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 7 Picks and Power Rankings: Vikings' chance to rise

Posted by: Mark Craig under Vikings, Bears, Lions, NFC, Packers, Leslie Frazier, Adrian Peterson, Leslie Frazier, Percy Harvin Updated: October 19, 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
(Thursday's game included)
 
TOP THREE
1, Falcons (6-0)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: The Falcons, who are off to their best start in franchise history, hardly looked like the NFL’s best team while having to rally at home to beat the Raiders by three. But finding ways to win ugly on awful days is a key element of success in the NFL. Matt Ryan threw three interceptions and the Falcons trailed 13-7 at the half. That’s not a format Atlanta should follow after this week’s bye. Their next three games are at Philadelphia, home to Dallas and at New Orleans.
 
2. Giants (4-2)
Last week: No. 5.
Comment: The best team in the league at this point might actually be the team that finished last year as the best team. A 26-3 beatdown of the 49ers in San Francisco comes in handy in power rankings and post-game handshakes with Jim Harbaugh. The Giants rank first in the league in fewest sacks allowed per pass play. Defensively, they rank second in interceptions.  
 
3. Ravens (5-1)
Last week: No. 3.
Comment: The instinct is to drop them from No. 3 because of the serious injuries to Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis. But Ozzie Newsome is one of the top 3-4 GMs in the league. Let’s get a look at the team’s depth and see how it plays going forward before calling the time of death on the Ravens. The guess is these injuries, coupled with the earlier serious injury to Terrell Suggs, will be too much to overcome. But Baltimore’s offense might be good enough to carry the defense for a change.
 
BOTTOM THREE
30. Bengals (3-3)
Last week: No. 30.
Comment: Sorry, but .500 record or not, you belong in the bottom three for at least a week if you follow up a home loss to Miami with a double-digit loss at Cleveland.
 
31. Jaguars (1-4)
Last week: No. 29.
Comment: Since losing an overtime game they should have won in regulation at Minnesota in Week 1, the Jags have losses of 20, 17 and 38 points. They dropped two spots after a bye, but, hey, upon further review, the Jags are deserving of Bottom 3 status.
 
32. Chiefs (1-5)
Last week: No. 30.
Comment: They’re 0-3 at home. They’ve been beaten by margins of 16, 17, 18 and 28 points. And, oh yeah, they’re minus-15 in turnover differential. The next-worst turnover differential is the Eagles’ minus-9.
 
NFC NORTH
4. Packers (3-3)
Last week: No. 15.
Comment: If you’re a Vikings fan, what’s more discouraging than the Packers upsetting last week’s No. 1 team, Houston, at Houston? A, The Packers play five of their last nine games at home. B, The Packers have yet to pad their win column with games against Jacksonville and Tennessee. C, The Packers are only a game behind the Vikings. D, All of the above.
 
5. Bears (4-1)
Last week: No. 8.
Comment: The Bears are riding a three-game winning streak, fresh off a 38-point win and a bye. Now, they play a Monday night home game against Detroit followed by a home game against Carolina and a trip to Tennessee. Sure looks like a 7-1 start to me. Especially with a defense that has 17 takeaways in five games.
 
14. Vikings (4-2).
Last week: No. 6.
Comment: The Vikings are still one of the more surprising teams in the league. But they won’t be for long if their turnover differential keeps going south on them. They’re at minus-1 – tied for 18th in the league – after QB Christian Ponder’s five giveaways the past two games.
 
20. Lions (2-3)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: Was the Lions’ offense that good in the last five minutes a week ago, or was the Eagles’ defense that bad. Well, let’s put it this way: Philly fired its defensive coordinator after the game. We’ll know more about Detroit’s floundering start when the Lions travel to Chicago on Monday night. Note to Detroit: Do Not Kick to Devin Hester.
 
 
THE REST
 
6.    Texans (5-1); 7. 49ers (5-2); 8. Seahawks (4-3); 9. Patriots (3-3); 10. Broncos (3-3); 11. Redskins (3-3); 12. Dolphins (3-3); 13. Rams (3-3); 15. Jets (3-3); 16. Bills (3-3); 17. Cardinals (4-2); 18. Saints (1-4); 19. Titans (2-4); 21. Eagles (3-3); 22. Colts (2-3); 23. Buccaneers (2-3); 24. Cowboys (2-3); 25, Raiders (1-4); 26. Steelers (2-3); 27. Chargers (3-3); 28. Panthers (1-4);
29. Browns (1-5)
 
VIKINGS
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1, Cards and Bucs back-to-back: The Vikings can – actually, make that should – reach the season’s halfway point at 6-2 with their next two games at home against Arizona and Tampa Bay during a five-day stretch. Arizona, with its league-worst pass protection and a relatively stationary QB in the rusty John Skelton, are the perfect matchup for the Vikings at Mall of America Field. The front four should punish Skelton and then retreat to the sideline to watch Adrian Peterson pound Arizona’s defense the way he did last year when he ran for 122 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has to travel to the Metrodome on a short week. Every team in the league has to play a Thursday night game this year. The Vikings got a huge gift by having their Thursday night game at home following a home game. No travel on either end of the short week.
 
2, Blair Walsh: Robert Griffin III wasn’t the only exceptional rookie on FedEx Field last week. Walsh, the Vikings’ place-kicker, made 4 of 4 field-goal attempts and bombed all seven kickoffs for touchbacks. It didn’t matter if he was kicking with or against the wind. He put three kickoffs into the stands and banged a fourth one off the crossbars. Having a confident kicker – one that’s made 16 of 17 field goal-attempts and has 24 touchbacks – will be a big weapon down the stretch. For example, the Vikings play the Bears twice in three weeks starting Nov. 25. Imagine playing Chicago with Devin Hester automatically eliminated as kick-return threat.
 
3, Field position: The Vikings are built to control the clock with their powerful run game and a strong defense. Throw in the fact they lead the league in average starting distance following kickoffs (26.7-yard line) and, well, that’s a recipe for winning. Percy Harvin leads the league kickoff-return average. He averages 37.1 yards per return. The next closest player is 31.7. Anything involving Harvin is reason for optimism.
 
 
THREE REASONS TO GO `UH-OH’
1, Looming schedule: It’s never a good idea to look too far down the road in the NFL. But, what the heck, we’ll say it anyway. If the Vikings lose their next two games, they’ll not finish the season better than 7-9. If they lose their next two, they won’t recover. That’s how strong the schedule is for the second half of the season. A trip to Seattle on Nov. 4 kicks things off. After a home game against Detroit and a bye, the schedule finishes this way: at Chicago, at Green Bay, Chicago, at St. Louis, at Houston, Green Bay.
 
2, Five turnovers in two games: The Vikings are fortunate to be 4-2 with a minus-1 turnover margin. But it won’t last if the Vikings keep turning the ball over. Although they made a nice rally in the fourth quarter last week, this team doesn’t have enough receiving weapons to win from behind. Christian Ponder has turned the ball over five times the past two games. Not all of them were his fault, but he needs to play better. It starts with throwing the ball better. Last week was Ponder’s first stinker. But he’s still 5 of 6 when it comes to compiling performances that indicate he’s worthy of being the team’s long-term answer at the game’s most important position.
 
3, Simpson’s attitude:
Anyone else feel we’re at a tipping point when it comes to Jerome Simpson becoming a season-long bust? First, the alleged deep-threat savior had the three-game suspension. Then, after a decent game at Detroit, he moped through a catch-less game against Tennessee because of lower leg weakness and numbness. Then the injury caused him to be deactivated last week at Washington. Then he questioned coach Leslie Frazier’s decision while complaining that the deactivation cost him 60 grand in incentive money. Simpson is a typical NFL receiver. He needs to have a big game soon or the attitude may go south for the season.  
 
 
THE PICKS
Vikings 28, Cardinals 21: Much like last year’s meeting at the Metrodome, the Vikings should be able to overpower the Cardinals with their running game and then tee off on a quarterback who stands behind the worst pass protection unit in the league. The only difference is this year, the proverbial sitting duck will be John Skelton starting the game rather than Kevin Kolb.
 
Record picking Vikings games: 3-3.
 
Overall Record Last Week: 10-3. Vs. Spread: 7-6.
 
Record Season: 39-28. Vs. Spread: 28-35-2.
 
 
TEN plus-3 at BUF: Bills by 7.
CLE plus-3 at IND: Browns by 7.
BAL plus-6 ½ at HOU: Texans by 3.
DAL minus-2 at CAR: Panthers by 7.
WAS plus-5 ½ at NYG: Giants by 10.
NO minus-3 at TB: Saints by 6.
NYJ plus-10 ½ at NE: Patriots by 3.
JAC plus-4 at OAK: Raiders by 7.
PIT minus-1 ½ at CIN: Steelers by 3.
DET plus-6 at CHI: Bears by 14.
 
UPSET SPECIAL
GB minus-5 ½ at STL:
 
Rams 27, Packers 24: The Rams have allowed only 33 points in their past three games and are 3-0 at home with wins over Washington, Seattle and Arizona. An 18-point prime-time beatdown of the Texans in Houston last week was a good reminder why it was unwise to dismiss the Packers when they were 2-3. But it will be hard for Green Bay to rise to that level again while having to play its third consecutive road game. Howevever, if the Packers get by the Rams, look out. They’ll be 4-3 heading into this four-week stretch: home against Jacksonville, home against Arizona, bye, at Detroit.
 
 
Last week: NYG plus-6 ½ at SF. Prediction: Giants 24, 49ers 21. Actual: Giants 26, 49ers 3.
Record: 3-2.

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