All eyes will be on Robert Griffin III and Adrian Peterson on Sunday when the Washington Redskins try to halt an eight-game home losing streak against the much-improved Minnesota Vikings.
Griffin, the Redskins dynamic rookie quarterback, was knocked out in the third quarter against undefeated Atlanta last Sunday with what was called a mild concussion but has been practicing, albeit on a limited basis.
Peterson, meanwhile, will return to the same field in which he suffered a torn ACL and MCL on the Vikings' first offensive play of the second half during a 33-26 win on Christmas Eve last season. The All-Pro back has made a remarkable recovery and comes into this game eighth in the NFL in rushing, less than 10 months after the catastrophic injury.
"I think everyone was hoping Adrian would come back," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "Watching him on film, you can tell he has worked extremely hard to put himself in the position he's in. I think everyone was pulling for him. Our players were sick when it happened."
RG3 completed the NFL's concussion protocol before he was allowed to practice on a limited basis Wednesday and is on schedule to start. Whether that's the prudent decision in the long run for the rebuilding Redskins is up for debate since the Vikings defense features a very strong front four backed up by heavy hitters like Chad Greenway, Harrison Smith and Antoine Winfield.
"So far, so good," Shanahan said. "He had a good practice. I thought he performed well. Each day we'll monitor him and if he feels good, we're gonna go with him."
If Griffin undergoes a setback, the 'Skins could go with fellow rookie Kirk Cousins, who replaced him last Sunday during a 24-17 loss to Atlanta, or veteran Rex Grossman.
"Kirk has been No. 2 for a reason, because we feel like he's earned that right," said Shanahan. "We feel very good about him and where he's at, but we also have a lot of confidence in Rex as well."
Griffin connected on 10-of-15 passes for 91 yards against the Falcons, but left the setback after taking a shot to the head from linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
Cousins took over from there and threw for 111 yards, one score and two interceptions on 5-of-9 passing for Washington, which lost at home for the eighth consecutive time.
Rookie sixth-round draft pick Alfred Morris ran for 115 yards on 18 carries for the Redskins, while Santana Moss caught two passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in the setback.
"They controlled the tempo of the game," Shanahan said of the Falcons. "We had some opportunities to get some momentum going, but couldn't make those third downs. We've got to make more of our third downs."
Minnesota, meanwhile, improved to 4-1, its best start since opening 6-0 in 2009, last Sunday when Percy Harvin caught eight passes for 108 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for a score as the Vikings steamrolled the Tennessee Titans, 30-7.
Christian Ponder went 25-for-35 through the air for 258 yards and two touchdowns and Peterson, despite tweaking his left ankle, carried the ball 17 times for 88 yards for the Vikings, who have already surpassed their win total from 2011.
"When it's the same leg where you had the knee injury, I can see there being a little bit of doubt in your mind about what is going to happen next," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of Peterson. "But to his credit once again, he kept himself together, got back on the field. He ran great."
Minnesota has won its last three contests and is tied with the Chicago Bears atop the NFC North standings. The last time the Vikings finished in first place in the division was '09.
"I know everyone else is surprised that we're 4-1. What stinks is that we should be 5-0," Ponder said in reference to the team's lone loss, a 23-20 setback at Indianapolis on Sept. 16.
Ponder, meanwhile, is second in the league with a 69.0 completion percentage (behind Griffin) and will be shooting for his fourth consecutive win as a starter.
"We're just trying to have fun and play football," Greenway said of his team's start. "It's just like the opposite of last year."
The Vikings and Redskins have spilt 16 prior meetings with Minnesota taking five of the past seven, including a 33-26 win last season. Vikings backup quarterback Joe Webb threw two touchdown passes in that one while Toby Gerhart came on after Peterson's injury to run for 109.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Griffin really is difficult to handle and the Vikings aren't exactly the most disciplined team up front. Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, particularly, tend to freelance at times and playing Griffin is all about lane disciple and gap control.
"It's a different dynamic," Frazier said when talking about RG3 earlier in the week. "They present an option [attack]. We haven't had to prepare for option football at all this season. We're watching tape Monday and Tuesday of a quarterback who not only presents a threat throwing the football, but getting on the perimeter of your defense and being able to pitch it or keep it and make plays.
"It forces you as a defense to be very disciplined about what you're doing and you have to tackle well."
Minnesota defensive coordinator Alan Williams would be wise to commit Greenway or weak side linebacker Erin Henderson as a spy on Griffin.
On the other side the Vikings still doesn't trust Ponder, who struggles when his first read doesn't come open. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave opened it up a bit last Sunday against the Titans and two interceptions resulted until he scaled it back again.
Washington will see a heavy dose of the running game with both Peterson and Gerhart as well as the short passing game with Harvin, who is perhaps the NFL's most versatile playmaker and leads the league in yards after catch.
Harvin, who is a load to deal with on bubble screens, hitch routes and smoke routes as well as a threat at the tailback position and the game's best pure kick returner, is second in the NFL with 38 catches, and 329 of his 407 receiving yards have come after he catches the ball.
"A beast, that's probably a good way to describe him," Ponder said when talking about Harvin. "We're going to keep giving him the ball."
The key to Minnesota going downfield is Jerome Simpson, who was suffering from numbness in his lower leg last Sunday, but Frazier expects his deep-threat will be able to play against the Redskins.
"All indications are there's a very good chance (he'll play)," Frazier said. "We'll know more, how he responds to some of the treatment they give him today."
The Redskins are obviously pressing to end their long home losing streak. Since Griffin is the future of the franchise, however, he should be put in bubble wrap until he's 100 percent.
Sure, Washington probably wouldn't have a chance this week but you also wouldn't be subjecting your franchise player to one of the hardest hitting defenses early this season.
It should be close contest but in the end, it doesn't pay off for Washington thanks to a long Blair Walsh field goal.
"It's exciting to know that every week you have a chance," Allen said of his team. "It's exciting to know that with so many questions going into this year, it's exciting to answer 'OK, if we play our best, we have a chance to beat anybody in the NFL and we're pretty darn good if we play our best."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 23, Redskins 20