NFL Preview - Minnesota (0-0) at Cleveland (0-0)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Minnesota Vikings head coach Brad Childress finally landed his man at quarterback, and now will officially get to see what aging legend Brett Favre can do in Sunday's Week 1 matchup against the host Cleveland Browns.
After an extensive game of cat and mouse, Favre finally made up his mind and returned to the NFL for his 19th season with his long-time nemesis, the Vikings. The former Green Bay Packers star shook off the rust in a few preseason appearances and is ready to go for the 2009 NFL campaign. Favre spent last season with the New York Jets after a lengthy stay in Green Bay, only to again mull over retirement in the offseason. After a private jet ride here and an escort from Childress there, Favre was ready to lace up the spikes.
The future Hall of Famer has a stronger surrounding cast now than he did under the Jets -- who were coached last year by current Browns head man Eric Mangini -- and All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson is proof. The reigning NFL rushing champion is coming off a productive 363-carry, 1,760-yard campaign for Minnesota, which is 9-4 in its last 13 season openers.
The Vikings entered training camp on the heels of recording nine wins in their final 12 games to capture their first division title since 2000, and the franchise's first NFC North crown since the NFC Central was realigned in 2002. Minnesota posted a 10-6 record and recorded double-digit wins for the first time since an 11-5 ledger in 2000. It also ended a three-year playoff drought before losing in the first round under Childress, who has compiled a 24-24 mark at the helm.
Childress' team was pegged as a Super Bowl contender after the acquisition of Favre, coupled with the greatness of Peterson and a stellar defense led by two mammoth tackles and a fiery defensive end. The embattled head coach hopes that this year will be the one that keeps him employed.
Mangini attempts to kick off his new job in Cleveland on a winning note, but he certainly got the media in an uproar with his reluctance to name a starting quarterback as a competitive edge. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mangini has secretly chosen Brady Quinn as the starter over Derek Anderson for Sunday's tilt.
The Browns have lost four straight season openers and will try to win on opening day for only the second time since returning to the NFL in 1999. The first was a 20-3 win over the Ravens at home in 2004.
Mangini earned his first NFL head coaching job with the Jets in 2006 and completed three seasons with a record of 23-25. He led New York to a mark of 10-6 and a surprise playoff appearance in his first season, then struggled to a 4-12 record in 2007 before a 9-7 finish last year.
The Browns had a disappointing 2008 campaign, going 4-12 under Romeo Crennel and missing the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year. Just one season after going 10-6 behind Anderson, the Browns were hoping for an even greater 2008 campaign from their signal-caller. However, he passed for just 1,615 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions through 10 games, and soon a quarterback controversy with Quinn commenced.
Cleveland will open the season at home for the 11th straight campaign, the longest active streak in the league.
Minnesota has a 9-3 edge in its all-time regular season series with Cleveland, and has won the last three head-to-head meetings. The Vikings were 24-12 home winners when the teams last met, in 1995. The most recent matchup between the clubs in Cleveland occurred in 1989, when the Browns were 23-17 overtime winners. Cleveland, which is 0-3 against Minnesota since that game, last lost a home contest to the Vikes in 1983.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with the Vikings taking a 27-7 victory in the 1969 NFL Championship.
Mangini is 1-0 in his career against both the Vikings and Childress, as his Jets team won at Minnesota in 2006. Childress will be facing Cleveland for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
The jury is still out on Favre (3,472 passing yards, 22 TD, 22 INT) and whether his body can keep up with the NFL rigors for an entire season. He beat out incumbent starter Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels for the nod, which led to a supposed split in the locker room. Favre can silence all of his critics and doubters by regaining his 2007 form, but must protect the football. The NFL's all-time interceptions leader has been picked off at least 15 times in each of the last 12 seasons. Jackson and Rosenfels are both qualified to run the offense and certainly took a back seat when Favre touched down from Mississippi. Bernard Berrian (48 receptions, 7 TD) is Favre's top target and enjoyed a solid first year with the Vikes in 2008. After spending his first four years in the NFL with Chicago, Berrian became Minnesota's No. 1 threat downfield. Bobby Wade (53 receptions, 2 TD) and Sidney Rice (15 receptions, 4 TD) will battle for numbers, while rookie Percy Harvin will see action at both receiver and returner. Minnesota is hoping tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (42 receptions, 7 TD) will add to his breakout season in 2008 after a few years of playing in anonymity.
Cleveland allowed 204.6 passing yards per game in 2008 and brought in Abram Elam from the Jets in the offseason to start at strong safety. Elam (69 tackles, 1 INT) played under Mangini in New York and will take the place of Sean Jones, who signed with Philadelphia in the offseason. Starting free safety Brodney Pool (65 tackles, 3 INT) has appeared in at least 15 games in each of the past three seasons and returns for his third year as a full-time starter. Both starting corners in Eric Wright (73 tackles, 3 INT) and Brandon McDonald (71 tackles, 5 INT) are back, with McDonald having led the squad in interceptions. Cleveland needs a big year from those two, since its front defensive line isn't much to brag about.
Opposing defenses simply must focus on stopping All-Pro running back Peterson for any chance of success. Peterson (1,760 rushing yards, 10 TD) is an amazing talent and keeps getting better every year, as the chiseled rushing champion has posted more than 1,300 yards on the ground in each of his first two years in the league. He became only the fifth player in NFL history to reach 3,000 yards rushing in his first two seasons. Peterson's explosiveness causes his coaches to cringe for fear of injury, but he is the deciding factor for the offense. Third-down specialist and backup Chester Taylor (399 rushing yards, 4 TD) is a reliable option and would most likely start on most teams around the league. Jackson, if active, is another rushing threat when the pocket breaks down, as evidenced by his 139 yards on 26 scrambles. The offensive line suffered a blow when center Matt Birk signed with Baltimore, but it still has Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson and tackle Bryant McKinnie. John Sullivan will take over at center, while rookie Phil Loadholt is slated to start at right tackle.
The Browns were 28th against the run last year and permitted just over 150 yards per game on the ground. They are going to have a busy day trying to contain Peterson and Taylor, but bulky nose tackle Shaun Rogers (75 tackles, 4.5 sacks) will try his best to plug the lane. Tackle Shaun Smith (36 tackles) is gone, while Kenyon Coleman (55 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Robaire Smith (5 tackles) will start on the ends. Robaire Smith appeared in just two games last year and Coleman followed Elam from the Jets. Linebackers Eric Barton (119 tackles, 1.5 sacks), D'Qwell Jackson (154 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kamerion Wimbley (66 tackles, 4 sacks) will start under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Barton is another disciple from the Jets, while Jackson led the team in tackles in 2008. The three will be tested in coverage, with both Peterson and Taylor having excellent hands out of the backfield.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Anderson (1,615 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT) never regained his 2007 form and appeared in just 10 games (9 starts) in 2008. He is a smart quarterback and makes up for a sometimes inaccurate arm with his knowledge of the game. Much like the Minnesota locker room, there are some members of the Browns who wouldn't have minded having former first-round pick Quinn calling the signals early last season. Now that is expected to happen. Quinn (518 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) is in his third season out of Notre Dame and saw most of his professional action last year for the second-worst passing offense in the NFL. Cleveland averaged 148.8 passing yards per game in 2008. Much like Anderson, top wideout Braylon Edwards (55 receptions) dropped off last season with just three touchdowns, 873 receiving yards and a myriad of dropped passes. Edwards, who had 1,289 yards and 16 scores in 2007, is poised to bounce back and prove that his career-best campaign was no fluke. He needs one 100-yard receiving game to tie Hall of Famer Paul Warfield for third on the team's all-time list. Return man and wide receiver Joshua Cribbs (2 receptions, 1 TD) will show Mangini what he can do with a few more responsibilities, while newcomers Mike Furrey (18 receptions with Detroit) and rookie Brian Robiskie will battle for playing time. Furrey will also play out of the slot. Wide receiver Donte' Stallworth is suspended indefinitely by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after he received a 30-day jail sentence and a 10 years probation as part of a plea agreement in a DUI manslaughter charge.
Minnesota finished in the middle of the pack last season in defending the pass and will be without safety Darren Sharper, who wasn't retained in the offseason. Tyrell Johnson (24 tackles, 1 INT) is slated to take over at strong safety and started seven games last season as a rookie. He filled in for injured safety Madieu Williams, who will get the start at free safety. Williams (38 tackles, 2 INT) battled a neck injury in 2008 and is back at full strength after a productive camp. The Vikings are set at the corner spot with left-side starter Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin on the right. Winfield (95 tackles, 2 INT) is coming off his first trip to the Pro Bowl, while Griffin (91 tackles, INT) earned a big contract extension this offseason. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson (23 tackles, 1 sack) is ready for an injury- free campaign after appearing in just four games a year ago because of toe problems. He is a ball hawk and will team up with Chad Greenway (115 tackles, 5.5 sacks), who led the team in tackles last year. Strongside starter Ben Leber (64 tackles, 1.5 sacks) called the plays in the huddle when Henderson went down last year.
It's no secret Browns veteran running back Jamal Lewis is reaching the end of his career and doesn't have many more productive seasons left in the tank. Lewis (1,002 rushing yards, 4 TD) has played the past two seasons with the Browns and has eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in each of the previous three years. He enters Sunday's game 24th in NFL history with 10,107 yards rushing and is 167 yards away surpassing Ottis Anderson (10,273 yards) on the list. Lewis won't have lineman Ryan Tucker to run behind after the big guard/tackle was placed on injured reserve on September 1 because of a knee issue. Jerome Harrison (246 rushing yards, 1 TD) and rookie James Davis will split time behind Lewis, and fullback Lawrence Vickers is back for his fourth season. Even without Tucker in the lineup, Mangini has to be pleased with the talent he has on the offensive line, starting with left tackle Joe Thomas and left guard Eric Steinbach. Floyd Womack will start at right guard and John St. Clair earned the nod at right tackle. Hank Fraley will resume his starting duties at center, and Rex Hadnot can play anywhere on a line that helped the Browns average just over 100 rushing yards per game last season.
The Vikings' stout run defense is back for action in 2009 and held opposing teams to just 76.9 rushing yards a game last year. The interior line is spearheaded by massive defensive tackles Kevin Williams (61 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and Pat Williams (44 tackles, sack), and Minnesota needs those two Pro Bowl selections to be healthy this season. The latter Williams appeared in all 16 games, while the other missed two. Both players still don't know if they'll be suspended by the NFL in their ongoing dispute over the league's anti-doping policy. Hennepin County Judge Gary Larson placed state court proceedings in the case on hold early in August, pending a decision from a federal court. The players, who are not related, are not accused of taking steroids, but did test positive last summer for a banned diuretic that can mask the presence of steroids after taking the weight-loss supplement StarCaps. The Vikings have led the NFL in run defense in each of the last two seasons. Pro Bowl end Jared Allen is a high-motor player and relentless around the ends. Allen (41 tackles, 14.5 sacks) led the Vikings in sacks after he signed a big six-year contract following a trade with the Chiefs. His presence alone garners a lot of attention from the offensive line.
Sunday's matchup between the Vikings features one of the best fantasy players in Peterson. Picked No. 1 overall in most fantasy leagues, he has a favorable matchup against a weak Cleveland defense. Expect to hear his name in every Minnesota fantasy focus this upcoming season. Berrian and Shiancoe are also starters in most leagues, but don't gamble on Favre or Taylor. The Vikings' defense and special teams will provide some points as well. There's not much to say fantasy-wise for Cleveland, except that Lewis and Edwards are its top guys. Lewis is nearing the end of his career and Edwards needs to consistently make catches instead of leading the league in drops.
The Vikings are banking on Favre to lead them to a second straight division title despite playing in an extremely competitive NFC North. With the Packers and Bears expected to make some noise with their gunslinging quarterbacks and Detroit starting a rebuilding process, Minnesota will ride the young legs of Peterson and a stout defense once again with hopes of making it out of the first round of the playoffs. Childress will feel the heat instantly if the Vikings lose this matchup with the Browns. Cleveland has recorded double-digit wins just twice in the last 17 years, and is aiming for a promising start to a new season under Mangini after a summer-long QB soap opera.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 24, Browns 13
09/10 18:21:43 ET