Staying 'clean' will be biggest challenge for Vikings

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 18, 2012 - 4:28 AM

The Vikings avoided turnovers in St. Louis and won. But now they face a Houston team that feasts on takeaways.

The Vikings went to St. Louis on Sunday and played the "clean," turnover-free road game that coach Leslie Frazier had been begging for. But can they do it twice in two weeks?

Their playoff hopes could ride on the answer that will arrive Sunday afternoon at Houston's Reliant Stadium.

Historically speaking, another "clean" game in such a sloppy sport played with an oblong ball doesn't look likely. The last time the Vikings went consecutive weeks without a turnover on the road was the 2004 regular-season finale at Washington and the ensuing wild-card victory at Green Bay.

That's 127 games, eight seasons and three head coaches ago.

The last time the Vikings went consecutive games without a turnover at home or away was the 2009 regular-season finale against the Giants at home and the divisional playoff victory over the Cowboys at home two weeks later.

That's 47 games ago.

With Adrian Peterson and no turnovers, anything seems possible on the road. In the Vikings' two road victories, they had zero turnovers and a plus-3 turnover margin. In their five road losses, they had a minus-7 turnover margin and lost three of those games with Peterson running for 210, 182 and 108 yards.

Beating the Rams 36-22 in St. Louis with a plus-2 turnover margin was impressive considering it essentially was an elimination game. But with all due respect to a resurgent Rams defense, St. Louis ain't Houston, folks. At least not when it comes to forcing turnovers.

While the Rams (6-7-1) are tied with the Vikings (8-6) for 20th in turnover margin (minus-3), the Texans (12-2) are second at plus-15. The Rams have 16 takeaways, ranking tied for 27th, and only three fumble recoveries, ranking tied for 31st. The Texans have 28 takeaways, ranking tied for fifth, and 13 fumble recoveries, also ranking tied for fifth.

"The personnel makes a difference," Frazier said.

And how. Particularly J.J. Watt, a leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year as a uniquely athletic end in coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense.

"When you look back at what happened in San Diego when Wade was there [as defensive coordinator from 2004 to '06] and [linebacker Shawne] Merriman was having his best years, it was similar," Frazier said. "He had a lot of sacks, he created a lot of havoc on defense. You see the same thing with J.J. Watt in the same system."

Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, nobody playing end in a 3-4 front has had as many sacks -- 19 1/2 -- as Watt has this season. He and 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith are only 3 1/2 sacks shy of breaking Michael Strahan's NFL single-season record.

But sacks aren't the only fits Watt causes for offenses. He also has a team-high 15 passes defensed, 33 tackles for loss, 38 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and is a key reason behind the Texans' fifth-ranked run defense.

Watt has forced a fumble in each of the past three games, including one that led to a turnover on a running play at the goal line in Sunday's AFC South-clinching victory over the Colts. He also had three sacks, 10 solo tackles and three tackles for loss.

"It seemed like every time I looked up, he was making a play," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "That's him. It's that time of year, and big-time players make big plays in big games."

When it comes to having that single-minded quest for greatness, the 23-year-old Watt sounds a lot like Peterson.

"I've said all along that if you're not trying to be the greatest, you're wasting your time," Watt said. "Once you step on the field, you have to go into monster mode. That's what I try to do."

Playing a clean game vs. a monster at his place isn't easy. But it's not impossible.

The Packers went to Houston in Week 6 and played the only "clean," turnover-free game by an opponent at Reliant Stadium this season. And they beat the Texans 42-24.

  • related content

  • Frazier credits Ponder's footwork for aiding Peterson

    Tuesday December 18, 2012

    Vikings coach Leslie Frazier on Monday said quarterback Christian Ponder's play early in the Vikings' 36-22 victory at St. Louis on Sunday helped spring running back Adrian Peterson.

  • Chart: Vikings' complicated playoff picture

    Monday December 17, 2012

    In the NFC, three division leaders -- Atlanta (12-2), San Francisco (10-3-1) and Green Bay (10-4) -- have clinched playoff spots.

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