The Arizona Cardinals own a three-game lead in the NFC West and can wrap up a postseason berth when they go for their seventh consecutive victory against the visiting Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night.
It's the beginning of a rugged closing stretch for the Cardinals that features three straight games against conference division co-leaders. Arizona holds a two-game lead over Minnesota and Green Bay for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Vikings had ripped off five consecutive victories to surge to the top of the NFC North, but they have dropped two of their last three games and were manhandled at home by the Seattle Seahawks 38-7 on Sunday.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Vikings and the Cardinals.
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1. Don't give up on Adrian Peterson
When the Vikings abandon the run, they lose. It's that simple. Last week against the Seahawks, running back Adrian Peterson handled a season-low eight carries and the Vikings suffered their worst defeat. Minnesota has no choice other than to count on the league's leading rusher to carry the team to victory against the Cardinals, who allow an average of 89.0 rushing yards per game (fourth-best in the NFL). The Vikings are undefeated when Peterson records at least 20 carries.
2. Take a shot downfield to Mike Wallace
If they remain committed to Adrian Peterson and the ground game, the Vikings should draw the Cardinals' defense into the box. This will create one-on-one matchups on the outside, which Minnesota has struggled to exploit all season. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater should take a chance on a deep pass to wide receiver Mike Wallace, whose longest catch is only 25 yards. Even if the pass falls incomplete, the attempt will give Wallace a chance to draw a pass-interference call.
3. Drop extra men into pass coverage
The Cardinals have the NFL's third-best passing attack (299.3 yards per game) and the Vikings are absolutely decimated with injuries at the safety position. Arizona will be without leading rusher Chris Johnson, so Minnesota's main focus should be to stop the resurgent combination of quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The Vikings should dedicate most of their defenders to pass coverage to make up for the personnel deficiency in the secondary.
1. Attack with the passing game
Coach Bruce Arians is among the most aggressive play-callers and should let Palmer exploit a defense riddled with injuries. Wideouts John Brown and Michael Floyd have been battling hamstring issues but both were healthy last week and had over 100 yards receiving. With Fitzgerald (five straight games of at least eight catches) as steady as they come and rookie J.J. Nelson emerging as a weapon, Arizona can set the tempo and force the Vikings to play catch-up.
2. Stack the defense versus Peterson
The Cardinals had an ideal tuneup for Minnesota in last week's win at St. Louis, which also features a star running back and a passing game that scares no one. Arizona surrendered one 34-yard run to Rams rookie Todd Gurley but otherwise held him to seven yards on his other eight carries. Having a lockdown cornerback in Patrick Peterson and a pair of safeties who have combined for nine interceptions allows the Cardinals the luxury of having their front seven focus on Peterson.
3. Mix in a steady dose of David Johnson
Injuries to Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington forced the Cardinals to give David Johnson his first NFL start last week and the rookie responded with 99 yards on 22 carries. Not only will the 6-foot-1, 224-pound rookie make Minnesota pay attention to the ground game, but he's deceptively quick and a solid receiver out of the backfield with four touchdown catches, including one in Sunday's victory over the Rams.