Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.

Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.

Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.

Posts about AFC

Allen `throwing darts' to prepare Browns mystery RB

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: September 19, 2013 - 1:13 PM

So your opponent starts its Wednesday by promoting the No. 3 quarterback to starter and ends its Wednesday by trading its running back and best offensive player.

Whaddaya do on Thursday?

Defensive end Jared Allen, who is preparing for Browns QB Brian Hoyer and Browns RB to-be-determined, was asked that question earlier today.

"I’ve been trying to watch preseason tape of the quarterback and now I’m trying to throw darts at a board and see who the running back is going to be," Allen said. "If it’s going to be [Willis] McGahee [as speculation suggests], at least we can go back and watch some film on him. It is tough. It makes it tough to prepare. I think one thing coach has been adamant about, it doesn’t change the scheme. It doesn’t change the plays they’re going to run. It doesn’t change how they’re going to block them up front and it doesn’t change the fact that they’re an effective running football team."

This alleged power running game ranks 29th in the NFL. It averages 56.0 yards per game.

"They run a lot of downhill power game and they want to hit you in the mouth and that’s a fun type of football game," Allen said. "People hear Trent's gone and you hear all the talk about them kicking it in for the season. That’s not the case.

"This is a humbling league and if you don’t take every opponent serious, if you don’t think someone can come in – I was reminding the guys that we didn’t know who the Arizona running back was last year, I think he ran for like a buck, 50 – so this is how this league stays successful because guys get an opportunity to shine and we just got to make sure no one shines on us.”

Allen was referring to then-Cardinals back LaRod Stephens-Howling, who ran for 104 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries (5.2) and caught four passes for 45 yards and a touchdown in a 21-14 loss at the Metrodome a year ago.

No other running back has carried the ball for the Browns in their first two games. Richardson had carried it 31 times for 105 yards (3.4). Bobby Rainey is the backup, while Chris Ogbonnaya is the first-team fullback.

Chiefs take the safe pick with a surprise player

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: April 25, 2013 - 7:19 PM

Hey, they're actually going to have this draft thing. It's started and, believe it or not, they're picking players.

The Chiefs, as expected, took the safe route with a left tackle at the No. 1 overall pick. But in a surprise move (at least to those of us who are now 0-1 in mock drafts), they took Central Michigan's Eric Fisher instead of Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel.

Making the pick for the Chiefs was new GM John Dorsey. He's one of seven new GMs in the league this year. They'll be making eight of the top 14 picks, with the Jets' John Idzik making the ninth and 13th picks, assuming there are no trades, of course.

Fisher fills a need for the Chiefs and allows them to now trade disgruntled Branden Albert, their 2008 first-round draft pick.

Here's what new Chiefs coach Andy Reid said before about the comfort of taking a left tackle No. 1 overall:

“This is what I think: They’ve been fairly safe picks over the years. So if it comes down to equal here or there, and you have to choose, it might be a fairly safe pick. The percentages, with that position – you evaluate the success rate with all the positions, you’ll come back to the offensive line and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a fairly safe pick, offensive tackle.’ ”

We'll be back after periodically through the top portion of the draft.

Vikings may need to be decisive in Thursday's visit with Greg Jennings

Posted by: Updated: March 14, 2013 - 9:09 AM

The question with Greg Jennings has never been about ability. Over seven NFL seasons, Jennings has caught 425 passes for 6,537 yards and 53 TDs. He’s a versatile weapon who is adept at both stretching the field from the outside or keeping defenses honest as a smooth-moving slot guy.

He is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the kind of proven and consistent playmaker that the Vikings’ receiving corps needs. Yet when free agency neared, the questions about Jennings circled.

  • How much gas is truly left in the tank for a receiver who will turn 30 in September?
  • Are there any significant worries health-wise about a guy who has missed 11 games the past two seasons with knee, groin and core injuries?
  • Most importantly, what is the price tag?

At this point -- with Jerome Simpson and his 97 career catches as the top dog in the receiving unit – the Vikings are in no position to be picky. And that’s why, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter reporting that Jennings will visit Winter Park on Thursday, the Vikings would be wise not to let him leave without a purple jersey and a rubber-stamped contract.

This visit should be a business interview, a way of unifying a vision and hammering out the finer print of the contract details. The Vikings have had since late Friday night to communicate at length with Jennings’ agent, Eugene Parker. You can bet Parker has an asking price, one that’s moved over the past several days. And you can bet Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman has a thought in mind for what he’d like to ultimately pay.

But as Spielman said Tuesday afternoon about the chaos and unpredictability of free agency, “This is a very fluid business.”

Indeed it is.

At this point, so many other free agent receivers are off the board. Mike Wallace is in Miami. Wes Welker has gone to Denver. Danny Amendola has landed in New England. Donnie Avery is a Chief. Brandon Gibson, reports say, has visits scheduled with the Jets, Dolphins and Titans.

The Vikings? They’ve always vowed to be patient in free agency, to make sure they find guys who fit their system, their character profile and their budget. But to this point, the Vikings have given out six contracts this week, all of them re-signings of players that were already on the roster.

The biggest move by far so far was Monday’s trade or Percy Harvin to Seattle, followed a day later by the surprise release of Antoine Winfield.

The Vikings have lost their top playmaker in the passing game and their linchpin leader on defense. In a pass-happy league, they’ve depleted their receiving corps and their secondary.

At some point, they need a splash to replenish the talent pool in a major way. And there’s no way they should allow themselves – nor had they ever planned to – to get to April’s draft with Simpson as their top receiver.

That’s why today’s reported visit with Jennings shouldn’t be a getting-to-know-you encounter. It should be a determined effort to provide third-year quarterback Christian Ponder a real weapon. Welker’s two-year, $12 million deal with the Broncos was a huge power-shift move in the AFC, taking the league’s most prolific pass catcher over the past six years and moving him from one Super Bowl contender to another. But Welker’s contract may have also been a shifting of power in Jennings’ negotiating leverage. Sure, there have been the mammoth deals for receivers – six years, $67 million for Harvin; five years $65 million for Wallace; five years, $56 million for Dwayne Bowe.

But now, wouldn’t it make sense that Jennings’ price tag slides closer to that Welker ballpark. If so, the Vikings should be quietly celebrating. And they should be doing everything they can to make sure that Jennings is their guy.

Here's the 2013 Vikings schedule

Posted by: Chris Miller Updated: December 30, 2012 - 10:26 PM

Looking ahead to next season ...

The Vikings’ schedule for 2013 is set, thanks to their second-place finish in the NFC North.

The Vikings will play every team in the NFC East and the AFC North, will face the second-place teams in the NFC South (Carolina) and NFC West (Seattle), and will play each NFC North opponent twice.

The game against Pittsburgh in London on Sept. 29 counts as a Vikings home game.

Other home opponents are Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, Carolina, Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago. Road opponents are Dallas, N.Y. Giants, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Seattle, Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago.

Week 17 Picks & Power Rankings: Dome too much for Pack?

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: December 28, 2012 - 7:27 AM
What else would you rather do on a Friday morning than watch a poor man swing away at his weekly NFL Picks and Power Rankings? We’ll even throw in some extra purple with Three Reasons for Optimism and Three Reasons to Go `Uh-Oh.’
Power rankings
1, Broncos (12-3)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: Twelve wins. Ten-game winning streak. Sounds like pretty much any other Peyton Manning season the past decade or so. Only this team also ranks No. 3 in defense. With this offense, the Broncos might be better off not having home-field advantage. Manning might want to spend the AFC title game indoors in Houston than outdoors in Denver.
2. Falcons (13-2)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: I don’t believe any records are kept on this, but Atlanta might be the most overlooked 13-2 team ever. Why? Well, for starters, their past two seasons have seen them go 23-9 in the regular season and 0-2 with a 72-23 point differential in the playoffs. The Falcons also haven’t won a playoff game since 2004.
3. Seahawks (10-5)
Last week: No. 8.
Comment: The Vikings have Adrian Peterson, but Seattle is the more productive running team. They have three guys averaging 4.6 yards or better with over 350 yards. Marshawn Lynch has 1,490 and 11 TDs on 297 carries (5.0). QB Russell Wilson has 431 yards on 83 carries (5.1). And Robert Turbin has 359 yards on 78 carries. (4.6). So how has Russell, a rookie third-round draft pick, responded with the benefits of having this No. 2-ranked running game? He’s completed 63.4 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 98.0 passer rating. He’s also helped the Seahawks win their last three games by a combined score of 150-30, including a 42-13 win over the 49ers last week.
30. Jaguars (2-13)
Last week: No. 30.
Comment: Need further proof that Tom Coughlin is a good coach? Here you go: Since the Jaguars fired Coughlin 10 years ago, Coughlin has more Super Bowl wins (2) than the Jaguars have playoff victories (1).
31. Lions (4-11)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: Unfortunately for Calvin Johnson’s receiving numbers, this is the final week that the Lions will be able to fall hopelessly behind in a meaningless game.
32. Chiefs (2-12)
Last week: No. 32.
Comment: The Chiefs rank last in interceptions thrown (20) and interceptions caught (7). Ouch.
6. Packers (11-4)
9. Vikings (9-6)
13. Bears (9-6)
6. Packers (11-4)
Last week: No. 7.
Comment: Mike McCarthy won’t win NFL Coach of the Year, but he at least deserves some thought for no other reason than leading this team to a 10-2 mark after the “Fail Mary” fiasco in Seattle. When the replacement officials botched that last-second touchdown that gave Seattle the win and essentially ended the labor dispute with the regular officials, the Packers were 1-2 and looking at three more road games in their next four weeks.
9. Vikings (8-6)
Last week: No. 11.
Comment: If not for the “Fail Mary,” the Packers would have less to play for when they face the Vikings on Sunday. Green Bay would have the No. 2 seed and a bye wrapped up. And the Vikings wouldn’t be looking at the likely scenario of having to travel to Green Bay next week if they made the playoffs.  
14. Bears (8-6)
Last week: No. 13.
Comment: He’s good, mind you. But at what point do we give pause before we keep referring to Jay Cutler as an elite quarterback and therefore a thorn in the Vikings’ side for years to come? Cutler has 18 TDs and 14 INTs. Christian Ponder has 15 and 12. Cutler an 80.2 passer rating. Ponder has a 78.8. I won’t compare the completion percentages since Ponder has no passing game beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. Cutler needs better protection, but he also needs to complete better than 58.8 percent of his passes.
31. Lions (4-10).
Last week: No. 31.
4. Patriots (11-4); 5. Redskins (9-6); 7. 49ers (10-4-1); 8. Colts (10-5); 10. Bengals (9-6); 11. Texans (12-3); 12. Ravens (10-5); 14. Saints (7-8); 15. Cowboys (8-7); 16. Panthers (6-9);
17. Rams (7-7-1); 18. Dolphins (7-8); 19. Chargers (6-9); 20. Steelers (7-8); 21. Giants (8-7); 22. Titans (5-10); 23. Browns (5-10); 24. Jets (6-9); 25. Bills (5-10); 26. Cardinals (5-10); 27. Raiders (4-11); 28. Eagles (4-11); 29. Buccaneers (6-9)
1, The first drive: It’s baby steps, but given the state of this offense, especially without Percy Harvin, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave deserves a lot of credit for giving Ponder an early script that has been tremendously successful during the team’s current three-game winning streak. In the first drives against Chicago, St. Louis and Houston, Ponder has looked decisive, confident and all the other things he lacks far too often. He’s 7 of 7 for 111 yards, one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown. The other drive ended with Adrian Peterson rushing for a touchdown. The Vikings never trailed after those touchdowns.
2, Peterson’s high standards: It’s been funny to hear people talk about how the Texans “shut down” or “took away” the Vikings’ run game. If running for 174 yards on 42 carries (4.1) is “shut down,” then shut me down every week. Yes, Peterson didn’t run for 150 yards, but the NFL has ruled that guys who aren’t chasing Eric Dickerson are allowed to carry the ball, too. Plus, I might be one of the few who actually was impressed that Peterson managed to get 86 yards the way the Texans played that game. Houston had cornerbacks completely ignoring the passing game while darting in from the edges to tackle Peterson whether he had the ball or not. Twenty-two of Peterson’s carries went for 25 yards. But three of them went for 61. All in all, it was a very productive running game.
3, Defense and the Dome: Before getting thumped 23-6 last week, the Texans hadn’t gone without a touchdown since Matt Schaub joined the team. And the Vikings hadn’t given up fewer points since beating Atlanta 24-3 in the 2007 opener, which was Peterson’s NFL debut. The Vikings haven’t played with this much confidence on defense in a very long time. And they get the significant edge of playing this game at the Metrodome. The Packers have a great passing attack, obviously, but they’re also 27th in the league in sacks allowed per pass play.
1, Packer swagger: No team in the league – other than whichever one Peyton Manning happens to play for – goes into a game with a higher level of confidence than the Packers. It doesn’t matter who’s hurt, where the game is being played or whether the replacement officials cheated them the week before. Aaron Rodgers gives this team a consistency that Brett Favre never did. And right now, the Packers have won a franchise-record 12 consecutive division games.
2, Ponder’s nerves: In my ledger, Ponder has played eight games in which I’ve felt he’s shown that the Vikings can continue to build around him as the long-term answer at QB. That means he’s played seven – in my mind – in which he’s shown the opposite. That point is probably moot because the consensus feeling is this next offseason will be bone dry when it comes to quality QBs via the draft, free agency and trade. So Ponder gets at least one more year. Playing well at home against the Packers with the playoffs on the line sure would help. Have you ever been at a wedding and your tie is too tight and you’re miserable? And you get to the reception and you get to loosen the tie and you feel fantastic? A win sure would loosen the noose that Ponder’s wearing.  
3, `Claymaker’ is back: Vikings fans kind of figured out that Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was pretty good when he ripped the ball out of Peterson’s hands and returned it for a touchdown as a rookie in 2009. Peterson ran for 210 yards against the Packers four weeks ago. But Matthews didn’t play in that game. Asked how big a deal that was not to have Matthews, coach Mike McCarthy said, “He’s our best player on defense.” In other words, it mattered. Plus, the Packers were humiliated by poor tackling. They’ll give a much better effort this time.
Vikings 24, Packers 21: Blair Walsh opened the regular season with a winning field goal in overtime. He’ll end it with one against the Packers. The Packers are the better team. And they’re on a 9-1 roll. But I’m going with the home team and the fact the Vikings essentially need this to make the playoffs. Sure, they can get in with a loss if the Bears, Giants and Cowboys also lose. But what are the chances in the NFL that three teams you need to lose are going to lose?
Record picking Vikings games: 8-5.
GB minus-3 ½ at VIK: Vikings by 3.
NYJ plus-3 ½ at BUF: Bills by 7.
MIA plus-10 at NE: Patriots by 14.
BAL plus-3 at CIN: Bengals by 7.
CLE off at PIT: Steelers by 7.
JAC plus-4 at TEN: Titans by 7.
PHI plus-7 ½ at NYG: Giants by 3.
DAL plus-3 at WAS: Redskins by 10.
CHI minus-3 at DET: Bears by 7.
TB off at ATL: Buccaneers by 3.
CAR plus-5 at NO: Saints by 7.
KC plus-16 at DEN: Broncos by 10.
OAK off at SD: Chargers by 14.
ARI plus-16 ½ at SF: 49ers by 10.
STL plus-10 ½ at SEA: Seahawks by 14.
Overall Record Last Week: 10-6. Vs. Spread: 8-8
Record Season: 127-76-1. Vs. Spread: 99-99-1.
HOU minus-6 ½ at IND.
Colts 28, Texans 20: The Texans still need to win to clinch home-field advantage after last week’s lifeless 23-6 loss to the Vikings at home. But they’re heading for the perfect storm: A division road game that features the return of Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who has spent the past three months battling leukemia.
Last week: CHI minus-5 ½ at ARI. Prediction: Cardinals 28, Bears 21. Actual: Bears 28, Cardinals 13.
Record: 8-7.


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