The strange inability of the Minnesota Vikings to hold onto a lead in recent weeks has been well documented. The Kansas City Chiefs, on the other hand, don't even know the feeling of being ahead in a game during this 2011 season.
The two winless teams will each try to work out their problems in a head-to- head meeting this Sunday from Arrowhead Stadium.
Minnesota could have very well been 3-0 and showered with praise entering this Week 4 matchup, but it's instead been the talk of the league for entirely different reasons. The Vikings have been in front by double digits in every one of their first three outings of 2011, only to collapse in the second half and lose each time.
The most painful and stunning meltdown occurred last week, when Minnesota squandered a 20-0 halftime advantage against fellow NFC North member Detroit and suffered a 26-23 overtime loss to the currently-unbeaten Lions.
One week earlier, the Vikings owned a 17-0 lead on visiting Tampa Bay at the break before floundering down the stretch of a 24-20 defeat, and surrendered 17 unanswered points during the second half of a 24-7 setback at San Diego in the season opener.
Minnesota has outscored the opposition by a 54-7 margin in the first half this season, but has been trounced by a 67-6 score after intermission.
"If we find out a way to play four quarters, we're going to be hard to beat," remarked linebacker Chad Greenway.
For Kansas City, putting together even one strong quarter has been a monumental challenge so far. The defending AFC West champions have scored the fewest points (27) and allowed the most (109) in the NFL in dropping their first three contests.
The Chiefs did deliver a somewhat encouraging result their last time out, though, putting together a near-comeback in a 20-17 loss at division-rival San Diego last Sunday. Kansas City pulled within three points on a Matt Cassel touchdown pass with just under five minutes left, but the struggling quarterback was intercepted in Chargers' territory late in the fourth quarter to end the team's upset bid.
Kansas City had been woefully uncompetitive in its first two tests of this young season, following up a humiliating 41-7 home loss to upstart Buffalo in Week 1 with a 48-3 dismantling at the hands of Detroit the subsequent Sunday.
"We weren't good enough [last Sunday], but we were a lot closer to being a good team," Chiefs head coach Todd Haley said after the San Diego game.
Reestablishing their dominance at home would also help get the Chiefs back on track. Kansas City went 7-1 at Arrowhead Stadium en route to last season's unexpected division title and held the opposition to 14 points or less in all but one of those wins.
The Vikings, meanwhile, have lost 10 of their last 12 road tilts dating back to midway through the 2009 season.
Kansas City comes in with a 5-4 edge in its overall regular season series with Minnesota, breaking a deadlock with a 13-10 win at Arrowhead Stadium in 2007. The Chiefs have come out on top in each of their last three clashes with the Vikings at home, with Minnesota' lone previous victory in four lifetime visits to Kansas City coming in 1974. The Vikings' last win of any kind over the Chiefs took place in 2003, a 45-20 rout at the Metrodome.
The most significant encounter between the teams came in Super Bowl IV from New Orleans, which Kansas City won by a 23-7 score on Jan. 11, 1970 to capture the franchise's first and only world championship.
Both Haley and Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier will be opposing one another, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time in a head coaching capacity.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Minnesota's offensive game plan on Sunday figures to feature a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson (296 rushing yards, 3 TD, 8 receptions), and for a few good reasons. The four-time All-Pro is one of the league's premier running backs and the catalyst of the NFL's third-best rushing offense (159.0 ypg) so far this season, plus the Vikings have encountered difficulty throwing the ball consistently over their first few games. The team is averaging just 143 yards through the air (29th overall) on the season, and although quarterback Donovan McNabb (478 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) has been able to keep turnovers to a minimum, the aging offseason pickup has displayed sporadic accuracy and infrequent big-play ability. He is developing a strong rapport with wide receiver Michael Jenkins (15 receptions, 1 TD), however, with the ex-Falcon amassing a career-high nine receptions totaling 88 yards in last week's loss, while rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph (4 receptions) had a mild breakthrough by catching three McNabb passes for 39 yards against the Lions. Minnesota's best weapon among the receivers is still Percy Harvin (12 receptions), the versatile former first-round pick who's also averaging better than nine yards per carry running the ball.
Peterson will be attempting to bully his way through a Kansas City defense that's surrendering an average of 123 rushing yards per game (28th overall), though that high number is in part due to the unit often having little time to rest due to the team's extensive offensive breakdowns. Inside linebackers Jovan Belcher (19 tackles) and Derrick Johnson (16 tackles, 4 PD) combined for 17 tackles against the Chargers and will likely be in line for another active day this week, and the duo gets good help up front from young anchors Glenn Dorsey (10 tackles) and Tyson Jackson (8 tackles). The Chiefs' most glaring weakness on defense has been a lack of a pass rush, with standout outside linebacker Tamba Hali (18 tackles) accounting for two of the team's poor total of three sacks in three games, and that liability has contributed to a No. 25 overall ranking in pass efficiency defense. Injuries to the secondary have been a factor as well, with difference-making strong safety Eric Berry going down with a season-ending torn ACL in Week 1. Veteran Jon McGraw (19 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD) has been adequate as a replacement, but he's questionable for Sunday's test after hurting his shin against the Chargers. Top cornerback Brandon Flowers (15 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PD) is dealing with an ankle sprain as well, though he's expected to suit up for the game.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
The Kansas City offense has been a shambles through the early portion of this season, with its troubles compounded by the devastating torn ACL All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles sustained in the Detroit loss. Losing its clear- cut best playmaker was a crippling blow to a group that's produced a meager 27 points in three games and stands 30th overall in total yards (244.0 ypg) and next to the bottom in passing offense (130.7 ypg). On the positive side, Cassel (428 passing yards, 3 TD, 5 INT) is coming off by far his best showing of the year, with the 2010 Pro Bowl alternate completing a sharp 17-of-24 throws for 176 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers and getting both wide receiver Steve Breaston (6 receptions) and tight end Leonard Pope (8 receptions, 1 TD) more involved as complements to top target Dwayne Bowe (11 receptions, 1 TD). With Charles gone, the multi-faceted Dexter McCluster (138 rushing yards, 14 receptions) has taken on more of a role in the offense, with Haley and coordinator Bill Muir utilizing the diminutive second-year pro as both a running back and slot receiver. McCluster has shared rushing duties with high-mileage veteran Thomas Jones (74 rushing yards), who's showing the effects of a heavy career workload by averaging a subpar 2.6 yards per carry.
The Chiefs will likely need Cassel to be on target again this week, as the team may encounter tough sledding running the football against a Minnesota defense that's been very stingy in that aspect. The Vikings are yielding a mere 67.3 yards per game on the ground (4th overall) and 3.1 yards per attempt this season, with Detroit mustering a paltry 20 rushing yards on 19 carries a week ago. The return of six-time Pro Bowl tackle Kevin Williams from a two- game suspension last Sunday made an immediate impact, and Greenway (21 tackles), middle linebacker E.J. Henderson (20 tackles) and hard-nosed cornerback Antoine Winfield (28 tackles, 1 INT) are all accomplished run- stoppers as well. Minnesota also unleashed a furious pass rush on the Lions that generated five sacks, with former Chief Jared Allen (13 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT) accounting for three of those takedowns and Brian Robison (7 tackles, 2.5 sacks) netting the other two from his opposite end spot. Despite their knack of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, the Vikings have still allowed nearly 300 net passing yards per game (29th overall), with the Lions putting up 338 yards and two touchdowns via the air in last week's comeback.
KEYS TO THE GAME
One reason why both the Vikings and Chiefs remain winless as that each team has been getting less than desired production out of its quarterback. It'll be no secret that the two participants will make it a priority to establish the run, but the defenses will be well aware of that fact as well. Therefore, the deciding factor of Sunday's matchup could come down to who performs better between McNabb and Cassel.
The home field factor. Kansas City was one of the best at protecting its home turf a year ago and will be in good position to snag that elusive first victory if it can make Arrowhead an intimidating place once again. The Vikings haven't been very good on the road over the past couple of seasons, but have a veteran team capable of delivering better results in enemy venues.
Finishing. There's no question Minnesota's biggest hangup this season has been a failure to land the knockout blow to its opponents, and the Chiefs showed a lot of life down the stretch in nearly rallying against the Chargers last week. The Vikings shouldn't have much of a problem building another lead on a Kansas City team they have a talent advantage upon, but can't take their foot off the gas last they have over the past three weeks.
The Vikings could easily be entering this game with a 3-0 record if not for their unexplained second-half mishaps, while the Chiefs have been woefully uncompetitive for the majority of this season and beset by injuries as well. If Minnesota is able to come through with another strong start, its defense is well-equipped to deal with the precious few scoring threats Kansas City possesses. Expect a much more focused and consistent effort from a Vikings team that's in desperate need of a win, and Haley to once again spend the next week searching for answers following another disappointing result.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 24, Chiefs 13