Cardinals-Vikings Matchup Marks Pivotal Game Of NFC Contenders
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings will return to the comfort of their new stadium this weekend, lugging some heavy baggage with them.
Four straight losses can weigh on a team that was undefeated before the streak started, dampening a Super Bowl aspiration at full strength just last month.
"Right now, there's pressure on everybody," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "My dad told me a long time ago, 'If you make it through the downs, the ups will take care of itself.' So we're just going to keep doing what we do. If we get backed up into a corner, we're going to come out and fight."
The Arizona Cardinals won't be the ideal visitors on Sunday. Though they've been one of the NFC's many underperformers and yet to win a game outside of the Pacific time zone, the Cardinals (4-4-1) are plenty dangerous on both sides of the ball. They have their own urgency to catch up in the conference playoff race while starting a final stretch with five of seven games on the road .
David Johnson leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage, with at least 100 in each game, and a defense that was dominant before Minnesota's momentum-killing bye week has been vulnerable against pass-catching running backs. The Vikings (5-4) will also be breaking in a new kicker, Kai Forbath , after releasing Blair Walsh.
"A lot of people are doubting right now, and that's fine, but as long as everyone in this locker room believes, we're going to be OK," left guard Alex Boone said.
Here are some more angles to the matchup:
BRADFORD BLOSSOMING: Despite an injury-ravaged offensive line and a nonexistent running game, Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford has already set a career high with five games with a 100-plus passer rating. He's third in the NFL in completion percentage and fifth in interception percentage, still yet to be picked off in a home game. But cornerback Patrick Peterson and the rest of Arizona's accomplished, versatile defense will provide a stiff test.
"Probably the best group that we've faced," Bradford said.
GO-TO GUY: Minnesota's Stefon Diggs, who's tied for fourth in the league with 61 receptions, caught 13 passes in each of the past two games to set an NFL record. Three players share the all-time mark of 36 catches over a three-game span, with Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown the most recent to get there.
There's no doubt, then, who will be responsible for containing Diggs: Peterson, whose 19 interceptions since he entered the league in 2011 are third most during that span. That's despite many quarterbacks deciding to throw away from the place on the field occupied by the three-time All-Pro.
"It's going to be a great matchup," Bradford said. "It's going to be fun to watch."
FITZGERALD THEATER: Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will play in his home city for the fifth time in his 13-year career. He has never won in Minnesota.
"The summertime, that's when I'm coming home for some leisure, but this is a business trip," said Fitzgerald, who's second in the NFL with 68 receptions. "I'm coming for only one reason, and that's to try to get a win."
PRAISE FROM PALMER: Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer's respect for and insight into Zimmer's character and personality run deep. They were together from 2008 through 2010 in Cincinnati, where Zimmer was the defensive coordinator. Palmer said he sees parallels between Zimmer and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, both of whom didn't get a head coach position until late in their careers.
"Everybody's held accountable, whether you're the best player on the team or the guy that's just about to get cut," Palmer said. "That's something that guys really respect, I know."
And Zimmer did not play favorites, Palmer said.
"He doesn't hold back. He tells you the truth. He doesn't sugarcoat things," Palmer said. "If you need to do better, you better do better or else he's going to replace you, and he's serious about things like that. There are no politically correct-type statements. He's very cut and dried, and what you see is what you get."
TACKLE'S CHALLENGE: John Wetzel had his first start at left tackle in Arizona's win over San Francisco last week and held his own in place of Jared Veldheer, who is out for the season with a torn triceps. Facing a tough defensive front in a loud stadium at Minnesota is another matter.
"Everson Griffen is, I think, one of the most underrated defensive ends in the league," Arians said, going on to praise Vikings defensive end Brian Robison and defensive tackle Linval Joseph.
Wetzel hadn't played in an NFL game until this season.
"This is a big, big test," Arians said.
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