Two of the NFL's premier running backs will be on display Sunday in Minneapolis when Adrian Peterson and the surprising Minnesota Vikings host Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans at Mall of America Field.
Peterson and Johnson, of course, are regarded as perhaps the two best running backs in the NFL. A.P. entered the league as the seventh overall draft choice in 2007 and his 7,084 rushing yards since then are the most in the league. Johnson, who was the 24th overall selection in the 2008 NFL Draft, has rushed for an NFL-high 5,831 yards over that period with Peterson a close second at 5,743 yards.
Both are coming off their first 100-yard performances in 2012. At Houston last week, Johnson gained 141 yards on 25 carries, while Peterson rushed for 102 yards on 21 carries at Detroit.
Peterson's Vikings can surpass their win total from all of last season with a third consecutive win this week. Minnesota got a kickoff return and punt return for touchdowns last week as the team snapped a long winless skid in NFC North play with a 20-13 win over Detroit at Ford Field.
Percy Harvin scored on the opening kickoff and Marcus Sherels returned the first punt of the second half for a touchdown as the Vikings halted an 11-game losing streak in the division. The last win in the NFC North for the team was a home victory against Detroit on Sept. 26, 2010.
Christian Ponder went 16-for-26 with 111 yards for the Vikings, who have already matched their win total from last season.
"It doesn't get a whole lot better than this," said Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier. "To come here on the road and get a win against a divisional opponent is huge. Our guys never blinked and kept making plays when we needed them to make plays."
The Titans, meanwhile, are coming off a setback at the hands of the undefeated Houston Texans, who used a stifling defense, a potent running attack and a crisp passing game to rout Tennessee 38-14.
Titans starting quarterback Jake Locker left the game in the first quarter after dislocated his non-throwing shoulder for the second time this season.
Matt Hasselbeck came on and threw for 193 yards on 17-of-25 efficiency with a pair of scores and interceptions for Tennessee, which was coming off a 44-41 overtime win over the Lions.
"It's frustrating because I feel like we're not that far away, but we didn't play great," Hasselbeck admitted. "We had turnovers and I was a part of three of them."
Locker won't dress Sunday and star receiver Kenny Britt remains a question mark with an ankle injury. The Vikings will be without starting strong safety Mistral Raymond (ankle) but could get back starting linebacker Erin Henderson, who has been out with a concussion.
The Vikings lead their all-time series against the Tennessee franchise 7-4, including a 6-1 mark in Minnesota. The Vikings won 20-3 in the most recent meeting between the two teams at the Metrodome on Oct. 24, 2004.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Vikings need more from Ponder or this 3-1 start will quickly turn into a mirage. Minnesota has obviously cut down on mistakes this season and currently has the only starting quarterback in the NFL who hasn't thrown an interception in Ponder (123 passing attempts).
That's amazing considering the former Florida State star still doesn't step up or slide in the pocket all that well and hasn't progressed to the point where he can move to his second or third options on any particular route. Ponder is a checkdown machine rarely looking down the field before deciding to play it safe. That kind of play generally works when you can get the lead but will dissipate quickly if Tennessee can get things going early.
"We are always calling shots in every game that we're in," Ponder said. "It's just to the point that if it's not there, I'm not going to force it downfield."
The Titans would like to force Ponder into some mistakes and the Vikings signal caller must be wary of cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner, who will be on the look out early and often for the smoke routes and bubble screens to Harvin.
Tennessee defensive tackle Jurrell Casey isn't much of a pass rusher but he's been a beast against the run at times and if he can help slow Peterson, the Vikings will be out of their comfort zone. Casey could get some help with the possible return of starting linebacker Colin McCarthy, who has missed the past three games with an ankle injury.
The kick returns were huge for Minnesota last week and Peterson went over the 100-yard mark for the first time since returning from major reconstructive surgery knee surgery 9 1/2 months ago, a truly amazing recovery. Perhaps the biggest return for Minnesota, however, was receiver Jerome Simpson, who missed the first three games of the season because of an NFL- mandated suspension after a drug conviction. The former Cincinnati Bengals second-round pick offers the Vikings offense size, speed and athleticism.
While Simpson's numbers against the Lions (four receptions, 50 yards) looked ordinary, understand he also drew two downfield pass interference calls and made a huge fourth-quarter catch on a sideline fade when Detroit was loading the box to stop the run.
Ponder must utilize Simpson to loosen up the Titans' coverage. With Simpson added to Peterson, Harvin, who is third in the in NFL with 30 receptions, and emerging tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings offense should start humming if Ponder can do his part.
For the Titans, Hasselbeck, a 14-year veteran, is certainly more than capable and is probably still a better quarterback than Locker at this point, although he provides a stationary target for the Vikings' strong pass rush. Offsetting that a bit is Hasselbeck's quick release.
Titans left tackle Michael Roos is one of the NFL's best but the interior of the line, which includes long-time Viking Steve Hutchinson, is under whelming. Minnesota defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison, who is dealing with a balky elbow, haven't broken out yet but Everson Griffen is really coming on and nose tackle Letroy Guion has finally started to flash. Both of those players had a career-best two sacks last week.
With Johnson, who has 29 career 100-yard rush games, finally rounding back into form and Hasselbeck a better pure passer than Locker at this stage of the game, this one will be tougher for Minnesota than most think. The Vikings generally play close games by design and this should be no exception.
"It's so early in the season and we've all seen teams that have gotten off to good starts and they're nowhere to be found when December rolls around," Frazier said. "We don't want to be one of those teams. We know we have a lot of work to do."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 24, Titans 21