The Vikings aren't facing Tom Brady in his Patriots element here, and their defense could find ways to confuse the 43-year-old quarterback who's looked out of sync with his new offense at times. But it's the Buccaneers' defense — particularly their best-in-the-league run front — that could make this a difficult challenge for the Vikings to overcome.
THREE BIG STORY LINES
Playoff positioning on the line
The Vikings moved into the NFC's No. 7 spot with their win and Arizona's loss last Sunday, and can gain a tiebreaker on the No. 6 Buccaneers with a victory. Conversely, a loss could put them back on the outside of the playoff field — or into a tie with as many as four teams — with three weeks to go in the regular season.
Big names, and two Gophers, in Tampa
After signing Brady this offseason, the Bucs brought in two of the quarterback's favorites — tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Antonio Brown — from his New England days. Tampa has also been the launching point for the NFL careers of two former Gophers stars: receiver Tyler Johnson and defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr..
Making do without Kendricks again
A calf injury, which linebacker Eric Kendricks sustained in practice a week ago and aggravated in warmups before the Jaguars game, will keep him out again, meaning the Vikings will have to stop running back Ronald Jones and slow down the Brady-Gronkowski connection without their All-Pro middle linebacker.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Vikings CB Cameron Dantzler vs. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans
The Buccaneers will give Evans some work in the slot, where he'll be Jeff Gladney's responsibility, but Dantzler might represent the Vikings' best chance of matching up with Evans when he's at the split end position. The 6-foot-3 rookie had his first career interception last week, and will need his size to handle Evans, who's one of the game's most physical receivers at 6-5 and 230 pounds.
Vikings' offensive line vs. Buccaneers' run defense
Tampa Bay hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, and its front seven — specifically linebackers Lavonte David and Shaquil Barrett — will be a challenging matchup for the Vikings' offensive line. The Vikings will undoubtedly try to establish Dalvin Cook early, but if second-down runs put them in difficult passing situations, it's worth watching whether they attack the Buccaneers' young corners.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
3.3 Yards per carry the Buccaneers are allowing this season, the lowest rate in the league.
THE VIKINGS WILL WIN IF …
They can get Cook going on the ground, handle Tampa Bay's blitzes well enough for Kirk Cousins to exploit one-on-one matchups for Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson and keep the Buccaneers from using Jones and Gronkowski to attack the middle of their defense with Kendricks out.
THE BUCCANEERS WILL WIN IF …
Their blitzes lead Cousins to errant throws under pressure, their run front continues to do against Cook what it's done against most opponents this season, and their offense can control the game with a combination of runs from Jones and downfield throws from Brady to Brown, Gronkowski, Evans or Chris Godwin.
Prediction: Buccaneers 26, Vikings 20
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