When the Minnesota Vikings face the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it will be the sixth straight game against a playoff contender. Surprisingly, it's been the Vikings' most successful portion of the season. Including their Week 11 loss to Seattle, they are 2-2-1 with a combined point differential of only three points.
The difference has been quarterback Matt Cassel.
Taking a look at the total offensive production when Cassel starts, versus Christian Ponder, is very telling. The following table compares the output when each quarterback plays the majority of the game. The results of the Seattle game were omitted since both Cassel and Ponder were equally terrible, and I wasn't sure how to share the credit—or the blame if you prefer.
|Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Comparison|
|Quarterback||Games||Offensive Output (yds/game)||Pts/Game||Record|
|Pro Football Reference|
This will also be the Vikings' last chance to win a game on the road this season—they are 0-6-1 away from the Metrodome. It won't be easy since the Bengals are 6-0 at home this season. The Bengals need a win over the Vikings to at least maintain their one-game lead over Baltimore in the AFC North. The Bengals host the Ravens in a Week 17 matchup to close out the season.
Of course, the Vikings should not have won last week against the Eagles. They were without their top-two running backs, down to their third- and fourth-string tight ends and started a cornerback who wasn't even with the team until Week 8.
So, of course, they put up the most points in a game since 1998 and crushed the Eagles 48-30, with quarterback Cassel leading the way. His favorite target in the game was wide receiver Greg Jennings, who caught a career-best 11 passes for 163 yards.
The task for Cassel will be a little more difficult against the Bengals, who have a top-10 defense against the pass.
The Vikings were able to score 26 points on the road against the Ravens. At home, the Ravens have allowed only an average of 19.8 points per game this season. Here's hoping they can be equally efficient against the Bengals.
When the Vikings Have the Ball
The Vikings have plenty of weapons on offense, and the equation should be very simple—just keep doing what has worked over the past few weeks.
That means having Cassel spread the ball around and take some shots down the field. According to the box score from Pro Football Reference, against the Eagles, Cassel was 6-of-8 for 187 yards on deep pass plays.
That strategy will be a bit easier with the return of running back Adrian Peterson. According to Vikings.com, Peterson made a limited return to practice on Wednesday. The Bengals will not be able to focus on just limiting the passing game with Peterson lined up in the backfield.
With the Bengals paying attention to Peterson running the football and Jennings catching it, they better not forget about Cordarrelle Patterson. In the past five games, Patterson has 22 receptions for 262 yards. His best game of the season came in Baltimore, when he caught five passes for 141 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown on a screen pass.
A balanced attack on offense would be the best game plan for the Vikings.
That means giving the football to Peterson between 20 and 25 times for his average of 94 yards per game—and like running back Matt Asiata did last week, score three touchdowns. That would open up the passing for Cassel, allowing him to pass for his average of 284 yards per game when he starts.
If the offense continues to produce as it has recently, then Cassel will complete passes to six or seven different receivers with Jennings catching seven passes for 98 yards—his average over the past three games.
That leaves the Vikings only 24 yards short of matching the 402 yards per game the offense has generated with Cassel at quarterback.
When the Bengals Have the Ball
This is a matchup of both teams' weaknesses. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the Bengals' weakness is an offense ranked 10th overall in total yards, and 11th in scoring, with an average of 25.3 points per game.
Last week, the Vikings defense was able to limit running back LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, to only 38 yards on eight carries. This week, they will need to replicate that performance. The Bengals feature the running back tandem of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard. These two have combined for 1,319 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The run support of the safeties will be key in limiting Cincinnati's rushing attack. The return of safety Harrison Smith gives the Vikings a lot of depth at safety. Andrew Sendejo has played very well in Smith's place, making 10 starts this season. According to Vikings.com, Sendejo is third on the team with 77 tackles.
Ranked dead last in the NFL, having given up 32 touchdown passes this season, the Vikings defense will have to find a way to limit the Bengals offense. That could be very difficult with cornerbacks Chris Cook and Xavier Rhodes injured and listed as questionable for Sunday's game.
Cook had limited participation in practice on Wednesday, and Rhodes has yet to make his way back onto the practice field.
This season, Dalton has been sacked less than two times per game. The Vikings defensive line will need to find a way to put pressure on Dalton, who has 16 interceptions this season, without having to blitz. If the Vikings can do that, it will give them another body to limit the Bengals' passing game.
Defensive end Jared Allen will be key for the Vikings. He leads the team with nine sacks and comes into this game with four sacks in his past three games. It's the longest consecutive streak this season for Allen.
On the other end of the line is Brian Robison. He is tied with Allen for the team lead in sacks and has five consecutive games with at least one sack.
Both Allen and Robison recorded two sacks against the Eagles last week.
This game will most likely end up being another high-scoring game. It will come down to whether the offense can produce enough points against a good defense and if the defense can keep the Bengals to under 30 points.
It will be close, but in the end, it will probably be another game decided in the final minute.