Three weeks ago, this game appeared to be part of a relatively easy four-game stretch for the Vikings. Minnesota was 4-2 at that time and Miami was reeling at 1-6.
Since then, the Vikings have dropped two in a row, the Dolphins have pulled off back-to-back wins and Brad Childress' team will enter Dolphin Stadium as an underdog.
And that's just the way it should be.
The Vikings offense, painful to watch for much of this season, will be facing the NFL's second-ranked defense. Miami is fourth in the league in stopping the pass, so it's unlikely the Vikings will get on track in Florida.
If Minnesota is going to have any success, it likely will come on the ground. Miami has the NFL's 12th-ranked defense against the run, giving up an average of 99.8 yards per game. The Vikings are averaging 107.3 yards rushing.
Quarterback Brad Johnson and the Vikings will see Miami stack the box and unless Childress attempts to loosen things up, establishing the pass and run could be equally as difficult.
The Vikings defense remains No. 1 in the league against the run but opponents have shown that passing against this unit is possible and at times too easy. Minnesota is 26th in the league after last week's debacle against Green Bay.
The issue is whether quarterback Joey Harrington can have the same type of success that Brett Favre did. It's unlikely that will happen, but Harrington is likely to take some shots through the air and force the Vikings to prove they are capable of stopping the pass.
It's no coincidence that Miami's two-game winning streak has coincided with Ronnie Brown becoming a more focal part of the offense. But the running back is nursing a groin injury and may struggle getting on track against the NFL's top-ranked run defense, especially with Kendyl Jacox replacing the injured Jeno James (knee) at left guard. That would put pressure on up-and-down Dolphins quarterback Joey Harrington to carry the offensive load against one of the NFL's leakiest secondaries.
"Our philosophy, and we've shown that in the last couple of games, is we need to stay balanced," Harrington said. "We've had games where we put up 400 yards passing but we didn't win, so we're definitely going to need to have a balanced attack to win games."
Defensively, the Dolphins should be fine if they can corral running back Chester Taylor, who ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing with 783 yards. Minnesota's anemic pass offense, especially at wide receiver, is the main reason why the Vikings have scored only nine touchdowns in nine games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
The Vikings could get back middle linebacker Napoleon Harris (dislocated left wrist) and receiver Marcus Robinson (lower back) against the Dolphins. Harris has missed two games and while Dontarrious Thomas had been respectable playing in the middle, he does not play at the same speed as Harris. Harris gives the Vikings a better chance to use more blitz packages. Robinson, meanwhile, has missed four games this season but still has a team-leading three touchdown catches. Quarterback Brad Johnson simply seems to be at his most comfortable when throwing the ball to Robinson. The loss of fullback Tony Richardson, out for the season because of a broken right forearm, certainly won't help a rushing game that is ranked ninth in the NFC. Richardson had served as the lead blocker for Chester Taylor. Taylor remains on the injury report for a second consecutive week with a calf problem and it's clear he's getting worn down.
QB Daunte Culpepper was officially declared out for Sunday's game against Minnesota as he continues rehabilitating his surgically repaired right knee. It appeared Culpepper did more in practice Wednesday than in previous weeks, but he admitted his season might be done with a sharp pain still persisting in his knee. Guard Jeno James is expected to miss the game.