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 15 Picks & Power Rankings: Upset special now 8-5

Posted by: Mark Craig under On the road, Vikings, Bears, Lions, NFC, Packers, Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin Updated: December 14, 2012 - 10:16 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, Patriots (10-3)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: The best offense, perhaps the best defensive coach in league history and a big-game swagger that pummeled the 11-win Texans 42-14 on Monday night. Cleary the best team in the league.
 
2. Broncos (10-3)
Last week: No. 4.
Comment: Peyton Manning has won eight straight and appears on course to meet up with the Patriots in the post-season. Feels like old times. Only now Manning has a much better defense helping him out.
 
3. Texans (11-2)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: Took some heat for not dropping the Texans farther after their beatdown from the Patriots on Monday night. But I’ll take a broader look at Houston while reminding people that many good teams have felt the power of the Patriots in prime time in December in Foxboro. People seem surprised by Monday night’s score. But I thought that was one of the easier games to pick last week. I had the Patriots winning by double digits.
 
 
BOTTOM THREE
30. Chiefs (2-11)
Last week: No. 26.
Comment: After an emotional win two weeks ago, the Chiefs get blown out in Romeo Crennel and Brady Quinn’s return to Cleveland. Any time anyone talks about an expanded regular season, please try to remember seasons like this one. Can you imagine teams such as the Chiefs and Cardinals having five more games to play. Things like that, to me, would be worse for the league’s image than preseason football.   
 
31. Raiders (3-10)
Last week: No. 30.
Comment: Six straight losses have put coach Dennis Allen right where all Raiders coaches seem to end up immediately: on the hot seat. A loss at home against the Chiefs followed by season-ending road games to Carolina and San Diego could have the Raiders looking to start over – again.
 
32. Cardinals (4-9)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: Nine straight losses. Outscored 65-6 the past two weeks. Coming off a 58-0 loss at Seattle. Clearly the worst team in the league right now. Yet it’s still the team that won at New England in Week 2. That, folks, is the NFL.
 
 
NFC NORTH
9. Packers (9-4)
Last week: No. 10.
Comment: As long as Aaron Rodgers isn’t one of the injured Cheeseheads, the Packers are the best team in the division. Any other piece to the puzzle is replaceable. The same can’t be said for Troy Williamson and Erasmus James, wherever they are.
 
12. Vikings (7-6)
Last week: No. 18.
Comment: It’s already a successful season for the Vikings, considering where they were a year ago and the fact they’re 2-2 without Percy Harvin. With seven wins secured, Harvin out for the season and the next two games on the road, the Vikings are playing with house money from this point forward.  
 
13. Bears (8-5)
Last week: No. 12.
Comment: About the time Brian Urlacher made fun of critics for being wrong about the Bears’ defense getting old, the Bears defense got, well, old.
 
26. Lions (4-9).
Last week: No. 24.
Comment: A disappointing season, but Jim Schwartz is still the right guy for the job. He just needs more time to fill more holes and give this team the depth that it has lacked for most of the last half century.
 
 
THE REST
 
4. Falcons (11-2); 5. Redskins (7-6); 6. 49ers (9-3-1); 7. Ravens (9-4); 8. Giants (8-5); 10. Colts (9-4); 11. Seahawks (8-5); 14. Cowboys (7-6); 15. Bengals (8-6); 16. Rams (6-6-1); 17. Steelers (7-6); 18. Panthers (4-9); 19. Chargers (5-8); 20. Buccaneers (6-7); 21. Dolphins (5-8); 22. Saints (5-8); 23. Browns (5-8); 24. Jets (6-7); 25. Bills (5-8); 27. Titans (4-9); 28. Eagles (4-10); 29. Jaguars (2-11).
 
 
VIKINGS
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1, The secondary: Think back to where the Vikings were in the secondary a year ago at this time. This is the week that Drew Brees and the Saints toyed with the Vikings in a 42-20 win at Mall of America Field. Playing only 43 minutes, Brees became the first player in NFL history to throw for 400 yards (412), five touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 80 percent (32 of 40) of his passes in a game. This year, the Vikings are still in the playoff race in part because of two giant interceptions that helped beat the Bears a week ago.
 
2, Third-down catches: Christian Ponder has been in a slump for pretty much the past two months. He’s without his top receiver, Percy Harvin, and there’s no chance of the Vikings winning a shootout at any point this season. However, there was at least a glimmer of hope that Ponder can chip in a little. He had three big third-down conversions on throws to Michael Jenkins last week. The first one came in the red zone on the game-opening touchdown drive. The other two came with the outcome still in doubt in the fourth quarter. Those two completions – one of which came on third-and-seven at the Vikings’ 4-yard line – changed field position dramatically. Yeah, the Vikings still punted, but it’s still baby steps with Ponder at this point.
 
3, Adrian Peterson: Oh yeah, there’s that other positive. The guy bull-rushing his way toward Eric Dickerson’s record of 2,105 yards rushing. Set the DVRs, folks. You may never see another season like this in your lifetime.
 
 
THREE REASONS TO GO `UH-OH’
1, Ponder: By the estimation here, we’ve reached the point where Ponder has had more games in which he hasn’t look like the long-term answer (seven) than games in which he has (six). He’ll get another chance next year because General Manager Rick Spielman trusts him and has a “three-year rule” when it comes to making a full evaluation on players. But right now, the Vikings’ margin for error is basically zero because the QB can’t save their bacon if things go awry.
 
2, Road woes: The Rams and Vikings are similarly positioned as young teams in transition. But the Rams are at home, so a huge advantage belongs with them. The Vikings are 1-5 on the road. And even if they survive this Sunday’s likely elimination game, they have to travel to Houston the following week. The odds are slim that the Vikings can stay alive long enough to make the season finale against the Packers meaningful.
 
3, Rudolph’s disappearance: Tight end Kyle Rudolph is too good and too important to the offense to have games in which his only “touch” is catching the onside kick at the end of the game. Rudolph has had three games in which he hasn’t caught a ball this season. That should never happen in a run-oriented, ball-control scheme.
 
THE PICKS
Rams 24, Vikings 20: It’s hard to bet against Adrian Peterson. But the Rams have a respectable run defense and they’re at home. If this game were at the Metrodome, I’d take the Vikings. But it’s in St. Louis, so give me the Rams.
 
Record picking Vikings games: 8-3.
 
VIK plus-3 at STL: Rams by 4.
GB minus-3 at CHI: Packers by 4.
NYG plus-1 ½ at ATL: Falcons by 3.
WAS off at CLE: Browns by 6.
JAC plus-7 at MIA: Dolphins by 10.
DEN minus-2 ½ at BAL: Ravens by 3.
IND plus-8 ½ at HOU: Texans by 7.
CAR plus-3 at SD: Chargers by 7.
DET minus-6 at ARI: Cardinals by 3.
PIT minus-1 ½ at DAL: Steelers by 3.
KC plus-3 at OAK: Raiders by 6.
SF plus-5 ½ at NE: Patriots by 7.
NYJ plus-1 ½ at TEN: Titans by 7.
 
Overall Record Last Week: 10-5. Vs. Spread: 6-8-1.
 
Record Season: 109-63-1. Vs. Spread: 84-83-1.
 
 
UPSET SPECIAL
BUF plus-5 ½ vs. SEA at Toronto
 
 
Bills 24, Seahawks 23: Seattle is coming off a 58-0 win at home against Arizona. But they’re 2-5 on the road. Yeah, the game is in Toronto, so it’s not really a home game for the Bills either. But the Bills have been playing games in Toronto for a while now. You can take that explanation or go with this even less scientific philosophy that tends to work when trying to figure out the NFL: The Seahawks were really, really up last week, so they’ll be really, really down this week.
 
Last week: ATL minus-3 ½ at CAR. Prediction: Panthers 31, Falcons 28.  Actual: Panthers 30, Falcons 20.
Record: 8-5.

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