Christian Ponder (Paul Frederiksen/US Presswire)
Sunday marks the start of an important five-day stretch with two games that could set the Vikings’ course for the second half of the season. By the time midnight hits Thursday, the Vikings could be in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot or simply hoping to salvage a respectable season.
The Vikings’ 2012 season may well come down to the next five days.
They are one of the NFL’s surprise teams at 4-2 and, if the conventional wisdom holds true, they will be 6-2 by late Thursday night after playing the Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home the next two games. They are six-point favorites against the Cardinals today and will likely be a similar favorite Thursday when they host the Bucs. Playing two games in five days is never easy, but perhaps no five days will have a bigger impact on their 2012 season.
“There’s no doubt that these next two games will be critical for us,” offensive lineman Phil Loadholt said. “We’ve played really well here at the Metrodome and we’ve got both of those games here. I don’t think anybody likes to play on Thursdays because the turnaround is so fast that you barely have time to get your body healed up enough to get ready to play and the Thursday game is right on top of you. It’s something you need to be ready for and prepare for it.”
By Friday morning, the Vikings could be 6-2, 5-3 or 4-4. The difference between each of those options is enormous.
If they’re 6-2, they will be heading into Seattle with more rest than the Seahawks, who will play at Detroit next Sunday.
If they’re 5-3, they close out October with a 2-2 record in the second quarter of the season, which would be a disappointment by October standards but an unexpected midseason mark considering that many outside expectations put five wins as a season total.
A 4-4 record would mean the team is on a three-game losing streak against teams they realistically could have and should have beaten if they were to be viewed as a legitimate playoff contender in 2012.
The final six games of the schedule after the bye week are going to be like playoff games weeks before the actual playoffs begin – four of the first five in that stretch are on the road and none of those opponents have losing records. They get two games each with the Bears and Packers and play St. Louis and Houston on the road. It will be an end-of-year test of endurance and give a crystal clear vision of how close the Vikings are to being a playoff contender.
“This is a critical stretch for us,” Loadholt said. “We have to take care of our business at home and put ourselves into position to reach the goals we have set for ourselves. It’s big.”
Five days. Three possible outcomes. Two possible destinies. Get your popcorn and playoff scenarios ready.
VIKINGS-CARDINALS BY THE NUMBERS
The Vikings have the 17th-ranked offense (8th rushing, 17th passing) and the 8th-ranked defense (11th rushing, 10th passing).
Arizona has the 31st-ranked offense (tied for 27th rushing, 28th passing) and the 10th-ranked defense (19th rushing, 9th passing).
The Vikings offense is averaging 357 yards a game (230 passing, 127 rushing). The Cardinals are averaging 283 yards a game (200 passing, 83 rushing).
The Minnesota defense is allowing 314 yards a game (218 passing, 96 rushing). Arizona is allowing 329 yards a game (216 passing, 113 rushing).
The Cardinals are 31st in both average per rush attempt (3.4 yards) and per pass attempt (6.2 yards).
No team has allowed more sacks than the 28 allowed by the Cardinals.
The Vikings offense is tied for 17th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 11 of 22 trips (50 percent). The Cardinals are 20th at 47.1 percent, scoring touchdowns on 8 of 17 trips to the red zone.
The Cardinals defense is fifth in the red zone, allowing just six touchdowns on 17 red zone opportunities (35.3 percent). The Vikings are tied for 12th at 47.1 percent (eight touchdowns in 17 chances).
The Vikings offense is 19th in third-down efficiency, making good on 38 percent of their third-down chances (30 of 79). Arizona is 26th at 32.2 percent (29 of 90). The league average is 38.4 percent.
The Vikings defense is 27th on third down, allowing conversions on 40 of 89 chances (44.9 percent). Arizona is eighth at 33 percent conversions (29 of 88).
Neither team has done well on first down. The league average is 5.51 yards per first-down play. The Vikings are 28th at 4.86 yards and the Cardinals are dead last at 4.22 yards.
Defensively, the Vikings are third in first-down defense, allowing just 4.47 yards on first down. Arizona is 14th, allowing exactly one yard more per first down play (5.47 yards).
The Vikings have the best average starting field position in the NFL, with an average start of the 26.7-yard line. The league average is the 22-yard line. The Cardinals are 30th in the league defensively on average starting position, allowing opponents to start drives after kickoffs on the 25.1-yard line.
Both teams have one 300-yard passing game – one from Christian Ponder and one from Kevin Kolb. Both teams have allowed one 300-yard game.
Both teams have had two 100-yard receiving games – two from Percy Harvin and one each from Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts. The Vikings have allowed one 100-yard receiver, while Arizona has allowed two.
Adrian Peterson has one 100-yard rushing game, while Arizona has none. Neither team has allowed a running back to run for 100 yards, but the Vikings allowed quarterback Robert Griffin III to run for 100 yards last week.
Ponder is 12th in pass attempts (210), fifth in completions (144), second in completion percentage (68.6), tied for 16th in yards (1,434), tied for 11th in touchdowns (8) and ninth in passer rating (92.4). Cardinals starter John Skelton hasn’t started since Week 1.
Ponder is sixth in fourth-quarter passer rating at 102.2. But he is 28th in third-down passer rating at just 63.0, ahead of only rookies Brandon Weeden and Andrew Luck, Alex Smith of the 49ers and Tony Romo of the Cowboys.
Peterson is sixth in the league in rushing with 499 yards. The leading rusher for Arizona is Ryan Williams, who is on injured reserve. His 164 yards ranks 41st, behind three quarterbacks (RG3, Cam Newton and Michael Vick).
Harvin leads the NFL in receptions with 49 – one ahead of New England’s Wes Welker. Fitzgerald is eighth with 36 receptions.
Harvin is seventh in receiving yards (540). Fitzgerald is tied for 14th with 430 yards.
Harvin is tied for fourth in third-down receptions with 12 catches. Fitzgerald is tied for 10th with 10 catches and backup Early Doucet is tied for 16th with nine third-down receptions.
Kyle Rudolph is sixth in the league in scoring with 32 points – five touchdowns and a 2-point conversion. Roberts is tied for 12th with 24 points (four TDs).
Blair Walsh is third in scoring among kickers with 60 points in six games. Jay Feely of the Cardinals is tied for 13th with 44 points.
Walsh is tied with New England’s Stephen Gostkowski with 24 touchbacks.
Peterson is fifth in the league in total yards from scrimmage with 628 (499 rushing, 129 receiving). Harvin is eighth with 603 yards (540 receiving, 63 rushing). Fitzgerald is tied for 33rd with 430 yards (all receiving).
The Vikings are the only team with two players in the top 10 in total yards from scrimmage.
Harvin is tied for third in the league in first downs picked up with 34 (30 receiving, four rushing). Peterson is tied for 13th with 29 (24 rushing, five receiving). Fitzgerald leads the Cardinals with 23 (all receiving), which ties him for 23rd place.
Marcus Sherels is fourth in the league in punt return average at 13.4 yards – which is best in the NFC.
Harvin leads the NFL is kick return average with 37.1 yards per return, more than five yards better than his next closest competition.
Jared Allen slowly but surely keeps moving his way up the sacks list. He is now tied for 19th with four sacks, which is the same number as two Cardinals – linebackers O’Brien Schofield and Daryl Washington.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.