(Sports Network) - The Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals both stood among the NFC's heavyweights a season ago, but a litany of problems -- whether on or off the field -- have sent both teams spiraling down the conference pecking order near the middle stage of this 2010 campaign.
The turmoil-laden Vikings return to the Metrodome in a must-win scenario this Sunday against an inconsistent Cardinals club still trying to overcome major issues at the quarterback position.
Minnesota won 12 regular-season games and came an overtime field goal away from advancing to the Super Bowl in 2009, but injuries and a multitude of distractions have left this year's Vikes a shell of their former selves. Aging quarterback Brett Favre has been feeling the adverse effects of Father Time during a rough first half of his 20th NFL season, and the absence of 1,300- yard wide receiver Sidney Rice has also taken its toll on an offense that was one of the league's most dynamic during the run to the NFC Championship Game.
The Vikings believed they had filled the void in regards to Rice, who's still a few weeks away from returning from a hip procedure performed in August, with the acquisition of seven-time Pro Bowl wideout Randy Moss in early October. However, the controversial veteran's modest numbers over a four-game audition combined with a series of disparaging antics caused the organization to abruptly sever ties with the 33-year-old, who was placed on waivers on Tuesday and claimed by the Tennessee Titans the following day.
Moss managed 13 catches and 174 receiving yards with two touchdowns during his abbreviated second stint in Minnesota. In last Sunday's 28-18 loss at New England, he mustered a mere one reception for eight yards against his ex-team.
The setback dropped the disappointing Vikings to 2-5 and into a tie with Detroit for last place in the NFC North. Minnesota trails rival Green Bay by 2 1/2 games for the division's top spot and is the same amount back of New Orleans in the race for the conference's final Wild Card berth.
Arizona also possessed an elite offense during a 10-6 regular season in 2009 that gave Ken Whisenhunt's charges a second consecutive NFC West title. However, the retirement of two-time league MVP Kurt Warner in January has left the Cardinals with a gaping hole at quarterback that neither journeyman Derek Anderson nor undrafted rookie Max Hall have been able to plug.
Hall took over for an ineffective Anderson after four games but struggled mightily in his last two starts, completing only 4-of-16 throws for 36 yards in a Week 7 loss at Arizona and tossing two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns by Tampa Bay this past Sunday.
Anderson replaced Hall and briefly brought the Cardinals back from a 17-point second-half deficit, but the determined Bucs rallied late for a wild 38-35 victory that put 3-4 Arizona in third place in the jumbled NFC West, though just one game behind front-running Seattle.
Whisenhunt has elected to go with Anderson, who threw for 234 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown to ace receiver Larry Fitzgerald but was also picked off twice by the Bucs, for Sunday's tilt in hopes of sparking an offense that's next-to-last in the NFL in total yards and 30th overall in passing.
These teams have split 20 all-time meetings, with the Cardinals drawing even in the series by virtue of a 30-17 victory in Arizona during Week 13 of last season. Minnesota had won two straight over the Cardinals prior to that setback, including a 35-14 triumph at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2008. Arizona also dropped a 31-26 decision in its last trip to Minneapolis, back in 2006, and is 0-4 all-time in the Metrodome in regular-season play. The Cardinals haven't bested the Vikings on the road since a 27-7 verdict at Metropolitan Stadium in 1977, when the victors were still located in St. Louis.
Minnesota also defeated Arizona at the Metrodome, 41-21, in a 1998 NFC Division Playoff. The clubs squared off in a conference semifinal held in Minneapolis in 1974 as well, with the Vikings coming away with a 30-14 win.
The Vikings' Brad Childress is 2-1 in his career against the Cardinals, while Whisenhunt is 1-1 against both Childress and Minnesota as a head coach.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
The offense seemed to respond to Anderson's (980 passing yards, 4 TD, 7 INT) insertion under center last week, with the ex-Brown orchestrating a pair of second-half touchdown drives that helped give the Cardinals a short-lived 35-31 lead midway through the fourth quarter. He also threw two interceptions in the final five minutes, though, and has been picked off seven times in his four 2010 starts. Still, the switch paid off for Arizona's top two receivers, with Steve Breaston (22 receptions, 330 yards, 1 TD) amassing a career-best 147 yards on eight catches against the Bucs and Fitzgerald (35 receptions, 4 TD) netting two touchdown grabs after scoring just twice over the season's first six tests. Turnovers remain a problem, however, as the Cards had four last Sunday and are tied for the NFL lead with 23 giveaways, and a more consistent rushing attack would help as well. Tim Hightower (298 rushing yards, 2 TD, 9 receptions) comes in as the team's leading rusher, but the fumble-prone back seems to have fallen out of favor lately. He had just one carry versus Tampa Bay, with 2009 first-round pick Beanie Wells (233 rushing yards, 2 TD) and return specialist LaRod Stephens-Howling (94 rushing yards, 1 TD, 8 receptions) combining for 91 yards and two scores on 20 attempts.
Anderson will be taking his shots at a Minnesota secondary that is beatable, especially if the defense continues to be unable to mount a sustained pass rush. The Vikings led the NFL with 48 sacks in 2009, but are currently tied for last in the league with a paltry six at the moment. It's impossible to explain the dramatic drop-off of ends Jared Allen (22 tackles, 1 sack) and Ray Edwards (15 tackles, 1.5 sacks), players who teamed up for 23 sacks a year ago but have just 2 1/2 thus far. The lack of pressure has taken a toll on a back end that's had to withstand injuries, with young cornerbacks Asher Allen (23 tackles) and Chris Cook (12 tackles) forced to hold down important roles before their time. Despite giving up 112 yards and two scores on 17 attempts to Patriots power back BenJarvus Green-Ellis last week, Minnesota does rank a respectable 13th against the run (102.4 ypg) and is especially stout up the middle, where the tackle tandem of Kevin Williams (16 tackles, 1 sack) and Pat Williams (14 tackles) have been to eight Pro Bowls between them and linebacker E.J. Henderson (47 tackles, 2 INT) is a difference-maker in the middle.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
With Moss jettisoned and Favre (1450 passing yards, 7 TD, 11 INT) having a noticeably erratic season, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings place even more of the offensive burden upon the broad shoulders of star running back Adrian Peterson (776 rushing yards, 6 TD, 22 receptions). The three-time All-Pro already leads the league in both rushing yards and carries per game (23.5) and has had 30 touches in each of the past two weeks. Moss' departure makes sophomore playmaker Percy Harvin (31 receptions, 3 TD) the unquestioned go-to receiver until Rice comes back and places one-time starter Bernard Berrian (9 receptions) back into a more prominent role within the game plan. Look for Favre, who had one of his best showings of the season with a 22- for-32, 259-yard effort against New England, to also incorporate both Peterson and backup running back Toby Gerhart (57 rushing yards, 7 receptions) in the passing game, as well as trusty tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (20 receptions, 1 TD). The Vikings have had their two highest offensive outputs over the last two weeks, following a 402-yard display against Green Bay by compiling 410 yards in the New England game.
Peterson could be in line for a huge day against a submissive Arizona defense that's surrendered a troubling 143.1 rushing yards per game, the fourth-worst mark in the league. Tampa Bay rookie LeGarrette Blount rumbled for 120 yards and two scores in last Sunday's triumph, one week after the Cardinals were gashed for 144 yards on the ground by Seattle. Count on another busy afternoon for inside linebacker Paris Lenon (54 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and free safety Kerry Rhodes (46 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD), the team's two leading tacklers who combined for 15 stops last weekend. While Arizona has permitted the second- most points (28.3 ppg) in the NFL and is just 27th in yards allowed (374.1 ypg), it has excelled at making big plays. The Cards have scored more defensive touchdowns (five) than anyone this year, and padded that total when inside linebacker Gerald Hayes took a forced fumble by Lenon into the end zone versus the Buccaneers. Arizona also sports a flurry of proven pass rushers in veteran outside linebacker Joey Porter (25 tackles, 3 sacks) and linemen Calais Campbell (29 tackles, 2 sacks) and Darnell Dockett (26 tackles, 1 sack), along with a Pro Bowl-caliber coverman in 6-foot-2 cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (24 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD).
Peterson's a no-brainer must-start every week as long as he's healthy, but the sky's the limit for Minnesota's offensive centerpiece against Arizona's porous defense. Harvin's value has skyrocketed as well with Moss no longer around, but don't count on any other Vikings receiver making a huge impact in what could be a run-heavy approach. Favre's inconsistency makes the 41-year-old a rather risky choice as well, while the Minnesota defense has been one of the fantasy bombs of this 2010 season, so proceed with caution. Anderson's elevation on the depth chart is a positive for both Fitzgerald and Breaston owners, but the reinstated Cardinals' signal-caller still doesn't merit starting consideration other than in two-quarterback leagues. Wells has become the Arizona back to own and offers some potential, though it's still limited by an offense that often struggles to put up points.
With all the chaos that's engulfed the Vikings lately, the mistake-prone Cardinals could be just what the doctor ordered to get the expected Super Bowl contenders back on the right track. Arizona won't be able to handle Peterson and a powerful Minnesota running game, especially if its dysfunctional offense is unable to sustain long drives and keep the Vikings from dominating time of possession. Anderson's good for at least two costly mistakes as well, swinging the pendulum further in the home team's favor. For at least one week, the embattled Vikings will look like a focused and well-oiled machine.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 23, Cardinals 10