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 mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Week 4 Picks and Predictions: A letdown for the Vikings?

Posted by: Mark Craig under On the road, Vikings, Bears, Lions, NFC, Packers, Super Bowl, Jared Allen Updated: September 28, 2012 - 9:01 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
TOP THREE
1, Texans (3-0)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: Wade Phillips’ defense is No. 1 on third downs, No. 2 overall and No. 3 in points allowed.
 
2. Falcons (3-0)
Last week: No. 3.
Comment: It always helps to have a franchise QB (Matt Ryan) leading the league in passer rating (114.0) and a defense that leads the league in takeaways (11).
 
3. Cardinals (3-0)
Last week: No. 4.
Comment: Kevin Kolb has provided some confidence at QB with a 64.4 completion percentage, 108.6 passer rating and no interceptions. But the key to being 3-0 is Arizona’s 10th-ranked defense.
 
BOTTOM THREE
30. Colts (1-2)
Last week: No. 25.
Comment: Losing at home to Jacksonville after beating the Vikings at home is just part of the deal when a team rebuilds from the ground up around a franchise QB.
 
31. Saints (0-3)
Last week: No. 24.
Comment: The way the Saints are playing, Sean Payton is a shoe-in for coach of the year.
 
32. Browns (0-4)
Last week: No. 29.
Comment: For about the 14th straight season, the Browns have a new QB (Brandon Weeden) who doesn’t look like he’s the long-term answer. But, hey, they’re on pace to draft another one (Matt Barkley) and start over -- again.
 
NFC NORTH
11. Vikings (2-1).
Last week: No. 26.
Comment: Only in the NFL could a team go from having no chance whatsoever of winning its division to being the top team (for now) in its division in a span of three games. This, obviously, will change. Probably soon.  
 
14. Packers (1-2)
Last week: No. 6.
Comment: Let’s for a split second try to forget that the Packers got robbed by the most tragic event since the universe was formed. Now, let’s ask how alarming it is going forward that Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times in one half of football.
 
16. Bears (2-1)
Last week: No. 21.
Comment: Helmets off to the Bears, who beat the Rams in a stabilizing performance after the meltdown against the Packers. But St. Louis ranked 30th in sacks per pass play. This week, the Bears go to Dallas, where the Cowboys are fifth in sacks per pass play. Let’s wait to see it the Bears are who we think they are up front.
 
22. Lions (1-2)
Last week: No. 15.
Comment: Matthew Stafford is ailing. The special teams and defense gave up a record five touchdowns of 60 yards or more. The team lost a winnable road game against a bad opponent. Anybody else getting that old Detroit – 6-10 – vibe?
 
THE REST
4. Chargers (2-1); 5. Seahawks (2-1); 6. Cowboys (2-1); 7. Giants (2-1); 8. Eagles (2-1); 9. Ravens (2-1); 10. Bengals (2-1); 12. 49ers (2-1); 13. Jets (2-1); 15. Broncos (1-2); 17. Bills (2-1); 18. Patriots (1-2); 19. Buccaneers (1-2); 20. Jaguars (1-2); 21. Titans (1-2); 23. Rams (1-2); 24. Redskins (1-2); 25. Chiefs (1-2); 26. Panthers (1-2); 27. Dolphins (1-2); 28. Raiders (1-2); 29. Steelers (1-2).
 
VIKINGS
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1, Ponder’s 3 for 3: We’ll keep this No. 1 until quarterback Christian Ponder puts up a stinker. And speaking of stinker, he’s going back to Detroit, site of Stinker Numero Uno. Yeah, his hip was bothering him and maybe he shouldn’t have played a year ago at Detroit. But there was more to his four-turnover benching than his hip. This Sunday is a very good opportunity for Ponder to put on tape the difference between his rookie season and what so far has been a very encouraging second season.
 
2, One penalty: Bad teams typically make 11 dumb penalties, spend the week talking about eliminating 11 dumb penalties and then commit 11 or 12 more dumb penalties the following week. If you’re a Vikings fan, it’s tremendously encouraging that the Vikings committed only one penalty for 10 yards – and even that one holding call was questionable – in last week’s win over the 49ers. The Vikings couldn’t have beaten the 49ers without playing that crisply. Normally, someone would have committed a penalty on that critical opening drive. It would have thrown everything off and a punt would have ensued. But the Vikings went 16 plays without a momentum-busting penalty.
 
3, Three takeaways: The 49ers are the most efficient team in the league the past two years. The offense hadn’t turned the ball over in 30 quarters. The team overall had turned it over only 11 times in the past 18 regular-season games. In other words, the 49ers did what 31 other NFL teams only talked about doing. Yet the Vikings forced three turnovers in the fourth quarter. And they forced those turnovers with a rookie (Josh Robinson), a backup safety (Jamarca Sanford) and Jared Allen’s first sack of the season.
 
THREE REASONS TO GO `UH-OH’
1, Raymond’s injury: By all accounts, Jamarca Sanford is exactly the type of high-character, non-pouting, give-it-his-all teammate the Vikings want on their roster. Only they didn’t want this excellent special teamer in the starting lineup. He lost his job to Mistral Raymond in training camp, but Raymond is now out three to five weeks with an ankle injury. If there is any good news, Sanford did start 15 games last season. Perhaps he’s learned some tricks to help make up for his deficiencies.
 
2, Erin Henderson’s concussion: Getting by without Henderson against the 49ers is one thing. Getting by without him against the Lions is an entirely different thing. Although the 49ers are the better team, they’re a run-based, grind-it-out team on offense. If Henderson can’t play – and he still hadn’t passed his league-mandated concussion tests as of Thursday – that puts Jasper Brinkley on the field in the nickel. Brinkley did a very good job against the 49ers, but the Lions’ passing attack is another level up.
 
3, Kickoff coverage: What the heck happened to the kickoff team that was so stellar in Weeks 1-2? Part of the Vikings template for being successful is strong field position. Giving up returns of 94 and 50 yards doesn’t help. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to tackle the returner inside the 20 and just have Blair Walsh kick the ball into the first row. The Vikings can’t be giving Detroit’s offense good field position.
 
THE PICKS
Lions 28, Vikings 21: After last week, who the heck knows what will happen at Ford Field on Sunday. But this is the NFL. Up last week typically is down this week, and vice versa. Especially for a young, developing team (see: Indianapolis). We’ll wait for the Vikings to prove they can follow a home win with a road win before predicting that it will happen. The Lions are favored by 4 ½.
 
NE minus-4 at BUF: Patriots by 3.
CAR plus-7 at ATL: Falcons by 3.
SF minus-4 at NYJ: 49ers by 7.
SD plus-1 at KC: Chargers by 7.
TEN plus-12 at HOU: Texans by 10.
SEA minus-2 1/2 at STL: Rams by 3.
MIA plus-5 ½ at ARI: Cardinals by 7.
OAK plus-6 ½ at DEN: Broncos by 7.
CIN minus-2 ½ at JAC: Jaguars by 3.
WAS plus-2 ½ at TB: Redskins by 3.
NYG plus-2 at PHI: Giants by 3.
CHI plus-3 ½ at DAL: Cowboys by 10.
 
Record Last Week: 5-9. Vs. Spread: 7-7.
 
Record Season: 13-15. Vs. Spread: 11-13-2.
 
UPSET SPECIAL
NO plus-7 ½ at GB
Saints 31, Packers 28: I’m going to stand tall on the ship’s deck and keep picking my predicted Super Bowl champion as it plummets toward the abyss.
 
Last week: DET minus-3 ½ at TEN. Prediction: Titans 24, Lions 21. Actual: Titans 44, Lions 41 OT.
Record: 2-0.
 
 
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