So here’s where we stand 9 games into the season: The Vikings are at 5-4, tied for first in the NFC North, having won 4 of their last 5 games and their last 2 straight. Today they visit a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that’s tied for second in the NFC South at 6-3, and coming out of its bye week hoping to erase the bad taste left from a frustrating loss in Dallas and a squeaker of a victory over the pitiful Chiefs. The Bucs are 4-0 at home this year and the Vikings only 1-3 on the road – obviously, this does not bode well. There are, however, some possible points in the Vikings’ favor today: 1 – Tampa’s pass rush has not been as fearsome as in past years, so with any luck, Gus Frerotte will remain upright (whether he ends up delivering the ball to our receivers instead of theirs is entirely up to him). 2 – Tampa has absolutely no running game lately. Teams tend to abandon the run against the Vikes anyway, but with the way our defensive line has been getting after the quarterback, there’s no longer any guarantee that a Jeff Garcia can just stand there and pick apart our secondary. Unfortunately, that very secondary is woefully depleted – Charles Gordon is out for the year after his nasty ankle dislocation, and now Madieu Williams is hurt again. And Tampa can light it up through the air at times – they’re 9th in the league in pass offense.
If there’s one thing that should be giving Viking fans a touch of indigestion right now (besides all those injuries in the secondary), it’s the recent play of Gus Frerotte. There’s little question that Gus saved the season when he took over for Tarvaris Jackson – I shudder to think where we’d be right now with T-Jack still at the helm – but he seems to have degenerated lately, and against the Packers last week he was flat out awful. It was nice, for awhile, feeling like we could win because of our quarterback and not in spite of him – but now we’re losing that confidence in Gus. He needs to play well today and give us back that good feeling about him. He needs to find Bernard Berrian, who was completely taken out by Al Harris and Green Bay. And he needs to find Visanthe Shiancoe who once seemed like a joke but now seems like an under-utilized weapon.
Of course, the offense will still run through Adrian Peterson, who took a big step last week in establishing his legend as an NFL player. Adrian’s will to win seemingly overwhelmed the Packers. He seems indomitable – and if the rest of the team can take on that personality, it will be a very hard team to beat the rest of the season. But Adrian didn’t beat the Packers single-handedly, even if it seemed that way – he had lots of help from an offensive line that seems to be coming together at just the right time (it did make a big difference having Bryant McKinnie come back), and he had lots of help from Chester Taylor who has become a dangerous weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. The Vikings finally seem to have worked out how to use their backfield tandem – pound away with Adrian, knowing you’ll get the occasional big run, and throw to Chester any time you need a big first down conversion. The Moss/Carter combo used to be the one to give defensive coodinators nightmares, but now it’s Peterson/Taylor that sends them reaching for the Maalox.
Again, I will offer no game prediction. Tampa’s home dominance would seem the main point in their favor. And it seems a lot to ask for Adrian to take over a second straight game and make it his own, so Frerotte and the defense had better play well. I worry a lot about the state of our secondary with all those injuries, Darren Sharper looking over-the-hill and Cedric Griffin looking incredibly vulnerable. I fear Garcia will tear us to pieces with short passes – but I feared that against Aaron Rodgers last week and the pass rush made him look confused and helpless. Garcia, however, has loads more experience and pocket presence than Rodgers. We’re going to need a big game from Jared Allen and company to keep that Tampa passing attack from getting in a groove.
A win for Minnesota would be their third in a row – and that would probably vault them into favorite status in the division with six to play. And a huge road victory would go a long way toward establishing confidence. I wouldn’t go so far as the call the Vikings a playoff team if they win today – let’s just say, if they beat the Bucs, it will be a lot harder to doubt them.