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NFL Preview - Arizona (1-3) at Minnesota (0-4)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Close losses have been a common link between the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings, two teams that will face one another Sunday at the Metrodome in search of a much-needed win, though the clubs share an additional interesting similarity as well.
Both teams entered this 2011 season with brand new quarterbacks that were once teammates with the Philadelphia Eagles, with the Vikings acquiring veteran Donovan McNabb in an over-the-summer trade with Washington and Arizona entrusting its future to Kevin Kolb, the man once intended to be McNabb's heir apparent in Philadelphia.
The Eagles dealt away McNabb, the franchise's leader in virtually every passing category, to the Redskins in April of 2010 and handed the starting reins over to Kolb, the team's second-round selection in the 2007 draft. The latter's run turned out to be short-lived, however, as Kolb injured himself in the opening game of last season and was eventually supplanted for the No. 1 gig by a resurgent Michael Vick.
Desperate for a long-term solution under center, the Cardinals sent a 2012 second-round draft pick and talented cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Philadelphia for the available Kolb in July and promptly signed the 27-year-old to a five-year, $63-million contract.
Arizona has yet to see much of a return on its investment so far, however. The Cardinals have lost three of their first four games of the Kolb era, and the highly-regarded quarterback's inconsistent play has been a contributing factor to that slow start.
McNabb has had an even more difficult go-around with his new team. The Vikings have opened up this campaign with four consecutive defeats, the first time that's happened to the organization since 2002, and enter this week's play having generated the second-fewest passing yards in the NFL.
That poor record and lack of production have led to calls for McNabb to be replaced by touted rookie Christian Ponder, Minnesota's first-round choice in this past April's draft, though head coach Leslie Frazier continues to remain in the 13th-year pro's corner.
"Based on these four games this season we are not at a point where we are making a quarterback change," said Frazier on Monday. "There are a lot of things we need to correct on our football team based on the fact that we are 0-4. At this point a quarterback change isn't one of those changes."
Frazier's primary concern right now is getting his team to perform better in the latter stages of games. The Vikings have been outscored by a whopping 80-16 margin in the second half this season and squandered double-digit advantages at intermission in each of their first three losses.
Minnesota did trail at the break in last Sunday's matchup at Kansas City, but owned a one-point edge midway through the third quarter before the previously- winless Chiefs embarked on a 13-0 run before holding on for a 22-17 decision.
Holding leads has been a problem for the Cardinals as well during their current three-game skid. The team was ahead by eight points with under 5 1/2 minutes to play in a 22-21 setback at Washington in Week 2, and failed to maintain a 10- point cushion heading into the final stages of last weekend's clash with the New York Giants, who scored a pair of touchdowns in the final 3:37 to pull out a 31-27 win.
Arizona also owned a 14-point lead with less than five minutes remaining in a battle with the Vikings last November, before Minnesota erupted for 17 unanswered points to rally for a 27-24 overtime triumph. That result dropped the Cardinals to 0-6 all-time in game at the Metrodome.
The Vikings, who have lost five of six home tests following that victory, will be attempting to avoid their first 0-5 start to a season since the club's second year of existence in 1962.
Last season's overtime verdict gave Minnesota an 11-10 edge in its all-time regular-season series with the Cardinals and as previously mentioned, extended the Vikings' home winning streak in the set to six consecutive games (including playoffs). The Cards haven't won in Minnesota since a 27-7 decision at Metropolitan Stadium in 1977, when the victors were still located in St. Louis, and have lost three of their last four overall encounters with the Vikings. Arizona's lone positive result during that stretch was a 30-17 home win in 2009.
The Vikings also defeated Arizona at the Metrodome, 41-21, in a 1998 NFC Division Playoff. The clubs squared off in Minnesota in a conference semifinal during the 1974 season as well, with the Vikes coming away with a 30-14 win.
Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt is 1-2 against the Vikings over his head coaching career, while Frazier will be opposing both the Cardinals and Whisenhunt for the first time in his current capacity.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
The NFL's second-worst passing offense in 2010, Arizona has performed better in that aspect with Kolb (1049 passing yards, 5 TD, 4 INT) at the controls this season, though the early reviews on the ex-Eagle have been a bit mixed. He's thrown four interceptions and lost a fumble during the team's current losing streak and encountered trouble at times moving the chains, as the Cardinals' 29.8 success rate on third down ranks just 28th in the league. Kolb has not had much trouble developing a rapport with the great Larry Fitzgerald (23 receptions, 361 yards, 2 TD), however, as the standout wide receiver and Minneapolis native is off to an excellent start, while fellow wideout Early Doucet (13 receptions, 1 TD) and veteran tight end Todd Heap (13 receptions) have both made contributions in the passing game as well. Arizona has also gotten very good work out of top running back Beanie Wells (321 rushing yards, 5 TD, 4 receptions), who returned from a one-game absence due to a hamstring injury to rack up career bests of 138 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries against the Giants last Sunday. The former first-round pick is averaging an impressive 5.4 yards per carry on the year and may be in for another heavy load this week.
Wells does figure to face a stern challenge from a Minnesota defense that's been quite stout against the run, having limited the opposition to just 76.3 rushing yards per game (5th overall) and 3.3 yards per attempt over the season's first month. Six-time Pro Bowl tackle Kevin Williams provides a strong anchor to the front seven, while the linebacker corps of E.J. Henderson (25 tackles) in the middle and Chad Greenway (24 tackles) and Erin Henderson (17 tackles, 1 sack) has been top-notch. The Vikings are also skilled at getting to the quarterback, with relentless defensive end Jared Allen (16 tackles, 1 INT) having already amassed 6 1/2 sacks over the first four games and first-year starter Brian Robison (8 tackles, 2.5 sacks) also making an impact on the opposite side, though their presence still hasn't prevented enemy signal- callers from throwing at will on the secondary. Minnesota has permitted 286.3 passing yards per game (28th overall) and a 68 percent completion rate on the season, with a previously-stagnant Kansas City air attack generating 247 net yards through the air a week ago, and a neck injury to Antoine Winfield (35 tackles, 1 INT) that has the valued cornerback doubtful for Sunday's tilt only compounds matters.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Minnesota's strength is running the football, as evidenced by the 157 yards per game via the ground (3rd overall) and 5.6 yards per rush the team is averaging at the moment. The Vikings have used ways both traditional and unconventional to grind out yards, with All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson (376 rushing yards, 3 TD, 9 receptions) doing most of the heavy lifting and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave incorporating versatile wide receiver Percy Harvin (17 receptions) more as a runner in recent weeks. Harvin compiled 67 yards on four end-around attempts against the Chiefs and is averaging nearly 12 yards per touch in those situations, and the dynamic young talent remains the preferred target when McNabb (680 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) has dropped back to pass. The struggling quarterback has been utilizing the tight ends in greater frequency as of late, with the tandem of Visanthe Shiancoe (10 receptions, 1 TD) and rookie Kyle Rudolph (7 receptions) combining for 102 yards on nine catches in last week's loss. Protection has been an issue, with McNabb having taken 10 sacks in the four games, and left tackle Charlie Johnson likely won't be 100 percent on Sunday after injuring his triceps in Week 4.
If McNabb gets ample time to survey the field and is on point this week, there should be opportunities against an Arizona secondary that was shredded for 306 passing yards by the Giants last week and surrendered two late Eli Manning touchdown throws, with rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson (21 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD) burned for the go-ahead score with under three minutes left. The Cardinals did do a fine job against the run in the loss, with the inside linebacker pairing of veteran Paris Lenon (24 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and second-year pro Daryl Washington (18 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) heading up a group that held New York to just 54 rushing yards on 24 carries. The front line features two quality pass rushers in ends Calais Campbell (24 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Darnell Dockett (13 tackles, 0.5 sacks), while free safety Kerry Rhodes (22 tackles) has come up with a pair of sacks as a blitzer this year. Having allowed an average of 282.8 passing yards per game (26th overall) thus far, the Cardinals will need to bring consistent pressure to help protect their shaky backfield.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The head-to-head showdown between McNabb and Kolb is more than just an intriguing storyline, as the outcome of Sunday's matchup may very well come down to which of the two former teammates is the more effective player. Neither of these two defenses has been particularly good against the pass in the early going, so it's up to the quarterbacks to take full advantage of the chances that will be presented to them.
Finish. This game could have had a whole different outlook from a national perspective if it weren't for both clubs' alarming inability to close out their opponent. The Vikings have been outscored 44-13 in the fourth quarter this season, the Cardinals by a 33-14 margin. With two evenly-matched teams, the final stages should once again play a determining role in the end result.
Dome Sweet Dome. Not only have the Cardinals historically not had success at the Metrodome, but they enter Sunday's game having lost nine in a row on the road dating back to last season. Arizona will have to get over any lingering mental hurdles created by that streak in order to put it to an end.
If games were only three quarters long, the talk surrounding the Vikings would be about the team's chances of competing for an NFC North title instead of quarterback changes and other personnel decisions. Fortunately for Minnesota, it finally finds an opponent that's been equally as inept at finishing out games in the Cardinals, and Arizona's inability to win on the road is a troubling matter as well. The Vikings have been able to play somewhat solid defense for the most part and possess two potential game-changers on offense in Peterson and Harvin. That plus a home field edge should be just enough for Minnesota to break into the win column and quiet the talk of McNabb's eventual ousting for at least one week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 23, Cardinals 16
10/07 12:58:20 ET
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