceptions on the road.
Vikings kick coverage against rookie KR Josh Scobey. The Vikings shut down Chiefs Pro Bowl returner Dante Hall. Hall averaged 19 yards per kickoff return with a long of 21. The Chiefs averaged only 17.7 yards on kickoff returns against the Vikings. Scobey is averaging 23.2 yards per kickoff return with a 100-yard return for a touchdown.
Vikings "other" receivers against Arizona's pass defense. If the Cardinals gang up on stopping Randy Moss, the Vikings have the speed to beat them elsewhere. WR Kelly Campbell is averaging 20.5 yards on 24 catches with four touchdowns. Last week, rookie WR Nate Burleson caught a 28-yard pass on a crossing route on the fifth play of the game. Three plays later, Moss caught a 30-yard touchdown pass.
INJURY IMPACT: CB Ken Irvin, who is expected to play despite a mild knee sprain, might have to be rested throughout the game. Denard Walker can come in and do as well as Irvin.
DE Kenny Mixon, who will play with his hand heavily padded to protect a fractured thumb, will have a harder time tackling because of the injury.
LB Chris Claiborne, who won't start and is a game-time decision as to whether he'll play because of a sprained ankle and a sore Achilles' heel, is better off on the bench if he can't run. His replacement, Henri Crockett, isn't as good, but he has experience.
RB Michael Bennett, who is better than 80 percent healed from a sprained ankle, will start. But he doesn't have to carry the load. RB Onterrio Smith has proven he can be a workhorse back, rushing for 295 yards and three touchdowns the past two weeks.
CARDINALS GAME PLAN
Defending the pass is among the team's many big weaknesses, so that makes ball-control essential. That will be difficult to achieve with three Cardinals starting offensive linemen — LT L.J. Shelton, C Pete Kendall and RG Leonard Davis — injured. Shelton is expected to play, Kendall is doubtful, Davis is still 50-50. The status of the line also will influence pass protection, and with it the chance of rookie WR Anquan Boldin getting the final 124 receiving yards he needs to break the NFL rookie record. Boldin last week broke the NFL rookie record for catches in a season. He now has 96. If the Cards can't keep the Vikings offense off the field it will be another blowout.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Cardinals CB Renaldo Hill, noted pedestrian, vs. Vikings WR Randy Moss, a Pro Bowler again. This one speaks for itself. It could be a real exercise in torture for the Cardinals. Their only hope is that Moss is so cocky that he takes himself out of the game mentally.
Cardinals RB Marcel Shipp, chasing a 1,000-yard season, vs. Vikings OLB Chris Claiborne, noted Cardinals' stopper. It would take a whopper of a game — 187 yards — for Shipp to reach 1,000 on the ground for the season. That's about what the Cardinals need in order to control the ball and keep it away from the quick-strike, big-play passing combo of Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss of Minnesota. Claiborne has had two big games against the Cards, both with the Lions, with 24 tackles and two sacks.
INJURY IMPACT: The performance of the offensive line will determine the Cardinals' fate in this game. And with three starters hurting, one of whom has not played the past two games, it doesn't look promising. The Cardinals stand little chance against a team playing for the NFC North title if LT L.J. Shelton (arm, ankle), C Pete Kendall (shoulder) and RG Leonard Davis (thumb) aren't close to full strength to give credibility to the ground game and protect young QB Josh McCown.