Adrian Peterson (Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY)
Adrian Peterson is a focus of the Ravens defense, which is par for the course for the Vikings running back, but there are many other factors at play Sunday.
The Baltimore Ravens are coming off an emotional victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect the defending Super Bowl champions to experience a letdown at home Sunday against the struggling Minnesota Vikings.
That theory might be valid if the Ravens (6-6) weren’t fighting to earn a spot in the playoffs, or if Minnesota (3-8-1) didn’t have the most feared running back in the NFL.
Although the Vikings’ 2013 season was doomed by a 1-7 start, Adrian Peterson is still running hot. He’s coming off a 211-yard performance against Chicago and has rushed for 1,208 yards, more than 10 NFL teams — including the Ravens.
Inside linebacker Jameel McClain was a member of the Baltimore defense in 2009, the last time these teams met. Peterson ran for 143 yards in Minnesota’s 33-31 victory.
“He was a great running back, and he did a lot of good things in that game,” McClain recalled.
Four years later, Peterson hasn’t changed.
“He’s a powerful runner, he’s very explosive and he has balance where you can’t just come in and hit him. You have to wrap him up,” McClain said.
Opposing defenses know Peterson is going to get the ball, and still he ends up getting yardage
“Most of the time we get a lot of people at the line of scrimmage,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “It’s eight-, nine-man fronts week in and week out.”
The Ravens moved into the second AFC wild-card slot with a season-saving Thanksgiving win over Pittsburgh, their biggest rival. This game isn’t any less important.
“This is the same thing,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We’re a 6-6 football team fighting for a playoff spot, and we need to win the rest of them. It starts with this one right here.”
Here are five things to know about the Vikings-Ravens matchup:
STILL MOTIVATED: The Vikings tied Green Bay and beat Chicago last week, proving they’re not merely coasting to the finish of a disappointing season.
“My motivation is to try to be the best at what I do and to win football games,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “If your motivation is only getting to the playoffs or win your division, when that’s gone, what do you have left to play for? Those types of guys are going to be shutting down. We don’t have those types of guys here.”
A team without the drive to win usually loses, and does not look good doing so.
“You never want to go out there and look like a bum,” Allen said.
STEP RIGHT UP: Matt Cassel entered at quarterback last week after Christian Ponder was sidelined with a concussion, and Cassel will start Sunday against the Ravens.
Against the Bears, Cassel did more than merely hand the ball to Peterson. He completed 20 of 33 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown.
A nine-year veteran, Cassel likes the way the Vikings have kept pushing to win.
“Guys are continuing to work,” he said. “You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from Week 1 to now.”
HOMECOMING: This game has special meaning for Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson, who played college ball at Maryland.
“They’re the defending champs right now. You can’t take that away from them,” Henderson said. “They already put that into the history books. We understand that. But for me, it’s a homecoming. It’s exciting. I won my state championship there at M&T Bank Stadium — the only one in school history, may I add. Nobody else ever did that. I’m excited to go back and see some of the fans out there and get a chance to play on that field again.”
Henderson is back in the starting lineup after missing the last two weeks. He was arrested Nov. 19 on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.
HOME COOKING: This marks the end of a rare three-game home stand for the Ravens, who have already defeated the Jets and Steelers and now have a chance to complete the sweep.
The odds are in their favor. Baltimore is 38-8 at home since coach John Harbaugh took over in 2008, including 10-1 against NFC opponents.
Over that span, the Ravens’ average margin of victory is 13.5 points.
TIGHT SQUEEZE: Baltimore has played seven games decided by three points or fewer and the Vikings are coming off two straight overtime duels.
If form holds, this one could come down to a field goal at the end. If so, the kick will probably split the uprights.
Justin Tucker has made 27 straight field goal attempts for the Ravens and 29 of 31 overall. Blair Walsh is 22 for 25, his only misses from 44, 53 and 57 yards.
“Probably the similarities are the consistency,” Frazier said. “You pretty much know what you’re going to get each time you put them out there. They’re so consistently good at what they do.”
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