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 before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.

Posts about On the road

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

Posted by: Mark Craig 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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.

Leslie Frazier looking for 'clean' game to cure Vikings' road woes

Posted by: Updated: December 10, 2012 - 3:24 PM

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier won’t demand perfection. But he is hoping his team can play “a clean football game” next Sunday when it heads to St. Louis. And by clean, Frazier means he wants to see the elimination of costly turnovers.

In five road losses this season, the Vikings have turned the ball over 10 times and are minus-6 in turnover differential.

In their six home wins? The Vikings have 12 takeaways and eight turnovers.

Said Frazier: “Finding a way to be plus in the turnover ratio would be a big deal to us, if we can execute the way we have. Even in some of our games on the road, we’ve executed well at times. But we haven’t done a good job when it comes to winning that turnover battle. And it’s cost us.”

Most notably, two weeks ago in Green Bay, the Vikings let a key division game slip away due to two costly Christian Ponder interceptions – one in the end zone and the other at the Packers 14. Those are exactly the miscues Frazier wants eliminated.

“Our margin for error is not very big,” said the Vikings coach. “So when that happens, it becomes problematic for our football team.”

Twice this year, the Vikings have gone without a turnover. Both times, they never trailed and scored convincing wins over Detroit.

Milestone watch

With three games left, here are the milestones Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is chasing. He’s currently at 1,600 rushing yards for the season needing 161 (an average of 53 per game) to set his own single-season record.

Peterson needs 400 yards (an average of 133 per contest) to reach 2,000. And he’d need 506 yards (an average of 169) to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record.

Frazier, coincidentally, was a player during Dickerson’s peak. Dickerson set the single-season rushing mark in 1984. Here’s how Frazier compared the styles of Peterson and Dickerson:

I know Coach [John] Robinson gave it to [Dickerson] a lot [with the Rams] and we’re doing the same thing with Adrian. Both guys were extremely fast and very motivated to run the ball and run it well. I think the styles are somewhat similar, but the power that Adrian runs with combined with the speed is rare.

"When I think of Eric, I think of more of a guy who was so graceful and getting on the edge and outrunning people. But you see Adrian running through tacklers, stiff-arming guys, running around guys, juking guys. He’s so rare. Eric was a great runner, a Hall of Famer. And Adrian is on his way to being a Hall of Famer as well.”\

Roster move

The Vikings added tight end LaMark Brown to their practice squad Monday. The team had an opening on the practice squad after promoting offensive lineman Troy Kropog to the active roster Friday.

Sherels could replace Jefferson

Posted by: Kent Youngblood Updated: December 10, 2012 - 3:24 PM

The concussion sustained by cornerback A.J. Jefferson against the Chicago Bears could test the team’s depth at the position this week.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said the team will have to wait and see if Jefferson is able to pass the tests necessary to play in St. Louis Sunday. Veteran Chris Cook is not going to be available to come back from his broken arm until the Dec. 23 game at Houston at the earliest. So who plays?

“It would be Marcus,” Frazier said of Marcus Sherels, the backup who has been a punt- and kickoff-returner this season. “And then, of course, we have Brandon Burton as well. So between those two, they’d get the bulk of the reps. And we’d define that as the week goes on.”

Sherels has started three games in his career, all coming last season. Burton has appeared in 14 games the past two seasons, starting one.


Praising the kids

One big reason for the improved Vikings record is the play of rookie cornerback Josh Robinson and rookie safety Harrison Smith. Both intercepted passes Sunday. Smith returned his for a score, his second pick six of the season. Robinson returned his pick to the Chicago 5-yard line, setting up the team’s second score.

“We’re making such improvement, and we’re doing it with a lot of young, young guys,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Normally it takes two, three years before you start seeing results like that. Guys like Harrison and Josh Robinson, the plays they made {Sunday}? And you look at the improvement {safety} Jamarca Sanford has made this year? He looks nothing like he did last year. Guys are making improvements and it’s helping out the whole team.”


Road woes

With two consecutive road games coming up, and with the Vikings believing they have to win out to earn a playoff berth, the job is simple. The Vikings have to learn to win on the road.

This season Minnesota is 6-1 at home, 1-5 on the road, with the only victory coming at Detroit Sept. 30. Over the past two seasons the Vikings are a combined 3-11 on the road.

So what will it take to win on the road?

“I think if we can play a clean football game, where we are – for a change – plus when it comes to turnovers,” Frazier said. “Even in some of our games on the road we’ve executed well at times, but we haven’t done a good job when it comes to winning that turnover battle and it has cost us. Our margin for error is not very big, and when it happens it become very problematic for our team. So I’d love to go on the road, play some clean football, and see what the results would be.”

Said receiver Michael Jenkins: “We’ve got to find a way to play better on the road. I don’t know, {maybe} we could take the Metrodome name wherever we go and put it on other peoples’ stadiums.”


An important moment?

Frazier again emphasized the positive with quarterback Christian Ponder, pointing to what he called a key drive that began late in the third quarter.

The Vikings, leading by 14 points, got the ball at their 1-yard line with 48 seconds left in the third quarter. On the drive Ponder had two third-down throws to Jenkins on third downs, both of which resulted in first downs. The first was an 8-down completion on third-and-7 from the 4-yard line. Six plays later Ponder hit Jenkins for 10 yards on third-and-6.

The Vikings drive ended on the Chicago 41, resulting in no points. But it did have a big impact on field position. Chris Kluwe’s ensuing punt was downed at the Chicago 5.

“What he did in that fourth quarter, when we had those third-down conversions, that was big for our football team,” Frazier said. “It allowed us to possess the football. We were in a backed-up situation. … It was a major part of our being able to win that game.”



One of Robison’s most enjoyable moments Sunday came when he led Harrison Smith into the end zone after Smith’s third-quarter interception. The fact that he got to engage Bears QB Jay Cutler in the process made it even better. “Any time you can throw a block you feel like an offensive player,” Robison said. “A fullback-type. So I got to see what Jerome Felton feels like."

Week 14 Picks & Power Rankings: Bears vulnerable at the Dome

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: December 7, 2012 - 9:37 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
1, Patriots (9-3)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: The running game ranks eighth and Tom Brady has a league-high 120.6 passer rating on third downs. That’s tough to beat. Brady is completing 67.3 percent of his third-down passes with 11 touchdowns and one interception.
2. Texans (11-1)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: The feeling here is New England is the better team. Of course, the feeling here -- like everywhere else when it comes to the NFL – isn’t always right. But we’ll get a better feel Monday night when the Texans play at New England.
3. Falcons (11-1)
Last week: No. 4.
Comment: Atlanta has only one loss despite ranking 29th in yards per carry (3.8) and yards allowed per carry (4.8). Something to keep an eye on for a team and a quarterback that has yet to prove they have what it takes to win in the post-season.  
30. Raiders (3-10)
Last week: No. 29.
Comment: Wonder how Cincinnati looks to Carson Palmer now.
31. Cardinals (4-8)
Last week: No. 30.
Comment: How low can they go? Well, they just lost 7-6 to the guy who backs up Mark Sanchez’s backup.
32. Eagles (3-9)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: How low can Andy Reid go? Well, he can’t even beat Tony Romo in December anymore.
10. Packers (8-4)
Last week: No. 8.
Comment: If not for the “Fail Mary” in Seattle 11 weeks ago, the Packers would be holding the No. 2 seed in the NFC right now. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the league’s decision to put replacement officials on the field for the first three weeks of the season affected the integrity of the game. Remember that the next time the league talks about the need for players to protect the NFL’s sacred “shield.”
12. Bears (8-4)
Last week: No. 10.
Comment: Chicago’s playoff hopes are directly attached to its massively flawed pass protection. We’ll see if it can hold up in the Metrodome on Sunday. Look for a lot of short, quick passes to Brandon Marshall, just like two weeks ago.
18. Vikings (6-6)
Last week: No. 17.
Comment: Christian Ponder is lingering in that danger zone for young NFL QBs and the teams they play for. He’s nearing the end of Year 2 with a game that’s not good enough to trust and not bad enough to give up on.
24. Lions (4-8).
Last week: No. 20.
Comment: The Lions play in Green Bay on Monday night. Why bother? They haven’t won there since 1991.
4. Broncos (10-3); 5. Steelers (7-5); 6. Ravens (9-3); 7. Redskins (6-6); 8. 49ers (8-3-1); 9. Giants (7-5); 11. Seahawks (7-5); 13. Colts (8-4); 14. Bengals (7-5); 15. Rams (5-6-1); 16. Cowboys (6-6); 17. Buccaneers (6-6); 19. Dolphins (5-7); 20. Saints (5-7); 21. Bills (5-7); 22. Browns (4-8); 23. Jets (5-7); 25. Titans (4-8); 26. Chiefs (2-10); 27. Chargers (4-8); 28. Panthers (3-9); 29. Jaguars (2-10).
1, Home-field advantage: The Vikings just got trounced by this team less than two weeks ago. But this is the NFL, so that doesn’t matter. Home-field advantage is that important. Since 1982, the Vikings have the third highest differential (.224) between their home and road winning percentages. Only the Chiefs and Broncos have a higher differential. The Vikings have lost five straight and 11 of 12 on the road against the Bears. But they’re 7-3 against them in their past 10 meetings in Minnesota.
2, Road games not looking as daunting: The Vikings’ two-game road trip to St. Louis and Houston might not be as tough as expected. The Texans are 11-1 and have a chance to clinch the AFC South, a bye and home-field advantage before facing the Vikings on Dec. 23. Considering how this team went into the playoffs last year without Matt Schaub, the Vikings could be facing Houston’s JV squad. Of course, the Vikings would have to win their next two games for that Houston game to mean anything to the Vikings.
3, There was that one drive, ya know: For roughly 39 minutes of game clock, Ponder couldn’t complete a pass to anyone. But there was that one rare NFL-caliber offensive possession he directed in the first half. He completed 5 of 5 passes for 36 yards. He ran for six yards. He overcame a sack in the red zone to throw a 7-yard touchdown to Kyle Rudolph. In other words, he did what he was supposed to do, which is complement Adrian Peterson. The drive went 71 yards in 14 plays. Peterson ran the ball seven times for 33 yards. The Vikings just need to figure out how to do this more consistently.
1, No more Harvin: The Vikings went into the season light years behind their NFC North opponents when it came to the quarterback position. But the one thing the Vikings had going for them was one-of-a-kind talent in Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin. And now Harvin is out for the season with an ankle injury. The results without him have been predictable against the top teams in the division: 263 yards passing and 24 points in back-to-back losses at Chicago and Green Bay.
2, Ponder’s problems: The No. 1 priority for this season was forgotten when the Vikings began the season 4-1. But this is still a young team that’s being built to win in the near future. That’s why the No. 1 priority was and should remain identifying whether Ponder is the long-term answer at quarterback. Through 12 games, it’s split down the middle, at least by the judgement here. He’s had six games (including the loss at Indy) in which he’s shown signs of being the guy. But he’s also had six games (including the win over Arizona) in which he hasn’t looked like the guy at all. Ruining the team’s chances of an upset at Green Bay by throwing two awful interceptions in the third quarter is a major reason for concern as one is trying to judge Ponder on his first full season as a starter.
3, Run defense: Lost in last week’s loss to Green Bay was the fact the Packers ran for 152 yards and a rare rushing touchdown on 36 carries (4.2). Green Bay’s ground game is average at best, but it looked strong against the Vikings. And that, of course, enabled Aaron Rodgers to do what he does, which is pick through the Vikings’ defense (27 of 35) while not having to deal with many third-and-long situations.
Vikings 23, Bears 21: The Vikings and their fans will treat this like a playoff game, which is essentially what it is. A loss and the competitive portion of the Vikings’ season is over. The Bears’ passing game, particularly the protection, will have a much more difficult time at the Metrodome, especially as Adrian Peterson has another big game.
Record picking Vikings games: 7-3.
CHI minus-3 at VIK: Vikings by 2.
BAL plus-2 ½ at WAS: Redskins by 3.
KC plus-6 ½ at CLE: Browns by 3.
SD off at PIT: Steelers by 7.
TEN plus-5 ½ at IND: Colts by 7.
NYJ minus-2 ½ at JAC: Jaguars by 3.
PHI plus-7 ½ at TB: Buccaneers by 10.
STL plus-3 at BUF: Bills by 6.
DAL plus-3 at CIN: Bengals by 4.
MIA plus-10 at SF: 49ers by 14.
NO plus-5 at NYG: Giants by 10.
ARI plus-10 at SEA: Seahawks by 7.
DET plus-7 at GB: Packers by 14.
HOU plus-3 ½ at NE: Patriots by 10.
Overall Record Last Week: 10-5. Vs. Spread: 7-8.
Record Season: 99-58-1. Vs. Spread: 78-75-3.
ATL minus-3 ½ at CAR
Panthers 31, Falcons 28: In its last two road games, the Falcons have lost at New Orleans and won by a point at Tampa Bay. Carolina is more dangerous than its 3-9 record and will surprise a Falcons team that it nearly beat in Atlanta before falling 30-28 earlier this season.
Last week: SF minus-7 at STL. Prediction: Rams 27, 49ers 24.  Actual: Rams 16, 49ers 13 OT.
Record: 7-5.

Harvin declared out for Sunday's game in Green Bay

Posted by: Updated: December 1, 2012 - 2:11 PM

It's official: Percy Harvin will not play Sunday in Green Bay.

After declaring Harvin doubtful on Friday's injury report, the Vikings have now downgraded their top receiver to out, leaving them short-handed once again heading into a key divisional game on the road.

Harvin hasn't played since spraining his left ankle during a 30-20 loss in Seattle on Nov. 4. He has practiced just once since, a limited effort Wednesday that did not produce the positive signs the Vikings wanted to see. Harvin is still having difficulty pushing off and cutting and has not made the recovery progress that was hoped for.

Harvin, who has 62 catches for 677 yards and three touchdowns this season, missed only three game in his first three NFL seasons -- one as a rookie in 2009 and two more the following year. Now he will miss his third consecutive game with the Vikings in the middle of a treacherous schedule.

Sunday's road game against the Packers will be the Vikings' third of four consecutive NFC North games. They beat Detroit 34-24 at home on Nov. 11, then absorbed a 28-10 beating in Chicago last Sunday.

At 6-5, the Vikings are still alive in the chase for an NFC playoff berth. But trying to steal a road win without their top receiver will be a major challenge. Since the start of the 2010 season, the Vikings are 5-16 in true road games.

Harvin's absence will open up additional opportunity for rookie receiver Jarius Wright. A fourth-round pick out of Arkansas, Wright has contributed 10 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown the last two weeks, earning additional trust from the coaching staff to become a bigger part of the offensive attack.

Said Leslie Frazier: "You can see it in practice. We’re relying on him a little bit more in some of the things we’re doing. We’re actually putting in some plays directly for him because of the confidence he’s shown and the confidence we’ve developed in him.”



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