The Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are two of the NFL’s more intriguing teams this year. While the Bucs currently sit at a somewhat unimpressive 2-4, they are actually a far better team than that mark would indicate. Each of their losses came by seven points or fewer, and given the level of competition they have faced thus far, that is actually a pretty admirable feat for a relatively young team. (With a rookie coach, no less.) The Vikings, meanwhile, come into this outing boasting an impressive 5-2 record, but it's debatable whether they are as good as advertised.
Tampa Bay obviously isn’t going to the playoffs this year, so their remaining schedule after this game isn’t particularly important. (If anyone cares, though, it’s pretty light.) The Vikings, however, are in the hunt for either a.) the NFC North title or b.) the Wild Card. They have a noticeably tougher road ahead of them than both the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears do, so picking up wins against inferior teams (on paper) like the Bucs is absolutely crucial.
Here are three things from each team to keep an eye on tonight.
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1. Will time and place play a role?
The Vikings are 4-0 at home this year. Conversely, their only two losses of the season came on the road. (Against Indianapolis and Washington.) This team is noticeably better in Minnesota, and that coupled with the fact that the Buccaneers are coming off a long road trip on a shortened week is inevitably going to play a role in how this game turns out.
2. Can Adrian Peterson continue to handle business?
Coming off an injury that some people thought would wreck his career for good, Peterson has looked strong in 2012. On the year he has rushed for 652 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and three scores. The Vikings, as a group, have the seventh best running game in the league. That said, this week they go up against a defense that surrenders just 76 yards per game – third best in the NFL. Something has to give; either Peterson will explode and run all over a pretty impressive defensive group, or Christian Ponder is going to have to step up and carry this offense.
3. Will Christian Ponder have a big game?
The Buccaneers are 31st in the NFL in pass defense. They give up 323 yards per game. If ever Ponder was due for a big game – this would be it. So far this year he has thrown for 1492 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. Oddly enough, all six picks have been thrown over the last three games. His passer rating against the Cardinals last week was an atrocious 35.5. Playing at home is the perfect way to break out of a slump, though. If Ponder can get his early season groove back, that would put Minnesota in great position to win this game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1 . Can the offense keep rolling?
According to ESPN, the Buccaneers come into this game having racked up 976 yards over the past two outings – most in franchise history over that span. Josh Freeman has thrown for 300+ yards in the past two games, and for a total of over 1,000 yards in the last three. Minnesota only gives up 219 passing yards per game, though. If Freeman can break through this defense early, that could prove to be what propels Tampa Bay to victory.
2. Which wide receiver (if any) is going to step up?
As noted by CBS Sports, Tampa Bay is coming into this game fresh off Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams having back-to-back monster weekends. Of course, it’s probably worth mentioning that those monster outings came against New Orleans (30th ranked pass defense) and Kansas City (13th ranked pass defense), respectively. Minnesota boasts the 11th best pass defense in the NFL. If Josh Freeman and one of his receivers can build up some chemistry early, that could throw the Vikings off their game from the start. If not – this could be a rough day for the aerial assault.
3. Can this team win a close game?
The bad news: the Bucs have lost four of the six games they’ve played this year. The good news: all of these losses have been by seven points or less. This is a young team with a rookie head coach – development takes time. The fact that Tampa Bay has been able to keep it close against the Giants, Cowboys, Redskins and Saints, even in defeat, says a lot.