By Chris Cluff
Running back Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings were the first-half surprise of the NFL. Peterson has made a stunningly successful quick-turn comeback from a torn ACL to lead the league in rushing and help his team to an equally surprising 5-3 start. The Vikings have faltered a bit since a shocking 4-1 start, with two losses in their last three games, but they have had nine days off to prepare for their trip to Seattle.
This game is significant on a lot of levels. First of all, it is an NFC game, and the winner will have a tiebreaking edge at the end of the season. The Vikings are 3-2 in the NFC while the Hawks are 3-4. Both teams are coming off conference losses and riding cold streaks into this game. While the Hawks have dropped back-to-back games at San Francisco and Detroit, the Vikings sandwiched losses at Washington and at home to Tampa Bay around a win vs. Arizona.
The Vikings, who were pretty stout on defense in the first five games, have faltered in the last three. Quarterback Robert Griffin III ran through them in Washington’s 38-26 win, and running back Doug Martin carved them up in Tampa’s 36-17 blowout a week ago. Turnovers have played a big part as well: They have handed it over three times in both losses.
If the Vikings are going to have a chance, they are going to have to hold on to the ball and win the battle between the league’s top two rushers. Peterson is No. 1 at 775 yards, and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch is No. 2 at 757 yards. They are perhaps the two most physical backs in the league.
The Vikings might have trouble against Seattle’s stout run defense, which allows just 84.9 yards per game and has let just one back go for over 100. However, Frank Gore and the 49ers might have offered the template for running on the Hawks: Run inside trap plays. He busted through the middle of Seattle’s defense for 131 yards on 16 carries.
Meanwhile, the Vikings could have issues stopping Lynch, who broke off a 77-yard touchdown run against Detroit last week. The Vikes are giving up around 108 yards per game and have allowed 100-yard rushers in the last three games. Lynch is averaging about 95 per game.
Both teams are run by young quarterbacks who have been going in opposite directions. Christian Ponder, the Vikings’ second-year QB, was very efficient early in the season, but he has thrown seven interceptions in the past four games. He also has been sacked 10 times in the last three contests. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson has been on the upward arrow, with five TD passes and two interceptions over his last three games. He also has been at his best in Seattle, throwing six TD passes and no interceptions in three home games.
A couple of former Vikings will be key in Wilson’s performance as offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and wide receiver Sidney Rice go up against their old team. And they could find success as the Vikings have had to shuffle their secondary to make up for the loss of cornerback Chris Cook (broken arm) and will be starting rookie Josh Robinson in his place.
The Seahawks are tough to beat at home, where they have managed to squeak out a 3-0 record against Dallas, Green Bay and New England. So the Vikings figure to have their hands full.
Expect it to come down to Peterson vs. Lynch in a game of power punches. The best back’s team wins.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.