NFL Preview - Denver (6-5) at Minnesota (2-9)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When you have earned the respect of your peers and especially some veterans in the locker room, things tend to come easier. In the case of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, having the support of both Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey is a major confidence boost.
Dawkins and Bailey have both expressed their delight in what Tebow has been able to accomplish amid a battlefield of criticism, and the Broncos look to keep the chains moving Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome. The ageless tandem is a part of a defensive revival under the new John Fox regime and have helped pave the way for four straight wins and five in the past six weeks.
The Broncos have been making it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to get comfortable, as Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel, Mark Sanchez and Philip Rivers have become the latest victims to go down against Denver, now 6-5 and just a game behind Oakland for first place in the AFC West. The Broncos added to Rivers' misery in last Sunday's 16-13 overtime win by sacking him three times, twice by defensive end Elvis Dumervil.
Rookie linebacker Von Miller has been overshadowed in all of the Tebow hype and recorded a sack against San Diego, his team-high 11th of the season. He has been credited with a sack in each of the last four games, and is excited with what's going on lately in the Mile High City.
"It's incredible," said Miller, who is questionable for Sunday's game after injuring his thumb in last week's win. "The moments that we have, the wins coming in this locker room...this is why I play the game. It's incredible when we go out there and work so hard during the week and it shows up."
Denver won for the fifth time this season with Tebow at quarterback after entering the fourth quarter trailing or tied in the San Diego game. The spiritual leader has dusted off the naysayers and negative commentary like would-be defenders and has the Broncos thinking playoffs. With his unorthodox style of play, Tebow has thrived in Fox's read-option offense and aims for a fifth straight road win after Denver started 0-2 away from the Rockies.
Minnesota hasn't garnered much success this season and is off to a weary 2-9 start -- its worst since going 2-11-1 back in 1962. The Vikings also started their inaugural season in 1961 with a 2-9 mark and finished 3-11.
The Vikings are winless in three straight and five of their last six games, and dropped a 24-14 decision at Atlanta this past Sunday. Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder passed for just 186 yards with a touchdown and had no interceptions for the second time this season. A replacement for the since- released Donovan McNabb back in Week 6, Ponder is 1-4 in his five starts this season.
All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson missed the game for Minnesota with an ankle injury and his status for Sunday's game has yet to be determined, although it appears doubtful he'll play.
"Adrian, in just talking to our trainers [Wednesday], he's making progress so we'll know a little bit more as the week goes on, but he is improving so that's encouraging for us," Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said earlier in the week.
Frazier added that he didn't change the game plan too much with Toby Gerhart carrying the football 17 times for 44 yards and a touchdown in Peterson's place. Gerhart will get the start again if Peterson's ankle injury is too much to overcome this week.
Minnesota recorded just 226 total yards against the Falcons and its secondary allowed three touchdown passes by Matt Ryan. It played tough against the run, holding Michael Turner to 60 yards and no scores on 19 touches, but Frazier knows his team has to shore up its pass defense. Tebow hasn't struck fear into any secondaries with his throwing, but his ability to bolster the run game could be a problem for the Vikings.
Minnesota hopes to avoid its second four-game losing streak of the season, as it began the year 0-4 before defeating Arizona on Oct. 9. The Vikings have lost two in a row at home and are only 1-4 in the Twin Cities this season.
Minnesota has a 7-5 lead in its all-time series with Denver and had won two straight games against the Broncos prior to a 22-19 overtime road loss in 2007. The Vikings came through with a 28-20 victory in Denver's last trip to the Metrodome, which took place in 2003, and also notched a 23-20 triumph at Mile High Stadium in 1999. The Broncos last defeated Minnesota in the Twin Cities on Nov. 24, 1996, a 21-17 decision.
Fox is 3-2 against the Vikings for his career, with each of those meetings occurring during his tenure with Carolina from 2002-10, while Frazier will be opposing both Denver and Fox for the first time in his current occupation. Fox's Panthers went 1-2 at the Metrodome under his direction.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Tebow (852 passing yards, 8 TD, INT) has helped the Broncos become the top rushing team in the NFL with his ability to keep drives alive with his legs. The former Heisman Trophy recipient had an NFL-record 22 carries for a quarterback and totaled 67 yards at San Diego and leads all AFC signal-callers with 455 rushing yards. He is second on the team in that category as well, but faces a tough challenge against Minnesota's ninth-ranked run defense. Tebow is 5-1 as a starter and has been dominant in the fourth quarter, posting five touchdown passes and one interception for a 107.8 quarterback rating in the final period. He is also 4-0 as a starter on the road with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back Willis McGahee (775 rushing yards, 3 TD) provided 117 yards on 23 touches last week for the Broncos, who are averaging 159.7 rushing yards per game and notched 208 yards against the Chargers. The veteran topped the century mark in rushing for the fifth time this season. The Broncos got a few nice catches from leading receiver Eric Decker (37 receptions, 8 TD) and tight end Dante Rosario (5 receptions) during a 74-yard drive in last week's triumph but is still only 31st in passing, averaging 153.1 yards per contest, and 21st in scoring (20.1 ppg).
Minnesota's defense will have to deal with its own paradox on Sunday, as the unstoppable force of Tebow and the Denver run game meets the immovable object in the Vikings' defense. Linebackers Chad Greenway (104 tackles, 1 sack) and E.J. Henderson (67 tackles, 2 sacks) finished with 16 and 12 tackles, respectively, in the loss to the Falcons and held Turner in check to leave the Atlanta offense up to Ryan and wideout Roddy White, who burned the Vikes for 120 yards and a score on 10 catches. That could be the case again if the Vikings find a way to slow down Tebow, McGahee and Company. Minnesota sack master Jared Allen (48 tackles, 14 sacks) has the speed and agility to give Tebow fits, but he still may not be able to stop him in the backfield. Minnesota is ninth in run defense, allowing 99.6 yards per contest, and has been dealing with injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Safeties Tyrell Johnson (28 tackles) and Husain Abdullah (49 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) were placed on injured reserve this week due to a hamstring problem and concussion, respectively, with the team inking safeties Jarrad Page and Andrew Sendejo to cushion the blow in the secondary. Tackle Kevin Williams (23 tackles) aims for a sack for a third straight game, while end Brian Robison (26 tackles) has six sacks in 2011.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
It appears Peterson (872 rushing yards, 11 TD) may have to take another week off, since it would be foolish for the Vikings to run their best player on the field when he's not 100 percent. The star running back is on pace for another 1,000-yard season and been nearly unstoppable at home over his career, gaining a total of 3,710 yards and scoring 34 touchdowns. Gerhart (162 rushing yards, 1 TD) proved he was ready to handle the load last week against the Falcons and will be geared up to go for the Vikings, who are fifth in the league with 135.9 rushing yards per game. The offensive line seems to have no problem making holes for the backs, but protecting Ponder has been a different story. The rookie has great feet in the pocket, but his tendencies to roll out and hold onto the ball leave him open for hits. He has been sacked 18 times this season, including 12 times in the last three weeks. The Vikings are 30th in passing this season (179.0 ypg) and lost wide receiver Michael Jenkins (38 receptions, 3 TD) for the year after he suffered a knee injury against the Falcons. Fellow wideout Percy Harvin (51 receptions, 2 TD) led the charge in Atlanta with 95 yards and a score on eight receptions, and is also a dangerous return man.
The Broncos have allowed no more than 15 points in three of their last four road games and are beginning to play a lot better on defense after struggling the first few weeks. Miller (58 tackles, 11 sacks) is making a case for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and broke Mike Croel's team first-year mark of 10 sacks in 1991 last week. The No. 2 overall pick has a high motor and provided he can play this week, has to be excited to go against an inexperienced quarterback in Ponder. Dumervil (20 tackles, 6 sacks) can share those sentiments and owns 5 1/2 sacks in the past four games. Minnesota's offense doesn't do much to strike fear into any opponent with the exception of Peterson, and he may not even play Sunday. The Broncos will still have to prepare for a downhill runner in Gerhart and are 19th in run defense, yielding 120.5 rushing yards per game. Chargers running back Ryan Mathews played well against Denver last Sunday by gaining 137 yards on 22 carries, so it could be a problem slowing down Gerhart. Bailey (28 tackles) barely gets picked on by opposing offenses and has a team-best two interceptions, while linebacker D.J. Williams (56 tackles, 3 sacks) led the defense with 12 tackles last week and Miller followed with 10.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The biggest question in the NFL lately is how long will the Tebow project will last. So far it has worked for more than a month, and introducing the new technique on the road hasn't been an issue either, as the Broncos went undefeated away from home within their division for only the fourth time in team history. Fox said his players are beginning to develop confidence on the road, but they'll be put to the test once again in Minneapolis.
Ponder is currently the quarterback of the future for the Vikings, but he could be playing at a higher level than what he's displayed and will likely need to for Minnesota to win. He will not have Jenkins for the rest of the season and the only deep threat left is Harvin, so finding players to step up is important. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe hasn't been the same since Brett Favre left a few years ago and may need to dust off the cobwebs.
Miller and Dumervil have been a one-two punch for Denver's defense. With a rookie quarterback in Ponder on the horizon, it could get ugly for the Vikings, who are trying desperately to save face and finish the season with some respectability.
There are those who believe all good things must come to an end, and then there are others who are convinced no good thing ever dies. Tebow's exploits in the Mile High City has fans and teammates thinking playoffs, and staying the course will get them there eventually. Sunday will be another step in the right direction, and Tebow may finally hush the critics of Denver's eccentric style of play with another positive result. A victory in the NFL is crucial, no matter how it looks, and most teams would rather play poorly and win rather than look sharp and lose. Either way it's depicted, the Broncos have something good going on here and the Vikings will be the latest to succumb to that particular philosophy.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 20, Vikings 13
12/01 16:00:31 ET