While the Oakland Raiders had a few extra days to savor their biggest victory of this 2011 season, the Minnesota Vikings won't have much time to try to shake off their worst beating in a decade when the struggling club hosts the current AFC West leaders in Sunday's interconference showdown from the Metrodome.
The Raiders took over as the new front-runners in the wacky AFC West after coming through with a pivotal 24-17 Thursday night win at division-rival San Diego on Nov. 10, placing the Silver and Black at the top of a crowded pack that was further tightened after Denver's upset of the New York Jets on Thursday, which put the Broncos just a half-game back of first place.
Oakland, which entered the contest off potentially-damaging home losses to both the Chiefs and Broncos, bounced back with inspired performances on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Carson Palmer had by far his best outing since joining the team in a midseason trade, second-string running back Michael Bush piled up 242 yards from scrimmage in place of injured standout Darren McFadden and linebacker Kamerion Wimbley registered four sacks to lead a defense that took down San Diego signal-caller Philip Rivers six times and intercepted him twice.
Palmer amassed 299 yards on only 14 completions in his second start and third appearance as a Raider, while connecting on two long touchdown passes to rookie receiver Denarius Moore.
"We haven't seen the best of him yet in my opinion," Oakland head coach Hue Jackson said of Palmer, who sat out the season's first six weeks due to a dispute with his former employers, the Cincinnati Bengals, and threw six interceptions in his first two games following his Oct. 18 trade to the Raiders. "He's just warming up. He will continue to get better and continue to grow. What we've got to do is consistently keep growing him, and he'll keep getting better and this team will follow."
Another big effort out of Bush would aid Oakland's cause as well. The powerful back finished with 157 rushing yards and a touchdown on 30 carries against the Chargers while adding three catches totaling 85 yards in a superb stand-in for McFadden, who's considered doubtful for Sunday's tilt while recovering from a sprained foot.
While the Raiders are flying high off their Week 10 triumph, the Vikings are in the process of recovering from a 45-7 shellacking at the hands of defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay on Monday, Minnesota's most lopsided defeat since a 41-0 throttling by the New York Giants in the 2010 NFC Championship.
The Vikings were bombarded right from the start by the still-unbeaten Packers, allowing a punt return score to rookie Randall Cobb less than two minutes in and a 70-yard touchdown drive on Green Bay's ensuing possession. Minnesota gave up four touchdown passes in all to top MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers and was continually crippled by penalties as well, with the team flagged 10 times for 80 yards on the night.
"Obviously it was not a good enough performance by our football team and by us as coaches [in] getting our guys ready to go out and play in a tough environment," said Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier. "The mistakes were very costly [on Monday]. It's hard to overcome them when you play a good team and then you do some things like we did in crucial situations with penalties that really set you back, and that's something that we'll have to address."
The loss dropped Minnesota to 2-7 on the season, the club's worst record after nine games since 2002.
The Vikings will also have to overcome further depletions to an already-ravaged secondary that's surrendered the third-most passing yards in the NFL and 18 touchdowns through the air thus far. Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield sustained a season-ending fractured clavicle against the Packers, while safety Husain Abdullah is unlikely to play this week after incurring a concussion in Monday's loss.
Minnesota is also without young cornerback Chris Cook, who's been barred from participating in team activities following an arrest on felony assault charges last month.
Oakland is 3-1 on the road this season and will be aiming for a third straight win away from home.
The Raiders own an 8-4 advantage in their all-time regular-season series with Minnesota, but the Vikings were 29-22 victors over Oakland when these teams last met, which took place at the Metrodome in 2007. The Raiders had won two straight in the set prior to that loss, delivering a 22-17 road triumph in 1999 as well as 28-18 win at the Oakland Coliseum in 2003. The clubs have split six lifetime bouts held in Minnesota.
Oakland and Minnesota also opposed one another in Super Bowl XI to conclude the 1976 season, with the Raiders coming on top by a 32-14 score at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Both Jackson and the Frazier will be facing each another, as well as their fellow head coach's respective teams, for their first time in their present positions. The two previously worked together as assistants on Marvin Lewis' staff in Cincinnati from 2003-04, with Frazier then the Bengals' defensive coordinator and Jackson the wide receivers coach.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Oakland's philosophy under Jackson of running the ball with authority and stretching the field with deep passes was fully on display against the Chargers, and executed to near perfection as well. The diverse backfield tandem of the 245-pound Bush (490 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 5 total TD) and rookie speedster Taiwan Jones (70 rushing yards) combined for 196 rushing yards, while half of Palmer's 14 completions on the night went for gains of 20 or more yards. Most of those were hauled in by Moore (23 receptions, 4 TD), with the first-year find finishing with 123 yards and two scores on his five catches, and he'll be the main target again this week with fellow big-play threat Jacoby Ford likely out after spraining his foot in the critical win. Though Palmer (747 passing yards, 5 TD, 7 INT) has clearly become more comfortable with the playbook and the game-breaking McFadden isn't expected to suit up, the Raiders remain a run-first operation. Oakland is third in the NFL in rush attempts and fourth overall in yards gained via the ground (156.2 ypg), and 41 of its 62 plays versus San Diego were of the run variety. That figures to mean another heavy load for Bush, whose 242 yards from scrimmage in Week 10 was the most by a Raiders player since 1963.
Bush may find the yards a bit tougher to come by this week, however, as the Vikings rank sixth in the NFL in run defense (93.9 ypg) and are holding opponents to a modest 3.7 yards per carry on the season. Minnesota fields a strong trio of linebackers in the brother combo of E.J. Henderson (46 tackles, 1 sack) and Erin Henderson (42 tackles, 1 sack) and 2010 Pro Bowl alternate Chad Greenway (73 tackles), and they're backed by a five-time All-Pro honoree in veteran tackle Kevin Williams (13 tackles). Stopping the pass has been another matter altogether, though. The Vikings are permitting 272.8 yards per game through the air (30th overall) and have given up 10 passing touchdowns over their last three tests, and the team was powerless in its attempts to slow down Rodgers and his cast of weapons on Monday. Not having the savvy Winfield or Cook further compounds the problem, and Abdullah (49 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is the team's best safety and second-leading tackler. Minnesota will try to get by at the corner spots with the struggling Cedric Griffin (48 tackles, 8 PD) and Asher Allen (33 tackles, 1 INT), while journeyman Bennie Sapp was signed for a second go-around with the organization on Wednesday to provide needed depth. At least the Vikings have the league's best pass rusher this season to rely on in lineman Jared Allen (41 tackles, 1 INT). The relentless end has compiled an astounding 13 1/2 sacks on the year and has notched at least a half-sack in a club-record 11 straight games.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Like the Raiders, Minnesota's plan is to pound the ball on the ground with its own workhorse back, which makes sense considering the team possesses one of the game's premier runners in Adrian Peterson (846 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 11 total TD) and a rookie quarterback who's still learning the ropes in 2011 first-round choice Christian Ponder (744 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT). The Vikings stand just behind Oakland in the league rankings in rushing with an average of 145.2 yards per game (5th overall), while Peterson's 180 carries are the second-most of any individual player this season. Though the four-time All- Pro was less of a factor in Monday's loss due to Minnesota falling behind by double-digits early on, he still scored a touchdown for a fifth straight game and is clearly the best playmaker on the offense. Ponder's three starts since supplanting the ineffective Donovan McNabb under center have gone about as expected, with the 23-year-old displaying flashes of great promise but often scuffling as well, and he enters Sunday's clash having completed just 50.5 percent of his throws. The Florida State product also hasn't gotten much support from a pedestrian group of receivers, as dangerous wideout Percy Harvin (37 receptions, 1 total TD) hasn't been as explosive as in years past due to a series of injuries and both opposite-side starter Michael Jenkins (32 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (24 receptions, 2 TD) are more possession-types. The Vikings are just 28th overall in passing offense, averaging 180 yards per game.
Peterson will be going up against an Oakland defense that's allowing a subpar 5.2 yards per rush attempt on the season, tied with New Orleans for the worst mark in the league, and was shredded for 299 yards on the ground by Denver's unconventional read-option scheme two weeks back. The unit has had its moments, however, as it limited Houston's potent running game to a harmless 70 yards on 25 carries in a Week 5 road win and yielded just 75 rushing yards to San Diego last time out. The Raiders have been very good at pressuring the quarterback, and their pass rush was simply overwhelming in the club's recent win over the Chargers. With Wimbley (37 tackles, 6 sacks) leading the charge with a dominant showing, Oakland recorded six sacks of Rivers and harassed the accomplished quarterback into a host of hurried throws, and the ability of tackles Richard Seymour (24 tackles, 5 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (27 tackles, 3.5 sacks) to collapse the pocket is another reason why enemy passers have completed a mere 52.1 percent of their attempts on the Silver and Black, the second-lowest rate against an NFL team this season. Another is the solid play of cornerback Stanford Routt (31 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD), who's made Raider nation quickly forget about Nnamdi Asomugha's free-agent departure in the offseason by turning in an excellent campaign.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Oakland's success this season has been predicated on whether or not the defense is able to adequately contain the run, In the five games in which the Raiders have allowed 100 rushing yards or less, they've won each time. Conversely, they've given up a troubling average of 211 rushing yards per game in their four defeats. The Vikings are a good running team and have a true difference- maker in Peterson, and keeping him from going ballistic will be a challenge for Oakland's inconsistent group.
The Raiders will be sure to attack a Minnesota secondary that's been beset by injuries and off-field issues throughout this season and was hardly an air- tight crew when it was at full strength. Oakland isn't a dink-and-dunk sort of team -- it prefers to swing for the fences when throwing the ball -- and the Vikings won't have much of a chance if their defensive backs let the Raiders' lightning-fast receivers get behind them for big plays.
Quarterback play. Minnesota is capable of winning this game if Ponder performed like he did in a victory at Carolina two weeks back, when the rookie threw for 236 yards on a sharp 18-of-28 passing and didn't have a turnover. It'll be tough to come out on top if he's hitting on half of his attempts, however. Likewise, Palmer needs to be the guy who skillfully bombed away on the Chargers and not the quarterback who was giving the ball away at will in his first two games as a Raider.
The Raiders are the better of these two teams and have played well on the road, and a repeat of their most recent effort would surely get the job against a Minnesota outfit that has it's share of liabilities. They've also been wildly erratic, however, as the back-to-back home losses to the Chiefs and Broncos will attest, and Peterson could pose a major problem for a defense that's been suspect against the run. The Vikings won't be as overmatched as they were on Monday and should be eager to atone for a brutal performance, and it's unlikely Bush will have quite the impact he did in the San Diego game this time around. In a matchup in which neither participant inspires a great deal of confidence, Minnesota's potent running game and Oakland's tendency to throw in a clunker may give the home team an ever-so-slight edge.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 31, Raiders 27