The improved Minnesota Vikings will kick off Week 8 of the NFL season by trying to stay perfect at Mall of America Field.
The Vikings, who have a 4-0 record in Minneapolis this season, will host a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team in the midst of a nine-game road losing streak.
The Bucs' woes away from Central Florida date back to their last visit to the Twin Cities on Sept. 18 of last season when LeGarrette Blount rushed for two touchdowns, including the game-winning TD run with 31 seconds remaining, as Tampa Bay rallied from a 17-0 deficit to earn a 24-20 win.
The Vikings defeated Arizona 21-14 in Week 7 behind star running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown. The six-year veteran, who has made an amazing recovery from a torn ACL suffered on Christmas Eve in 2011, recorded his ninth career game with at least 150 yards, the most among active players. Peterson also matched Robert Smith for the most 100-yard rushing games in Minnesota history with 29.
"We have shown that we can be productive in the run game and the pass game," said Peterson, who has keyed the Vikings early season success.
The Vikings started the 2011 campaign at a dismal 1-6 and finished 3-13, tied for the worst mark in franchise history.
A healthy Peterson along with return of Antoine Winfield from injury and Chris Cook from legal troubles in the defensive backfield coupled with the addition of two stellar first round draft picks, left tackle Matt Kalil and free safety Harrison Smith, has the Vikings thinking big.
Smith returned an interception for a touchdown against the Cardinals and Minnesota registered seven sacks in that game, including a career-high three by Brian Robison.
"That's what we want to pride ourselves on, being the toughest team, the most physical team," said Robison. "We were able to come out today and do that, we just have to keep doing that going forward."
That defensive production helped the Vikings overcome a disappointing performance by quarterback Christian Ponder, who threw for just four yards in the second half. He completed 8-of-17 passes overall on the day with two interceptions.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay aims to get back on the winning track after a 35-28 loss in Week 7 against New Orleans.
Josh Freeman passed for a career-high 420 yards vs. the Saints, the third- biggest game in franchise history.
"Our quarterback had a tremendous game but we had some missed opportunities," said Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano. "Again, we keep saying the same song and dance and that's the way it is until we change it, close but no cigar."
Vincent Jackson was Freeman's favorite target, totaling seven catches for a franchise-record 216 yards and a touchdown.
"The offense is clicking well," rookie back Doug Martin, who ran for 85 yards and a score against New Orleans, told the Buccaneers' website. "That all comes with guys doing their jobs, and consistently doing their jobs. When everybody does that, the offense is very successful."
The Vikings lead the all-time series with their old NFC Central rivals 31-21 but Tampa Bay has won five straight and Minnesota hasn't topped the Bucs since a 20-16 win back in 2001.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This is an interesting matchup because the numbers dictate Minnesota abandoning its strength and putting the game into the hands of Ponder.
Tampa Bay's run defense is stingy, ranked No. 3 in the NFL and allowing just 76.0 yards per game. On the other hand, the Bucs are 31st in passing defense (323.0 ypg) after allowing Drew Brees to go wild last Sunday.
That said, Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave seems to be losing confidence in Ponder and you can certainly understand why. The second-year signal-caller has now thrown at least two interceptions in three straight games and has been making some head-scratching decisions, particularly when he's out of the pocket, trying to extend plays.
Ponder is extremely athletic but his mechanics seem to fall apart when he's on the move, causing the ball to sail. It's tough to overthrow his 6-foot-6 security blanket, Kyle Rudolph, but Ponder has managed to do it in back-to- back weeks while backed up deep in his own territory, setting up TDs for the opposition.
"You obviously don't want to get worse," Ponder said. "Our objective is to progress every week, and I know I need to make a big progression from Sunday to Thursday. That's what we try to do every week and that's something I definitely need to do this week."
Since Minnesota has Peterson and is 27th in the league in passing with 203.4 yards per game, you would expect the Vikings to rely on their bell cow back but the team has plenty of weapons in the passing game if Ponder can get them the ball.
No matter what the numbers say expect the Vikings to lean on Peterson and the short passing game with the dynamic Percy Harvin.
"You want to be able to throw the ball as well as run the ball effectively, but there are times where something is being taken away you have to be good in other areas," Vikings coach Frazier said. "Fortunately for us, we're at a point as a team where we can make up for deficiencies in other areas. We're definitely relying on our run game, and that's not a bad thing.
Peterson leads the NFL with 7,404 rush yards and 67 TDs since arriving on the scene in 2007 and has helped Minnesota average 132.3 ypg on the ground this season, good for seventh in the NFL. The superstar has proven he can run against any defense.
"Peterson is as good as they get," Schiano said. "He runs with an attitude. We need to play run defense with an attitude. We have and we will."
Freeman comes in hot for Tampa Bay, amassing an NFL-best 748 passing yards and six touchdown passes over his last two games but he faces a defense which is ranked ninth in the NFL and is much more stout than the Saints group he saw less than a week ago.
"This is a league that comes down to execution," said Freeman. "You can have the best scheme in the world, but if you are unable to execute, then it's all for naught"
Cook, who helped shut down Larry Fitzgerald in Week 7, is the kind of lengthy corner who can match up with Jackson, who is third in the league with 21.7 yards per catch.
"We basically have the same type of game plan (for Jackson)," Cook told ESPN Radio. "Just take away the big plays to him and take away the big passes down the field to those guys."
Minnesota, however, rarely lets the opposition dictate its coverage schemes, meaning Tampa Bay should be able to game plan and get Jackson matched up with the 5-foot-9 Winfield or rookie Josh Robinson. Of course Winfield has been overcoming size deficiencies for 14 years and has been playing at a Pro Bowl level this season.
Making things even stickier for the Bucs is the Vikings pass rush. Robison got on track against the Cards and Jared Allen has six sacks in his past games.
"I think Greg Schiano and his staff, they have those guys fighting and they seem to be prepared every week," Frazier said. "They play with a lot of energy across the board, on special teams, offense and defense, and that's been very impressive to see. We'll have to really rise up and match their intensity on Thursday night."
Tampa Bay has had the Vikings number recently and was a major part of Minnesota's historic September collapse a year ago. But this season has gone much differently for the Vikings, who need to improve to 6-2 considering the second half of their schedule features two games with both Chicago and Green Bay and another with AFC powerhouse Houston.
"One of our players who was on the team last year came to me and said, 'I can't believe we lost that game last year,'" said Frazier. "But they're a different team, we're a different team. You only look at personnel if you go back and look at that game. We're two totally different teams."
And Minnesota is now the better one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 23 Buccaneers 14