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Predicting Vikings to win at home against Tampa Bay with or without Sam Bradford

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. JEFF WHEELER jeff.wheeler@startribune.com

Closing the case on the fact Chuck Pagano is firmly glued to the hottest of the hot seats among NFL coaches:

His Colts are underdogs at home against a Browns team that has lost 20 of its last 21 games.

Ouch.

Indy is one of nine home underdogs this week. So beware of the picks this week.

Picking straight up last week wasn’t so difficult (12-4). Picking against the spread was a different story (7-9).

The upset special — Broncos over Cowboys — was aided by a narrow spread (2 1/2 points), a home underdog and the fact Denver has three shutdown-caliber corners, which makes it possible to dedicate more defenders to slamming the door on an Ezekiel Elliott.

Here are this weeks picks …

Rams minus-2 1/2 at 49ers: Rams by 7
Another potential Thursday night dud. But it will be nice to see Jared Goff. It won’t be so nice to see San Fran’s offense.

Buccaneers plus-2 1/2 at Vikings: Vikings by 6
Record picking Vikings games: 2-0
I didn’t think the Vikings would beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh with Sam Bradford. This week, I think they beat the Bucs at home with or without Sam.

Ravens minus-3 1/2 at Jaguars: Ravens by 7
Baltimore has eight interceptions by six defenders. By comparison, the Vikings have yet to notch a takeaway this season.

Saints plus-5 1/2 at Panthers: Panthers by 10
In two weeks, the Saints’ defense has made the Vikings and the Patriots feel a whole lot better about themselves. This week, they’ll put a pep in Cam’s step, not to mention a 3-0 record on his season.

Broncos minus-2 1/2 at Bills: Broncos by 3
Can Denver’s dominant defense take it on the road to Buffalo? With Tyrod Taylor as the opposing quarterback, the guess here is yes.

Browns minus-1/2 at Colts: Colts by 3
The Browns have only morale victories at this point. Let’s see if they can score more points than the other team for a change.

Dolphins minus-5 1/2 at Jets: Dolphins by 7
Let’s see if Jay Cutler can handle the pressure of being on a team that should crush the Jets and challenge for a wild-card spot.

Texans plus-13 1/2 at Patriots: Patriots by 14
If you want to guarantee a spot in Week 4 of your suicide pool, and you haven’t already used the Patriots, here’s your no-brainer.

Giants plus-5 1/2 at Eagles: Eagles by 7
The Giants are a mess offensively, and it’s not just OBJ’s bum ankle. The coach, Bob McAdoo, needs to match his play calling to the limitations of his offensive line.

Steelers minus-7 1/2 at Bears: Steelers by 10
The Steelers aren’t exactly humming along. But opening with the Browns, the Vikings sans Sam, and the Bears is a good recipe for 3-0.

Falcons minus-2 1/2 at Lions: Lions by 7
Matthew Stafford’s numbers were low (122 yards passing), but he made some great throws, ran with quicker feet than he’s ever shown before, and his defense destroyed the Giants on the road in prime time. Now, can Detroit do what it rarely does, which is follow up prosperity with continued prosperity? Typically, this is a game the Lions lose. If they win this one, they’re legit as long as they stay healthy.

Seahawks plus-2 1/2 at Titans: Titans by 3
Seattle’s offensive line just doesn’t appear to have what it takes to do what Oakland did — go into Tennessee and beat a tough Titans team.

Chiefs minus-3 1/2 at Chargers: Chiefs by 7
Let’s hope for Younghoe Koo’s sake that this game doesn’t come down to the Chargers needing another last-second field goal to tie or win.  The Chiefs shouldn’t have to worry about a tight game, especially with the Chargers no longer having any sort of home-field advantage.

Bengals plus-8 1/2 at Packers: Packers by 14
A Bengals team that hasn’t scored a touchdown in two home games heads to Lambeau Field. Exactly what the Packers’ defense needs after being exposed in Atlanta.

Raiders minus-3 1/2 at Redskins: Redskins by 3
Hopefully, Marshawn Lynch has stopped dancing by the time the Raiders board the plane to D.C. He adds a power element that’s a nice complement to Derek Carr. But I like the home team here.

UPSET SPECIAL

Cowboys minus-3 1/2 at Cardinals: Cardinals by 3
I didn’t like the Cowboys when they were favored on the road in Denver. I still don’t like them on the road, even in Arizona. Ezekiel Elliott raises his record against Roger Goodell to 3-0, but Cowboys fall to 1-2.

Last week straight up; versus spread: 12-4; 7-9

Year to date: 22-8; 14-16

Upset specials: 1-1

Old man of the O-line: Berger keeps plugging holes for Vikings

Minnesota Vikings center Joe Berger (61) runs during an NFL football training camp Thursday, July 27, 2017, in Mankato, Minn. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

The player whose football career was supposed to end with the dissolution of Michigan Tech’s football program, whose time in the NFL was to be mostly as a backup, is now in his 12th pro season.

Joe Berger is in his seventh year with the Vikings — on his fifth different contract — and is starting at his third different position. On a line that’s been in a state of flux for the better part of the past three seasons, the 35-year-old Berger has gone from versatile reserve to trusted starter.

He’s played center and both guard positions for the Vikings, starting this year at right guard after beating John Sullivan out for the center job a year ago and moving to guard in the final three games of 2016 following his return from a two-game concussion-related absence that opened up the center spot for Nick Easton. Now, with Easton at left guard, rookie Pat Elflein at center and free-agent additions Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers at the two tackle spots, Berger is the only starting lineman who began 2017 at the same spot where he ended 2016.

Berger is playing well, too. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s allowed only one sack and two pressures in 72 snaps of pass protection so far this season, while helping a run game that’s done its best work running to the right side of the line. He had key blocks on all three of Dalvin Cook’s big runs in the first two weeks (a 32-yarder and 33-yarder in the fourth quarter of the Vikings’ win over the Saints, and a 25-yarder in the third quarter against the Steelers).

What remains to be seen is how Berger’s time with the Vikings will conclude. He decided to return for a seventh season with the Vikings after debating retirement in the offseason. playing on the second year of an extension given to him once he’d won the center job a year ago.

That extension, which paid Berger a $915,000 roster bonus in addition to a $985,000 base salary a year ago, was structured with the idea he’d likely become a backup in 2017. After making $2.2 million a year ago, Berger is earning only a $1 million base salary and $50,000 workout bonus this season, with the ability to earn up to $250,000 in per-game bonuses if he’s on the Vikings’ active roster. According to overthecap.com, he’s the 24th-highest paid right guard in the league, out of 131 total players.

Berger can equal his salary from last season by playing at least 90 percent of the Vikings’ offensive snaps this season and earning $900,000 in incentives. At the beginning of a year where the Vikings are counting on him as a starter once again, though, Berger essentially needs to stay healthy to avoid a paycut. The Vikings, to this point, haven’t made a move to change that.

“Joe loves the Vikings. It’s a great organization,” his agent Tom Tafelski said. “But when it comes to his contract, they need to make it right.”

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Berger — whose long career has put him in sound financial shape — could decide to walk away. So far, though, his return has helped stabilize the Vikings’ line again, in a year where the team absorbed $3.5 million in dead money by releasing Alex Boone at the end of training camp. Between Boone, Brandon Fusco, Willie Beavers and the final signing bonus proration of Sullivan’s deal, the Vikings are counting $8.54 million in dead money for offensive linemen against their salary cap.

Berger’s 2017 season figures to be the denouement of an unlikely career that’s lasted longer than most expected it would. Cut three times early in his career, he’s become a key to a Vikings line that’s tried to regain its footing through a number of high-profile investments. With several of those investments gone, Berger the journeyman is still here, quietly playing an important role once again.

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