When the 2012 schedule was unveiled, the Arizona Cardinals probably didn’t circle their Week 7 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings as one of the tougher games they’d face during the first half of their season.
But mired in a two-game losing streak and playing without starting quarterback Kevin Kolb – who will miss several weeks after having multiple ribs detached from his sternum, while also spraining the sternoclavicular joint in his chest in last Sunday’s 19-16 loss to Buffalo – the Cardinals head to Minnesota Sunday to face one of the big surprises in the NFL thus far in 2012, the 4-2 Minnesota Vikings.
To make matters worse, Arizona has lost seven straight games in Minnesota dating back to 1977, and were pummeled by the Vikings to the tune of 34-10 in 2011.
The Cardinals will start John Skelton for the first time since Week 1 against Seattle, although this time not on the basis of merit but rather injury,
Skelton, who suffered a sprained ankle in the fourth quarter of Arizona’s 20-16 win over the Seahawks, looked every bit the part of a rusty quarterback after replacing Kolb late in last Sunday’s game against the Bills.
While he did help lead the Cardinals down the field for a game-tying score and eventually found Larry Fitzgerald for 28 yards to set up a potential game-winning field goal, Skelton definitely wasn’t the same quarterback who won the starting job back in the preseason.
The third-year quarterback out of Fordham completed just two passes on 10 attempts and misread coverage which led to an easy interception by the Bills’ Jairus Byrd in overtime.
Ironically, neither Skelton nor Vikings’ starter Christian Ponder played in last year’s matchup, but Ponder is a big reason for Minnesota’s success in 2012.
While his statistics won’t jump out at you – averaging 237 yards passing per game with a 2:1 touchdown to interception ration – Ponder has matured leaps and bounds since his up-and-down rookie season in 2011.
The former No. 12 overall pick has not been asked by Leslie Frazier to simply hand the ball off to star running back Adrian Peterson this season. In four of the team’s first six games, Ponder has thrown at least 35 attempts and at least two touchdowns.
He also is more than capable of moving out of the pocket, rushing 19 times for 90 yards this season. His passer rating (92.4) is good for ninth in the NFL and indicative as to how much he has helped Minnesota go from projected door mats to serious contenders in a talent NFC North.
Skelton and Ponder may be the focal point of Sunday’s game, but both teams have offenses that rely on their surrounding parts.
Although they left a loser in Week 6, the Cardinals were pleasantly surprised by undrafted free agent William Powell against Buffalo. While he didn’t get the start, Powell gave Arizona a balanced offensive attack (36 passes to 30 runs) with 13 carries for 70 yards.
The bright spots really end there though, because regardless of balanced play-calling, the Cardinals’ offense continues to struggle largely because of gaping holes along the offensive line.
Tackles Bobby Massie and D’Anthony Baptiste currently are No. 1 and No. 2 in the NFL in most sacks allowed, and over the past three weeks as a team Arizona has surrendered 22 of them to the Dolphins, Bills and Rams.
Kolb was injured on a broken play last Sunday, but even before leaving the game in the fourth quarter, he was getting bruised and battered by a previously underwhelming Bills’ pass rush.
Larry Fitzgerald may be making a Minnesota homecoming Sunday, but if the offensive line doesn’t give Skelton time to use his powerful right arm, No. 11 is likely to
disappoint friends and family in the Metrodome crowd.
For the Vikings, Ponder has been a big story line, but the team’s stars have played like stars in 2012.
After suffering an ACL injury against Washington in Week 16 last season, all-pro Adrian Peterson miraculously was back for the Vikings’ Week 1 over Jacksonville. While he hasn’t been in the end zone in five games, Peterson is just shy of 500 yards rushing on the year good for seventh in the NFL. Also, of note he has yet to lose a fumble this season – which has plagued him throughout his terrific career.
Percy Harvin has been no slouch this season, either. The wideout out Florida already has 49 catches for 540 yards, and is weapon wherever the Vikings choose to put him on the field.
When you’re losing, rarely do people pay attention to silver linings. But if there has been one during the Cardinals’ two-game losing streak, it’s undoubtedly been the defense. Allowing a combined 36 points in their last two games, Ray Horton’s squad has kept the team in both contests even when it probably didn’t deserve to be.
If there has been a weakness for this unit in 2012, it’s been against the run. Ranked No. 19 in the league in rushing yards allowed, the Cardinals’ defense will have to clamp down against Peterson Sunday if they have any plans in keeping the team in the game for a third consecutive week. Leading the NFL in sacks helps, but if Peterson is able to run wild all day it won’t matter.
Minnesota’s defense comes into Sunday’s game with Arizona pissed off to say the least. After giving up a season-high 38 points to Robert Griffin and the Redskins, they definitely plan to take it out on John Skelton. The question is will the Cardinals’ offensive line oblige like it has so willingly in recent weeks?
The Vikings’ pass rush, led by perennial Pro Bowler Jared Allen, has been a middle of the pack bunch this season in terms of getting pressure on the quarterback. But you better believe they will be licking their chops inside the Metrodome, as they face off against a beleaguered line and a rusty quarterback.
Sacks and pressures may come into play Sunday, but it’s the turnover battle that might ultimately decide the outcome.
The Vikings are not a perfect team by any means heading into Week 7, but the Cardinals have too much going against them to make me think this road matchup will help them buck recent trends. Playing in front of another raucous dome crowd, in a city they haven’t won since 1977, doesn’t help matters either.
Prediction: Vikings 27, Cardinals 12