NFL Preview - Minnesota (10-1) at Arizona (7-4)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Brett Favre and Kurt Warner have proven that experience trumps youth when it comes to playing quarterback in the NFL. The two legendary gunslingers will again be doing their best to outrun Father Time, while attempting to move their respective teams closer to a postseason berth in the process, when the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals square off this Sunday in a compelling matchup between division leaders from University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Vikings will be entering this marquee early-December showdown sporting an enviable 10-1 record and a comfortable three-game advantage over rival Green Bay in the NFC South standings. That glossy mark is in large part due to the play of the 40-year-old Favre, the former longtime Packer who's making quite a case for an unprecedented fourth NFL Most Valuable Player Award in his first season in Minnesota.
Favre's 19th overall professional campaign has so far been one of his finest from a statistical standpoint. The shoo-in Hall of Famer has completed a sensational 69 percent of his passes and thrown for 24 touchdowns against only three interceptions, while his present 112.1 quarterback rating is easily the best of his career.
The ageless ironman appears to have saved his best for last as well. After hitting on a career-high 88 percent of his attempts (22-for-25) and tossing four scoring strikes in Minnesota's 35-9 romp of Seattle in Week 11, Favre throttled the reeling Chicago Bears for a season-best 392 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Vikes to a 36-10 victory at the Metrodome last Sunday.
Favre, the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns and the winningest quarterback in league history, is about to reach another milestone this week. He'll be starting his 283rd consecutive game when he takes the field on Sunday, which will tie former Vikings great Jim Marshall for the NFL record among non-kickers.
Warner, a two-time recipient of the league's MVP honor, had a streak of 41 straight starts come to an end when the Cardinals held him out of last Sunday's 20-17 loss at resurgent Tennessee. The 38-year-old had still been experiencing some side effects from a mild concussion he sustained in Arizona's 21-13 triumph at St. Louis on November 22.
The affable veteran was able to practice without restrictions when the team reconvened on Wednesday, and should be back under center for this week's test barring any unforeseen setbacks in the days leading up to the game.
Matt Leinart replaced Warner last week and nearly guided the Cardinals to a fourth straight win with a 220-yard, turnover-free outing, but college nemesis Vince Young spoiled those plans by engineering an 18-play, 99-yard drive capped by a go-ahead 10-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Britt with no time remaining to give the Titans an improbable victory.
The frustrating loss dropped the defending conference champion Cardinals to 7-4 on the season and reduced their lead over second-place San Francisco to two games in the NFC West race.
Minnesota can wrap up a second straight NFC North title with a win over Arizona combined with a Green Bay loss at Baltimore on Monday night.
The Vikings lead the all-time series with the Cardinals, 10-9, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 35-14 win when they visited Arizona in Week 15 of last season. The Cardinals are 0-2 against the Vikings since a memorable 18-17 home win in the final week of the 2003 regular season. That victory, which came on a 28-yard TD pass from Josh McCown to Nate Poole as time expired, cost the Vikings a playoff spot and handed the Packers the NFC North title. The Cardinals had lost seven straight games going into that contest.
The Vikings' Brad Childress is 2-0 in his career against the Cardinals, while Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt is 0-1 against both Childress and Minnesota as a head coach.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Minnesota can boast one of the most efficient offenses in football, thanks to Favre's (2874 passing yards, 24 TD, 3 INT) mastery of Childress' West Coast scheme and the punishing running of All-Pro back Adrian Peterson (1084 rushing yards, 12 TD, 27 receptions), the NFL's leading rusher in 2008. That dynamic duo has helped the Vikes rank second in the league in scoring (31.1 ppg) and fifth in total offense (390.0 ypg), although the young wide receiver tandem of Sidney Rice (56 receptions, 964 yards, 4 TD) and rookie Percy Harvin (42 receptions, 7 total TD) have done their part as well. Rice's third pro season has been a true breakout, as the 23-year-old tops the NFC in receiving yards and is averaging a robust 17.2 yards per grab, while the versatile Harvin has made a huge impact as a pass-catcher, return man and runner out of the in- vogue Wildcat formation. When the Vikings get in scoring range, Favre often looks in the direction of tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (38 receptions), the team's leader with eight touchdown catches. Although Peterson remains among the NFL's elite ball carriers, the former first-round pick has fumbled four times in Minnesota's last three games and is averaging a pedestrian 3.4 yards per rush over the past two.
Peterson's ball security issues could have the Vikings relying more on the still-dangerous right arm of Favre this weekend. That may not be a bad idea, considering the Cardinals have surrendered the fourth-most passing yards in the league (258.3 ypg) and were riddled for 387 yards by Young, who isn't regarded as one of the game's prolific quarterbacks, last Sunday. Arizona doesn't lack for playmakers on the defensive side, though. Safeties Antrel Rolle (56 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 INT) and Adrian Wilson (52 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 3 INT) and talented second-year corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (33 tackles, 3 INT, 16 PD) have combined for 10 interceptions, while disruptive lineman Darnell Dockett (40 tackles, 7 sacks) is fresh off a three-sack game against the Titans. The Cardinals also gave up 163 rushing yards to Tennessee last week, more than half of which came on an 85-yard touchdown burst by standout running back Chris Johnson, and will have leading tackler Karlos Dansby (82 tackles, 1 sack) at less than 100 percent for its looming matchup with Peterson. The athletic inside linebacker is dealing with slight separations of both his shoulders, but is planning on suiting up.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
If Warner (2718 passing yards, 20 TD, 11 INT) is able to play as expected, look for the Cardinals to attack a vulnerable Minnesota secondary with a potent passing game that's averaged 277.9 yards per week (6th overall) through the air. The four-time Pro Bowl honoree had been playing his best football of the year prior to getting nicked up, compiling seven touchdown passes without an interception and completing over 74 percent of his throws in his last three tilts. He'll often be looking downfield in the direction of sure-handed wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (75 receptions, 826 yards, 9 TD) and Anquan Boldin (56 receptions, 2 TD), with fellow wideout Steve Breaston (43 receptions, 3 TD) serving as a quality third option and unheralded running back Tim Hightower (485 rushing yards, 6 TD, 50 receptions) a valuable check-down alternative. Warner likely won't have his blind-side protector, though, with veteran left tackle Mike Gandy projected to sit out due to a pelvic injury and journeyman Jeremy Bridges slated to take his place. That could force Arizona to turn to a running game that's been an asset in recent weeks. Hightower put up a season-best 110 yards on just 14 carries against the lowly Rams in Week 11, while rookie first-round pick Beanie Wells (489 rushing yards, 4 TD, 9 receptions) has been impressive since earning an increase in touches in midseason.
With Arizona's injury issues up front and Warner's limited mobility in the pocket, an attacking Minnesota defense that tops the NFL with 40 sacks could be licking its collective chops come Sunday. End Jared Allen (38 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 1 INT) is one of the game's premier sack artists, and the energetic edge rusher's ability to create pressure has in turn boosted the production of counterpart Ray Edwards (40 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and tackle Kevin Williams (24 tackles, 6 sacks). Williams, a four-time Pro Bowl participant, also teams with massive space-eater Pat Williams (33 tackles, 2 sacks) and middle linebacker E.J. Henderson (73 tackles, 2 sacks) to form a sturdy interior core that has helped the Vikings yield the second-fewest rushing yards (81.6 ypg) this season. The team ranks just 19th in pass defense (221.9 ypg) but is hopeful of getting its top cover man, Antoine Winfield (30 tackles, 1 INT), back in action on Sunday. The hard-hitting cornerback is close to returning from a sprained foot that's sidelined him for five consecutive games.
Favre has thrown three or more touchdown passes in three of the past four games and faces an Arizona pass defense that's given up yards in bunches all year long, so it goes without saying to put No. 4 in the lineup this week. Warner's situation needs to be closely monitored, as he was on track to play last week before developing some symptoms the morning of the game, but makes for a solid choice if he's active. Peterson, Rice and Shiancoe also land on the must-start side for Minnesota, with Harvin a worthy flex option in most leagues and an absolute have-to-use in ones that credit return yardage. Give a thumbs up to the Vikings defense as well, a unit that excels at getting sacks and is good at creating turnovers. Fitzgerald and Boldin are starting locks for the Cardinals, and Hightower has a lot of upside in a game where Warner may have to throw short a lot to negate the Minnesota pass rush. Be hesitant to use Wells, who's still engaged in a backfield timeshare and gets a tough run defense this week, and steer clear of the Arizona defense.
Arizona's been a Jekyll-and-Hyde operation throughout this season, often failing to live up to expectations against seemingly inferior competition and answering the challenge when the stakes are at their highest. This certainly qualifies as one of those big games, and the Cardinals will no doubt come out motivated to prove their worth against an obvious Super Bowl contender. However, Minnesota is firing on all cylinders right now and is well-equipped to exploit Arizona's weaknesses on defense and lack of balance on offense. Give the Cardinals a fighting chance here, but the Vikings look to be the more talented and consistent team.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 30, Cardinals 24
12/03 18:26:58 ET