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 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.”

Week 13 Picks & Power Rankings: December nears, so Pats get top spot

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: November 30, 2012 - 10:35 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 (8-3)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: On the eve of December, let’s just go ahead and put the Patriots where they always are heading into the playoffs. They’ve won five straight, and their three losses have come by a combined FOUR points. Tom Brady ranks second in passing with a 105.0 rating. The running game is ranked sixth. And the defense always seems to do whatever is necessary to win.
2. Texans (10-1)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: Houston didn’t look all that impressive at Detroit on Thanksgiving. And, heck, they would have lost if not for an ill-conceived rule that negates reviewing scoring plays when a challenge flag is thrown. Still a very good team. Just not as polished this time of year as New England.
3. Ravens (9-2)
Last week: No. 4.
Comment: There’s just a certain toughness about this team that’s hard to keep out of the top three once December arrives. All eyes were on how the Ravens would respond when they lost by 30 points to Houston on Oct. 21. They’ve won four straight and should bury Pittsburgh in the rugged AFC North on Sunday.
30. Jaguars (4-7)
Last week: No. 27.
Comment: Hard to believe this is the same team that opened with wins over Seattle and the Patriots in New England. Hard to believe they were 4-0 at one point. Just another lesson for the next desperate team that hitches its future to an overrated quarterback such as Kevin Kolb.
31. Eagles (3-8)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: Hard to believe this is the same team that beat the Giants to start the season 3-1. The end probably can’t come soon enough for Andy Reid. He has to be overdue for a fresh start. Ditto for the Eagles.
32. Chiefs (1-10)
Last week: No. 32.
Comment: Beyond awful. The only team in the league without a win at home (0-6).
8. Bears (8-3)
Last week: No. 9.
Comment: We’d like to go Denny and say, “The Bears are who we thought they were,” but we have no idea what to think of them. One week, the block and coach like a Pop Warner team in a 32-7 loss at San Francisco. The next week, they devise a game plan that covers their massive pass protection flaws in a 28-10 rout of the Vikings. With Jay Cutler, they’re a contender for the NFC title. Without him, they’re a pink slip in waiting for offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
9. Packers (7-4)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: A few Purple Lovers took offense to the Packers’ No. 2 ranking last week. Of course, they piped up the morning after the 38-10 loss at the Giants. They claimed to say it was “obvious” the Packers weren’t any good even before the Giants loss. To which one could respond, “Uh, ya mean the same team that had won five straight, three on the road and thrashed the now-10-1 Texans in Houston?” I wouldn’t dismiss Aaron Rodgers quite yet.
17. Vikings (6-4)
Last week: No. 15.
Comment: All the analysis, over-analysis, self-analysis, hyper-analysis and my-goodness-get-a-life analysis of the Vikings overlooks very one important element: They just ain’t as good as the Packers and the Bears. But they’re closer than they were last year.
20. Lions (4-7).
Last week: No. 19.
Comment: If Jason Hanson had Ndamukong Suh’s accuracy on kicks, the Lions would be 5-6.
4. Falcons (11-1); 5. 49ers (8-2-1); 6. Broncos (8-3); 7. Giants (7-4); 10. Colts (7-4); 11. Bengals (6-5); 12. Redskins (5-6); 13. Buccaneers (6-5); 14. Dolphins (5-6); 15. Steelers (6-5); 16. Seahawks (6-5); 18. Saints (5-7); 19. Bills (4-7); 20. Lions (4-7); 21. Cowboys (5-6); 22. Titans (4-7); 23. Panthers (3-8); 24. Rams (4-6-1); 25. Browns (3-8); 26. Chargers (4-7); 27. Jaguars (2-9); 28. Jets (4-7); 29. Raiders (3-8).
1, Rudolph in the passing game: It was refreshing to see the Vikings use the Bears’ aggressive approach to stopping Adrian Peterson against them. Faking to Peterson one way, rolling the other and hitting a wide-open tight end Kyle Rudolph led to gains of 25 and 13 yards. It also led to a touchdown. Obviously, the Vikings can’t go to that well too often because now teams will be looking for it. But the few times it was used in Chicago at least provided a sense that this offense can do something besides turn and hand the ball to Peterson or throw bubble screens to Percy Harvin when he’s healthy.
2, They are 6-5, you know: Yeah, yeah. I know we’re supposed to treat every game like it’s our first born child. Yeah, yeah, we’re supposed to declare the season over after each loss. However … A week ago at this time, I felt the Vikings needed to win one of their next three to stay in the playoff picture heading to St. Louis. In other words, don’t burn your Christian Ponder jersey if the Vikings lose back-to-back games at Chicago and Green Bay. If they beat the Bears at home next week, they’d be 7-6 heading to St. Louis. The NFL is too unpredictable and evenly-matched to bank on last week’s loss in Chicago being duplicated at the Metrodome next week.
3, Look down the road, folks: Here’s why a 1-2 trip through the Chicago-Green Bay-Chicago meat grinder wouldn’t be cause for panic: St. Louis is on the other end. Not only are the Rams closer to the Vikings in terms of development, they also got whacked by the JETS by 14 points at home recently. Would you take 8-6 heading to Houston to play a Texans team that probably will start resting starters that week? In other words, don’t panic until the Vikings go 0-3 in their Chicago-Green Bay-Chicago test.
1, Bounce back factor, Take 2: Just like the Bears weren’t going to duplicate their 32-7 loss at San Francisco, the Packers aren’t going to duplicate their 38-10 loss at the Giants last week. Home games after blowout road losses tend to go the opposite way for good teams. The Bears and Packers are good teams, and the Vikings have the misfortune of playing them at home after those teams have been humiliated on the road.
2, Peterson’s fumbles: It’s been a long time since Adrian Peterson has had to discuss his fumbling to this extent. He fumbled 19 times in his first 46 regular-season NFL games. Then he rid himself of that problem and went the next 30 games with only two fumbles. Now, he has three this season, including two in the past five games. And it probably should be three in the past five games. Ponder got credited with one last Sunday, but it probably should have been given to Peterson.
3, Harvin’s health Take 2: It’s never good when your team’s Scottie Pippen – or second Michael Jordan, depending on whom you ask – is out with an injury. Percy Harvin has missed the past two games and seems likely to miss a third straight game on Sunday. The way he’s running, one has to question whether he’ll be even close to his old self when the Bears visit next week. It’s very possible that the Vikings will be out of the playoff hunt before their second-best player is able to perform like their second-best player.
Packers 31, Vikings 17: Not buying the Packers being vulnerable at home after a 28-point loss at the Giants. Aaron Rodgers is great against the rest of the league and even greater when facing the Vikings without Brett Favre in full revenge mode (see: 2009). Too much Rodgers. Too many receivers. And based on last week’s effort in Chicago, not enough pass rush from the Vikings.
Record picking Vikings games: 6-3.
VIK plus-8 ½ at GB: Packers by 14.
SEA plus 3 ½ at CHI: Bears by 7.
ARI plus 4 ½ at NYJ: Jets by 7.
CAR minus-3 at KC: Panthers by 7.
IND plus-4 ½ at DET: Lions by 3.
JAC plus-6 at BUF: Bills by 3.
NE minus-7 ½ at MIA: Patriots by 14.
HOU minus-6 at TEN: Texans by 3.
TB plus-7 at DEN: Broncos by 10.
PIT off at BAL: Ravens by 10.
CLE off at OAK: Browns by 3.
CIN minus-2 at SD: Chargers by 3.
PHI plus-10 at DAL: Cowboys by 7.
NYG minus-2 ½ at WAS: Redskins by 7.
Overall Record Last Week: 8-5. Vs. Spread: 7-6.
Record Season: 89-53-1. Vs. Spread: 71-67-3.
SF minus-7 at STL:
Rams 27, 49ers 24: Every time the 49ers are about to be crowned, they lose. Or they tie the Rams at home, like they did three weeks ago. This time, the Rams win at home as the Colin Kaepernick-Alex Smith issue enters its really-fun-to-watch phase.
Last week: SF minus-1 at NO. Prediction: Saints 31, 49ers 28.  Actual: 49ers 31, Saints 21.
Record: 6-5.

Unlucky Seven: Vikings' first half possessions were miserable in Sunday's loss

Posted by: Updated: November 27, 2012 - 8:41 AM

A lot has already been said and written about the Vikings’ lackluster 28-10 loss in Chicago on Sunday. And until the Vikings flip the page this weekend in Green Bay, a whole lot more will be said and written about what all went wrong.

But perhaps the simple solution to ceasing all the frantic discussion is with this simple recognition: Chicago is undeniably a better team than the Vikings in all three phases. Done and done.

Still, the Vikings’ failed to light the wick for their upset bid at Soldier Field in big part because they delivered a dud effort offensively in the first half, falling behind 25-3 and never getting back on track. The Vikings had seven possessions before halftime and did next to nothing with any of them.

Just like that, they were buried on the road.

Here’s a snapshot of how the first half in Chicago fell apart offensively.


Three plays, 4 yards

Time of possession: 1:48

End result: Punt

Place the blame on: Right guard Brandon Fusco

Worst mistake: On the first play, with an empty backfield and five receivers spread wide, Christian Ponder had barely caught the shotgun snap when he was devoured by Henry Melton for a 9-yard sack. Melton used a basic swim move to slither past Fusco. Center John Sullivan failed to redirect Melton as well. And that was that. Facing second-and-19 and third-and-18, the offense had little chance to make up for the offensive line’s malfunction.


Four plays, 6 yards

Time of possession: 0:50

End result: Field goal

Place the blame on: Receiver Jerome Simpson

Worst mistake: A Chad Greenway fumble recovery put the Vikings in ideal position to deliver an early uppercut. Taking over at the Chicago 28 should have been just the kind of jolt the Vikings needed to jumpstart their day. Instead, on third-and-4, Christian Ponder’s slant dart to Simpson hit the inconsistent receiver in the hands, then hit the ground. Opportunity squandered.


One play, 1 yard

Time of possession: 0:06

End result: Fumble

Place the blame on: Running back Adrian Peterson

Worst mistake: Peterson was simply carrying the ball too loose and light contact from linebacker Nick Roach jarred it loose. Peterson lost control of the football, the first of his two fumbles on the day and an indication that Peterson might not have had his usual focus. Don’t forget, he also missed the team bus from the hotel to the game and had to take a taxi to Soldier Field.


Three plays, 9 yards

Time of possession: 1:32

End result: Punt

Place the blame on: Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave

Worst mistake: After a 1-yard completion to Simpson on first down, it’s hard to know what the objective was on second-and-9. Musgrave went with two tight ends but kept both Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson in as blockers. That left the Vikings with Simpson trying to get open against Tillman and Michael Jenkins working against Tim Jennings. Jenkins wasn’t even out of his break yet when Ponder bolted from the pocket and rolled right – signs of the receiver’s lack of speed and the quarterback’s impatience. Eventually, Ponder threw the ball out of bounds. A third down completion to Jarius Wright on a drag route netted 8 yards but not enough for a first down.


Nine plays, 53 yards

Time of possession: 3:32

End result: Blocked field goal

Place the blame on: Receiver Jarius Wright

Worst mistake: Technically, you could easily point the finger at Fusco and Phil Loadholt, who both failed to slow the push of Julius Peppers on Blair Walsh’s 30-yard field goal attempt. Peppers blocked that kick. But the Vikings were only left to attempt that after stalling inside the red zone. Most confounding: on second-and-4 from the Chicago 12, Musgrave called in a play that seemed to show his desperation with Percy Harvin out and no other reliable receivers to turn to. Instead, the Vikings only had one receiver on the field: Wright, a rookie, who didn’t really do anything wrong but couldn’t get open in the middle of Chicago’s zone. The Vikings had four other potential pass catchers on the play, including three tight ends. But John Carlson was slow getting off the line, was only 2 yards down field when the pocket began to cave and was knocked off his path by Lance Briggs. Rhett Ellison was still early in his route and Kyle Rudolph was never open. Ponder ended up under-handing an incompletion out of bounds just to avoid a sack.


Five plays, 14 yards

Time of possession: 2:06

End result: Interception

Place the blame on: Quarterback Christian Ponder

Worst mistake: On an afternoon where Ponder never seemed settled and his pocket poise was absent, his worst throw cost the Vikings dearly. On a second-and-10 from the Vikings 25, Ponder felt pressure from Nate Collins and tried to gun a pass to Devin Aromashodu on a dig route 18 yards down the field. But Ponder’s pass sailed way over Aromashodu’s head and hit Bears safety Chris Conte right in the numbers. Conte returned the ball to the 13. And Chicago scored on the very next play. Ponder said after the game that he has to learn not to force the ball downfield. But in truth, the throw was far more worrisome than the decision. Also worth noting: Collins stunted and ran right over Fusco, who had been beaten a play earlier by Israel Idonije.


Three plays, 5 yards

Time of possession: 0:27

End result: Punt

Place the blame on: Ponder

Worst mistake: After taking possession with 1:48 left before halftime, the Vikings inability to run more than 27 seconds off the clock before punting was inexcusable. On first down,  Ponder had no one open and skipped a pass in the direction of Wright. On second down, Ponder got pressure from Shea McClellin and airmailed Rudolph on a deep ball down the seam. On third down, Ponder settled for a 5-yard safety valve completion to Wright. The Vikings’ third three-and-out of the day was a fitting way to end the half.

Week 12 Picks & Power Rankings: Texans lead a flawed batch

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated: November 23, 2012 - 8:59 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, Texans (10-1)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: They got a gift touchdown in a three-point OT win at Detroit on Thanksgiving. A Texans TD that should have been reviewed automatically and would have been overturned couldn’t be reviewed because Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw his challenge flag? Sounds like it’s time to review that reviewing rule. Penalize the Lions for Schwartz’s mistake. But don’t allow an 81-yard touchdown that’s not really a touchdown stand. That’s a bad rule. Four days earlier, the Texans gave up 37 points in an OT win against Jacksonville. And their run defense doesn’t look so dominant anymore. But there’s also something to be said about doing enough to win two games in four days to go to 10-1.
2. Packers (7-3)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: The Packers didn’t look all that great at Detroit last week either. But there’s something about this Packers team that’s better than last year’s team that went 15-1 in the regular season. This year’s team knows what it’s like to have to fight for wins. Last year’s team seemed to glide through the regular season in white suites that got nary a grass stain on them. Then that team got slapped aside at home by the Giants in its first playoff game.
3. Falcons (9-1)
Last week: No. 3.
Comment: Again, we have a top-3 team that didn’t look very good last week. Five interceptions by Matt Ryan is reason enough to say the Falcons could be ranked lower. But to win a game in which you’ve thrown five picks is impressive – even if the team you beat was Arizona.
30. Jaguars (1-9)
Last week: No. 32.
Comment: The Jags didn’t win, but the effort and the rare high point total in last week’s OT loss to Houston. Now, the Jags might want to consider playing a competitive contest at home, where they’ve lost by 20, 17, 38, 17 and 17 points.
31. Eagles (3-7)
Last week: No. 30.
Comment: After six straight losses, even Andy Reid has to be wondering why Andy Reid hasn’t been fired. A seventh straight loss at home to 2-8 Carolina probably would be the breaking point.
32. Chiefs (1-9)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: After a week out of the basement, the Chiefs return following a lifeless 22-point home loss to the Bengals. That drops KC to 0-5 at home with losses of 16, 17, 10 and 22 points.
2. Packers (6-3)
Last week: No. 2.
9. Bears (7-3)
Last week: No. 4.
Comment: They’ve lost two straight and they’re coming off a 32-7 loss at San Francisco that raised even more doubts than a typical 25-point beatdown. Even if Jay Cutler returns, can the Bears protect him against a team with a strong pass rush? Don’t be surprised if Soldier Field is extra wet and sloshy on Sunday when the Vikings visit.
15. Vikings (6-4)
Last week: No. 15.
Comment: The Vikings battle cry heading into the final six weeks should be, “Uh, guys, you know everybody else seems to have as many flaws as we do, so, um, why not us?” Remember. In the NFL, one doesn’t have to sustain greatness to win a championship. Just be extremely hot at the right time.
19. Lions (4-7).
Last week: No. 19.
Comment: The Lions should have beaten the Texans. It’s amazing that even with all the safeguards in place against blown officiating calls, there are games still decided by blown officiating calls. But the NFL is filled with “We should haves.” This one brought the competitive portion of the Lions’ season to an end.
4. Ravens (8-2); 5. Patriots (8-3); 6. 49ers (7-2-1); 7. Broncos (7-3); 8. Saints (5-5); 10. Steelers (6-4); 11. Buccaneers (6-4); 12. Colts (6-4); 13. Giants (6-4); 14. Seahawks (6-4); 16. Bengals (5-5); 17. Redskins (5-6); 18. Bills (4-6); 20. Cowboys (5-6); 21. Titans (4-6); 22. Dolphins (4-6); 23. Chargers (4-6); 24. Panthers (2-8); 25. Rams (3-6-1); 26. Jets (4-7); 27. Cardinals (4-6); 28. Raiders (3-7); 29. Browns (2-8).
1, Bears’ pass protection: When a team’s offensive tackles have grass stains on their backs, it’s a pretty good sign of incredibly poor pass protection. The Vikings’ offense might not want to face the Bears twice in three weeks, but the Vikings’ pass rushers sure do. Especially in two weeks, when Jay Cutler or whichever QB is still healthy enough has to stand behind Chicago’s offensive line at the Metrodome.
2, Peterson’s list of paybacks: This is Adrian Peterson’s payback season. He’s running even angrier than he did before blowing out his left knee last December. Even when defenses are stacked to stop him, he still produces big numbers. He’s riding a four-game streak of 100-yard games. That ties his career high. He’s had three sub-par games at Soldier Field, the same place where he went for 224 yards in just his fifth NFL game back in 2007.
3, Blair Walsh: If anyone can bomb kickoffs through the end zone consistently at Soldier Field, it will be Vikings rookie Blair Walsh. Walsh already has a team-record 41 kickoff touchbacks this season. That’s good news for a Vikings team that plays a prominent supporting role in the career highlight film of Bears return man Devin Hester.
1, Bounce-back factor: Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams was asked if there’s any lift provided when one sees his next opponent get drilled 32-7 the week before. Williams laughed and said no because in the NFL, you tend to see the exact opposite the following week. Especially when the team getting drilled is a good team, which the Bears are. Playing the Bears in Chicago after they’ve lost two straight and were humiliated on Monday Night Football? Talk about an `uh-oh’ scenario.
2, Turnovers: Does Christian Ponder have what it takes to let loose the way 49ers backup Colin Kaepernick did against the Bears’ defense on Monday night? There’s a big difference between being the backup with low expectations and little to lose and where Ponder is in his career. Kaepernick was able to be cautious and aggressive at the same time. But it took pinpoint accuracy with high-risk throws down the field. Ponder has trouble letting loose like that. If he’s too hesitant, look out. The Bears lead the league in takeaways (30), interceptions (19) and interception returns for touchdowns (seven).
3, Harvin’s health: It seemed to be a slam dunk that Percy Harvin would return from his sprained left ankle to face the Bears. But he didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday. If he doesn’t practice today, don’t be surprised if he sits again.
Bears 24, Vikings 17: For starters, look for Jay Cutler to return. That will make a huge difference for a team that’s pretty average without him, despite a great defense. The pass protection will be better at home, which will be the primary reason the Bears will snap a two-game losing streak. Peterson will have a decent game, but Ponder will have to avoid turnovers while making plays down the field for the Vikings to have a chance.
Record picking Vikings games: 5-3.
VIK plus-1 at CHI: Bears by 7.
OAK plus-8 ½ at CIN: Bengals by 7.
PIT minus-1 at CLE: Browns by 3.
BUF plus-3 at IND: Bills by 7.
DEN minus-10 ½ at KC: Broncos by 7.
TEN minus-3 at JAC: Jaguars by 3.
ATL minus-1 at TB: Buccaneers by 3.
SEA minus-3 at MIA: Dolphins by 7.
BAL minus-1 at SD: Chargers by 3.
STL plus-2 ½ at ARI: Cardinals by 3.
GB plus-2 ½ at NYG: Giants by 3.
CAR minus-2 ½ at PHI: Panthers by 7.
Overall Record Last Week: 10-3. Vs. Spread: 11-2.
Record Season: 81-48-1. Vs. Spread: 64-61-3.
SF minus-1 at NO.
Saints 31, 49ers 28: The 49ers tend to trip right about the time TV analysts start to hand them the Lombardi Trophy early. We’ve hit another one of those times in the wake of San Francisco’s 32-7 Monday night win over the Bears. It’s time for the 49ers to go on the road and face Drew Brees. The Saints’ defense will have a hard time stopping the 49ers, but Brees will tag an outstanding 49ers defense with a season-high 31 points.
Last week: NYJ plus-3 ½ at STL. Prediction: Jets 16, Rams 10 OT. Actual: Jets 27, Rams 13.
Record: 6-4.


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