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Breaking news and year-round coverage of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. Access Vikings is the Star Tribune's blog covering team news, rumors, games and all things purple.

Vikings move up to No. 5, but a win at Carolina seems unlikely [NFL Picks]

Each Saturday morning during the NFL season, we'll wake up early, take a hearty cut at predicting the unpredictable league, wince at how it went the week before and ponder the definition of insanity.

Week 2 wasn't bad at 10-5 straight-up and at least a winning record (8-7) versus the spread (14-16 through two weeks is why money doesn’t accompany the mouth). But, yeah, the reasoning behind last week's upset special – "dem Saints can score, score, score!" – needed a mulligan after New Orleans fell 16-13 at the Giants.

To make up for that whiff, I've swung even harder on the week's biggest underdog Browns (plus-10 at Miami). The risk-reward is great on this one. So I'm either going to hit 3-wood over the lake to a small green from 220 yards out, or I've just topped the ball 10 yards into the water and I'm hitting 4.

Miami seems like the lock pick for the suicide pools. But beware the September lock. The league's worst teams haven't completely given up yet.

In 2013, the Vikings were a lock against a visiting Browns team that was changing quarterbacks and traded its leading rusher four days before kickoff. That was the week then-Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterback Brian Hoyer ruined a lot of suicide pools by winning at the Metrodome.


Vikings plus-7 at Panthers: Panthers 27, Vikings 17.

Why?: Believe it or not, there will be adversity on the field at some point this season. Sam Bradford is an excellent pickup, but he won’t throw 32 touchdowns with no interceptions and set the league record for passer rating. The Vikings are a solid team with an elite defense. But there's a reason Carolina has won 14 straight at home while averaging 40.4 points in the last seven of those wins. Go with the home team, but don't bury the visitors' season when they return home.

LAST WEEK: Packers minus-2 at Vikings. The Pick: Vikings 23, Packers 21. The Result: Vikings 17, Packers 14. Record: 2-0.


Browns plus-10 at Dolphins: Browns 24, Dolphins 23

Why?: Yeah, this one makes no sense. The Browns are already down to their third quarterback and, well, let’s just say they ain’t the Patriots. But it's still early in the NFL season, which means there's still some fight left in even the league's laughingstock. Their standout rookie receiver broke his hand in practice, they're on the road and they blew a 20-0 lead a week ago at home. But I just have a feeling Cleveland is going to wreck a lot of suicide pools, sort of like they did a few years back when they came to the Metrodome and beat the Vikings while at one of their deepest points of the season.

Last week: Saints plus-4 ½ at Giants. The Pick: Saints 34, Giants 31. The Result: Giants 16, Saints 13. Record: 1-1.

Broncos plus-3 at Bengals: Bengals by 7

Raiders minus-1 at Titans: Titans by 3

Cardinals minus-4 at Bills: Cardinals by 7

Ravens minus-1 at Jaguars: Jaguars by 3

Redskins plus-3 ½ at Giants: Giants by 6

Lions plus-7 at Packers: Packers by 14

49ers plus-9 at Seahawks: Seahawks by 7

Rams plus-5 ½ at Buccaneers: Buccaneers by 7

Steelers minus-3 ½ at Eagles: Eagles by 6

Jets plus-3 at Chiefs: Chiefs by 7

Chargers plus-2 ½ at Colts: Colts by 7

Bears plus-7 at Cowboys: Cowboys by 3

Falcons plus-3 at Saints: Saints by 10

Record (Last week/Season): 10-5/21-9

Vs. spread (Last week/Season): 8-7/14-16

CRAIG'S LIST: Power Rankings

1, Patriots (3-0)

2, Steelers (2-0)

3, Cardinals (1-1)

4, Broncos (2-0)

5, Vikings (2-0)

6, Panthers (1-1)

7, Bengals (1-1)

8, Packers (1-1)

9, Eagles (2-0)

10, Giants (2-0)

11, Jets (1-1)

12, Ravens (2-0)

13, Chiefs (1-1)

14, Chargers (1-1)

15, Buccaneers (1-1)

16, Falcons (1-1)

17, Texans (2-1)

18, Titans (1-1)

19, Cowboys (1-1)

20, 49ers (1-1)

21, Rams (1-1)

22, Seahawks (1-1)

23, Raiders (1-1)

24, Lions (1-1)

25, Saints (0-2)

26, Dolphins (0-2)

27, Colts (0-2)

28, Jaguars (0-2)

29, Bears (0-2)

30, Redskins (0-2)

31, Bills (0-2)

32, Browns (0-2)

Xavier Rhodes could be the difference maker vs. Panthers

Every week following the Access Vikings Gameday Preview podcast, we'll delve deeper into who Andrew Krammer pegged as the potential difference maker for the upcoming game.

There is a common theme among the Panthers’ three losses since the end of the 2014 season.

You read that correctly. Reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton has a 22-3 record since he was frozen at TCF Bank Stadium in a late November defeat by the Vikings nearly two years ago.

Much of the focus heading into Sunday’s game in Charlotte has revolved around how the Vikings can limit the Panthers’ NFL-leading rushing attack, which is why I initially pegged nose tackle Linval Joseph vs. center Ryan Kalil as my matchup to watch. Though let me make a correction.

With the benefit of additional time to look at the Panthers’ three losses in that span, the attention should turn to cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who could make his season debut Sunday after suffering a knee injury two weeks ago. Rhodes returned to practice Wednesday and Thursdayon a limited basis.

In each of the Panthers’ three losses, they’ve been able to run the ball effectively with 7.8, 4.4 and 4.9 yards per carry against the Falcons, Broncos and Broncos, in chronological order.

Where those defenses clamped down on was Newton, who in each of those games couldn’t eclipse 60 percent completion or create a 100-yard receiver.

That was also the case at TCF Bank Stadium, where Newton fell 0 for 6 while targeting Rhodes, who deflected three of those passes. Then-rookie Panthers standout receiver Kelvin Benjamin was limited to just five catches, none against Rhodes, on 12 targets for a pedestrian 56 yards.

Through two games this season, Benjamin already has 199 yards and three scores. Enter Rhodes.

A stingy and opportunistic defense has vaulted the Vikings to a 2-0 record. The return of their top cornerback could further raise the level of play to match what could very well be their regular season’s most dynamic and challenging offense.

Much has changed since that November 2014 win, chiefly Newton.

“He’s taken his game to the next level,” said Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who played with Newton from 2011-2013. “When I was there, he was very athletic; he’s still athletic. He was making plays with his legs and beating people off natural talent. Now he’s making plays with his head, being a smarter player, reading defenses and throwing the ball in tight windows.”

The Vikings feel Rhodes has also made strides, a thought reinforced by strong summer practices that saw him intercepting passes almost every other day. The fourth-year cornerback has learned how to use his length while continuing to iron out kinks that lead to starts like last season, when he was the NFL’s most-penalized cornerback through the first four weeks.

By the end of last season, Rhodes settled into a similar groove that had him shutting down Aaron Rodgers, Newton and others toward the end of 2014. Take the Week 14 loss in Arizona for example.

Another MVP candidate that year, Carson Palmer, could only find room while looking away from Rhodes, who finished the night with three deflections. Rhodes’ improved ability to mirror receivers without contact was on full display, including this downfield defense of J.J. Nelson on an underthrown pass.

The play above is one example of his improvement in off coverage, though his length is still best served up close. Take this whip route by Michael Floyd as another example of his improved play. Rhodes gets his shoulders turned by Floyd’s juke inside, though he’s able to recover and deflect the timed Palmer pass.

They ended on a high note, but Vikings cornerbacks had an uneven outing against Rodgers last week.So it’s possible they revert to a previously-used tactic of having Rhodes track the opponent’s top receiver, in this case Benjamin, all over the field.

“This is the first time I’ve really seen him go after the football since I’ve been here,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Rhodes this summer. “There have been some plays where he really tries to intercept it.”

12:00 PM, 9/25 (FOX)
Minnesota 2-0
Carolina 1-1

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