The Vikings' game against the New York Giants should qualify as a big game – if the Vikings win, they are in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 – but many of the players cautioned that they can't "get outside of their lanes," as Brad Childress likes to say.
Vikings safety Darren Sharper knows the magnitude of this game.
"This is like a playoff game. Our playoffs start on Sunday," Sharper said.
Sharper earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week against the Giants in 2005 for a performance that included three interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown. He finished the game with a franchise-record 123 interception-return yards courtesy of New York QB Eli Manning.
"I have enjoyed playing against him, but that's not to say that this Sunday is going to be similar to ones in the past," Sharper said. "I know he likes to throw the ball down the football field. It might have changed a little bit because Plaxico Burress is out. I've had my good times against him. I know he'll be trying to go against that and have good times against me."
But the focus of the Vikings defense will remain as it has all season long – stopping the run. The Giants come into the game with the No. 1-ranked rushing offense in the league.
"If the game is close and they are constantly in second-and-5 or second-and-3 – short downs – they're going to run the ball," defensive end Jared Allen said, cautioning that he can't go seeking a sack too hard with New York's rushing game. "Barring a fumble off that, you're not really going to put yourself in position to make big, game-changing plays with interceptions, sacks, forced fumbles and stuff like that. The big thing for us is (to) read your keys and play hard, physical football. We need to bring a lunch pail to this game and we need to go out there and smack some people."
The Vikings used a combination of defensive factors to be able to beat the Giants the last two times these teams faced each other – a 24-21 win in 2005 and a 41-17 win in 2007, both in New York.
"We just were physical, played our scheme extremely effectively, had a good mix of what we were doing – zone, blitz, man coverage, all of those things," Sharper said. "Just played good. We were aggressive to the football and made a lot of plays. Put points on the board and that helped us win by the margin we won by."
Running back Adrian Peterson, one of the Vikings' biggest playmakers who should finish the season as the Vikings' all-time leading rusher, said he can't press too much after a two-fumble game last week against the Atlanta Falcons. He cautioned those that want to put all the pressure on him that it is a team game and everyone needs to perform well in a big game like this.
Sharper admits to being a bit more excited for a big game against the Giants.
"You just get more comfortable, you're excited about going against that team. I don't know what it's been, but I just feel comfortable when we're playing against New York, in New York or against them. It's just one of those things," he said.
SHARPER vs. MANNING
The Giants may not play their starters for the entire game with the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs wrapped up. Even with all that is on the line for the Vikings, Sharper said he hopes that New York coach Tom Coughlin plays Manning.
"You always want to play against the best and he would be that guy. Just looking forward to getting out there and playing and, more importantly, winning. It doesn't matter who they line up, we need to focus on getting a victory, getting in the big dance," Sharper said.
Manning knows the success Sharper has had against him.
"You definitely have to be mindful of where he is. He does a great job of just reading the quarterback's eyes and just taking some chances at the right times and making plays. So he is a good player," Manning said. "He has been around. He is a guy that has got good football sense and has a knack for making plays."
The Vikings are looking to for their third game in a row against Manning in which they've had four interceptions. Sharper is looking for his fifth in a row against the Giants with an interception and his third in a row against them returning one for a touchdown.
Despite Manning have a clunker of a performance in the last outing between these two teams, Sharper believes Manning's improved rushing attack in the last year will help keep the pressure off of him.
"He has a strong running attack and I think that helps him out this year. … He's always been a guy that can make all of the throws, is accurate, likes to throw the ball down the football field and has good poise in the pocket," Sharper said.
But, like Manning, starting running back Brandon Jacobs may not play the entire game – or at all – as he might benefit from an extra week of rest before the playoffs. Vikings coach Brad Childress believes in defending the scheme rather than the personnel.
"They have a very good offensive line with guys capable of zone blocking as well as pulling and trapping, that type of thing. They make all of them do all of those things," Childress said of the Giants running game. "They can all hurt you around the perimeter and they can run between the tackles. They've kind of prided themselves on that. You see quotes attributed to Tom (Coughlin) saying to get back to playing Giants football. That's their preference, to be able to exert their will on people at the line of scrimmage and run the football, then play-action off of that."