Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Vikings outside linebacker Chad Greenway is expected to play against the Dolphins today, two days after his father, Alan, lost his battle with leukemia.
Greenway was excused from practice Friday to travel back to South Dakota to see his father. His father passed away later that night.
Greenway is with the team here in Miami, and all indications are that he will play.
The nine-year veteran is second on the team with 91 tackles despite missing three games earlier this season due to broken ribs.
What would you rather do on a Sunday morning than wake up early and read weekly picks and power rankings involving 32 teams that basically are of equal strength and ability to beat, lose to or tie anyone on any given Sunday, Monday, Saturday, Thursday (and some day, when the revenue ceiling needs to be extended to a gazillion bazillion dollars, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday as well)?
CRAIG’S NFL POWER RANKINGS
BEST OF THE BUNCH
1. Seahawks (10-4)
Why: Well, it certainly took them long enough to come around to form, but the defending champions are once again looking like the best team in the league. For this week, at least. (See: Patriots, Packers, Broncos, Cardinals …) We know the Seahawks have the QB to get the job done. And tossing Percy overboard hasn’t hurt anything but Percy’s career. But the Seahawks are back on top because of this number: 6.8. That’s the average point total of the opponent during Seattle’s current four-game winning streak.
2. Patriots (11-3); 3. Broncos (11-3); 4. Cardinals (11-3); 5. Cowboys (10-4); 6. Colts (10-4); 7. Lions (10-4); 8. Bills (8-6); 9. Packers (10-4); 10. Steelers (9-5); 11. Bengals (9-4-1); 12. Ravens (9-5); 13. Chargers (9-6); 14. Chiefs (8-6); 15. Saints (6-8); 16. Rams (6-8); 17. Texans (7-7); 18. Dolphins (7-7); 19. Redskins (4-11); 20. Eagles (9-6); 21. Bears (5-9).
22. Vikings 6-8 (Last week: 21): The Vikings don’t have a signature win. They haven’t beaten a team that currently has a winning record or even a .500 record. But that doesn’t mean coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t have the program heading in the right direction. The defensive schemes are proving to be effective and Norv Turner’s work with rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is paying off. The offense naturally struggled to find an identity after Adrian Peterson was removed from the team. Over time, that identity has become a spread-it-out passing attack with Bridgewater making quick throws to avoid pressure. Last week’s effort in Detroit showed the players believe that the coaches know what they’re doing.
THE REST OF THE REST
23. Panthers (5-8-1); 24. Giants (5-9); 25. 49ers (7-8); 26. Browns (7-7); 27. Falcons (5-9); 28. Jets (3-11); 29. Jaguars (3-12); 30. Raiders (2-12); 31. Buccaneers (2-12).
32. Titans (2-13)
WORST OF THE BUNCH
32: Titans (2-13): Last week’s Worst of the Bunch just rose up and beat the Eagles. So we shot them up high enough to rank ahead of the Eagles (No. 1 rule in these rankings: You can’t rank higher than a team you just lost to the week before). Looking for a void to fill at the bottom, we invited the Titans to come on down after laying down low enough to lose to the Jaguars on Thursday. Yeah, they tell us there was an NFL game on Thursday. Who knew?
THREE REASONS FOR VIKINGS FANS TO BE HOPEFUL
1, Norv Turner and Teddy Bridgewater are developing an offensive identity. Who knows if Adrian Peterson will return next season. With him and Bridgewater together, the Vikings could be something special offensively. Without Peterson, the Vikings struggled to establish an identity. When they realized they couldn’t be a running team and Bridgewater began to get comfortable, Turner started putting in more five-wide, shotgun sets to let Bridgewater make quick decisions and throws to avoid pressure.
2, The defense is playing with a lot of confidence and trust in Zimmer’s schemes and philosophy. When the Vikings led 14-0 last week, the Lions hadn’t even registered a first down.
3, Xavier Rhodes showed last week that he has the makings of a future full-time shutdown corner. Couple that with Harrison Smith at free safety and very good things could happen for this defense.
THREE REASONS FOR VIKINGS FANS TO BE NERVOUS
1, Blair Walsh isn’t a major concern because he has been so consistent over a longer period. But his current funk suggests he’s overthinking things.
2, Lingering knee injuries for young big fellas like Sharrif Floyd tend to be worrisome. This was his chance to step out of Kevin Williams’ shadow. And while Floyd did show flashes of standout play, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Williams rarely missed playing time.
3, As far as today’s game goes, the Vikings again will need to run the ball somewhat effectively to help protect Bridgewater from a strong pass rush on the road. Can the Vikings muster a decent running game without a feature back and a beat-up offensive line?
Vikings plus-6 ½ at Dolphins. The pick: Vikings 27, Dolphins 24.
Why?: The Dolphins are fading fast, having lost two straight and three of their last four. In the past month, they’ve mustered only a three-point win over the Jets. Miami is 3-3 at home, although the Dolphins have had a tough home schedule. This is one of the more up-and-down teams. The Vikings aren’t the better team, but the guess here is they’ll play harder and pull off the upset.
Last week: Vikings plus-7 ½ at Lions. The pick: Lions 21, Vikings 7. The final: Lions 16, Vikings 14. 11-3.
Vikings plus-6 ½ at Dolphins. The pick: Vikings 27, Dolphins 24
Last week: Packers minus-4 ½ at Bills. The pick: Bills 34, Packers 31. The final Bills 21, Packers 13. Record: 5-10.
Chargers plus-1 at 49ers: Chargers by 7
Eagles minus-7 ½ at Redskins: Eagles by 10
Packers minus-10 ½ at Buccaneers: Packers by 14
Lions minus-7 at Bears: Bears by 3
Falcons plus-6 at Saints: Saints by 7
Patriots minus-10 at Jets: Patriots by 17
Chiefs plus-3 at Steelers: Steelers by 7
Browns plus-2 ½ at Panthers: Panthers by 3
Ravens minus-5 ½ at Texans: Ravens by 3
Giants plus-5 at Rams: Giants by 3
Bills minus-5 ½ at Raiders: Raiders by 3
Colts plus-3 at Cowboys: Cowboys by 10
Seahawks minus-8 at Cardinals: Seahawks by 10
Broncos minus-3 at Bengals: Bengals by 3
Record: Last week/overall: 9-6/124-81-1. Versus spread: Last week/overall: 7-8/104-102.
Anthony Barr’s season rookie season officially ended Thursday night when he was told he needs what coach Mike Zimmer described as a “very minor procedure” to repair a knee injury that has sidelined him the past two games.
Zimmer wouldn’t reveal the exact nature of the injury, saying only that, “it’s very similar to a slight meniscus tear.
“It should be nothing. It really should be nothing. He’ll be getting going again. He’s a great kid. I don’t think it will be an issue at all.”
Barr said he hurt the knee before the Panthers game on Nov. 30. He left that game because of the injury, but doesn’t think he suffered any further damage by trying to play on it.
“I’ve been trying each week to go out that, but it hasn’t been right,” Barr said. “So it’s time to fix it up. … Nothing is torn.”
Asked to assess his rookie season, the ninth overall draft pick said, “I thought it was decent. I would say it was a B, B-minus. Something like that.”
Asked what improvements he’ll be focusing on after he recovers, Barr said, “We could sit here and talk about that all day. It’s a long list. I just want to get better as a player, as a leader and hopefully make strides for next week.
“I don’t think [surgery] is going to slow me down [for next year]. My season just ended a little earlier than everybody else’s. Just got to continue to improve and I have the whole offseason to do that. I’m looking forward to getting back on the field.”
Zimmer said Barr will have the surgery soon. He’ll continue to sit in on meetings, as he has the past two weeks.
“He’s going to be so much further ahead of where he was when the rookies got here,” Zimmer said. “So I think really the sky is the limit for him.”
Barr was leading the team in tackles with 99 at the time of the injury. He also had four sacks, four tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hits, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, including one that he forced and returned for a touchdown to beat the Buccaneers in overtime.
“He played great,” Zimmer said. “He’s a good football player. He’s a good kid who studies hard and does everything right. He’s very conscientious, hard-working, can’t wait, he’s already excited about getting this fixed and getting back to playing.”
Zimmer said the Vikings will decide next week whether to put Barr on injured reserve and use his roster spot to acquire another player for the season finale against the Bears.
What did we learn at practice a few moments ago? That Audie Cole appears to know how to long snap well enough to get the ball to punter Jeff Locke without drawing too much attention.
Regular long-snapper Cullen Loeffler wasn’t at practice because, like the rest of Minnesota, he’s apparently sick. Presumably, he’ll play on Sunday, but we’ll get the official injury report after practice today.
Meanwhile, Chad Greenway also wasn’t at practice for the portion open to reporters. He hasn’t been on the injury report this week, so we’ll wait until after practice for the reason.
Linebacker Anthony Barr, who has missed the past two games because of a knee injury, wasn’t at practice. Look for him to miss a third straight game.
Left guard Charlie Johnson was at practice, but wasn’t participating.
Two players who hadn’t oracticed all week — tight end Kyle Rudolph and strong safety Robert Blanton — were practicing today.
For the Vikings’ final road trip this season to Miami, we reached out to Chris Perkins, who covers the Dolphins for The Sun Sentinel, in this week’s edition of “Behind Enemy Lines.” Here are five questions we asked Perkins about the Week 16 matchup at Sun Life Stadium.
1. How would you evaluate the Dolphins’ play in December?
CP: The Dolphins have been bad in December. There’s no other way to tell the story. They’re 1-2, which means they’re struggling at the most important time of the season. In the last two games, losses to Baltimore and New England, they’ve been outscored, 48-3, in the second half. They’ve allowed 568 yards rushing in their last three games, produced three sacks, and only scored three touchdowns. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
2. What do you think will happen to head coach Joe Philbin at the end of the season?
CP: Philbin is probably done. You can’t say for sure, but it appears he won’t return. Philbin, in his third season, has a 22-24 record and will most likely miss the playoffs once again. It’s tough to say you’ve seen progress. Miami was 7-9 in Philbin’s first season, 8-8 last year, and might show one-game improvement this year. That’s after getting arguably the top free agent on the market the last two years (wide receiver Mike Wallace in 2013, and left tackle Branden Albert in 2014), changing offensive coordinators, and revamping the offensive line. The Dolphins have probably performed to their talent level, but Philbin never made them better. That’s a problem.
3. In what areas has quarterback Ryan Tannehill improved and regressed this season?
CP: Tannehill, now in his third season, has been better at decision-making, footwork and accuracy. But Tannehill, such as Philbin, never made anyone better. That’s a problem. Tannehill has career bests in completion percent (66.3; 6th in NFL), passer rating (90.8; 15th in NFL) and rushing yards (316). But his 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions are on the border of the minimally-desired 2:1 ratio. He’s near the bottom of the NFL in third-down passing (25th) and fourth-quarter passing (32nd), and he struggles with accuracy when throwing the deep ball so it’s almost been eliminated from the offense, making his completions mostly on short and intermediate passes and turning the Dolphins’ passing offense into a pedestrian way of moving the ball.
4. What’s the reason for the Dolphins’ success defensively?
CP: When the defense was successful it was because of the defensive line. But they’ve slumped severely in the last four games. So has the defense. Miami is seventh in total defense because of its early-season success. Defensive end Cameron Wake (9.5 sack) is a perfect metaphor. He has one sack in the last five games. In the last four games the Dolphins have allowed 121 points (30.3 per game). Granted, one touchdown came via a blocked field goal, but it’s still a bad four-game performance. The defense is no longer disruptive. They used to stop the run, get sacks and force turnovers. Those skills have evaporated. Miami’s defense isn’t to be feared the way it was earlier in the season.
5. What will the Dolphins need to do to beat the Vikings?
CP: The Dolphins need to do anything and everything possible to beat the Vikings. Their formula for winning – strong defense, a good running game, a decent passing game – is out the window. They need to find a Vikings weakness and exploit the heck out of it. The Dolphins (7-7) haven’t had a winning season since 2008. They badly need to win these final two games even though realistic playoff hopes are gone. Whatever it takes to win – special teams, interceptions, rushing, passing, good fortune – is what the Dolphins need.
|Green Bay||12:00 PM|
|Kansas City||12:00 PM|
|New England||12:00 PM|
|NY Giants||3:05 PM|
|Denver||12/22/14 7:30 PM|
|New York||2:30 PM|
|LA Lakers||5:00 PM|
|New Orleans||6:00 PM|
|Ferris State||12:00 PM|
|San Francisco||12:00 PM|
|Oregon State||12:00 PM|
|Coastal Carolina||12:30 PM|
|Holy Cross||1:00 PM|
|Southern Miss||1:00 PM|
|Western Carolina||1:00 PM|
|Ark-Little Rock||1:00 PM|
|TX-Pan American||1:00 PM|
|Alabama State||1:05 PM|
|Austin Peay||2:00 PM|
|Tennessee St||2:00 PM|
|South Dakota||2:00 PM|
|Northern Ariz||3:00 PM|
|SD Christian||3:00 PM|
|UC Irvine||3:30 PM|
|Seton Hall||5:00 PM|
|Appalachian St||5:30 PM|
|North Dakota St||6:00 PM|
|San Jose St||6:00 PM|
|Alcorn State||8:00 PM|
|Sacramento St||9:00 PM|
|BYU||12/22/14 1:00 PM|
|Marshall||12/23/14 5:00 PM|
|Navy||12/23/14 8:30 PM|
|San Diego St|
|Central Mich||12/24/14 11:00 AM|
|Fresno State||12/24/14 7:00 PM|
|Illinois||12/26/14 12:00 PM|
|Rutgers||12/26/14 3:30 PM|
|NC State||12/26/14 7:00 PM|
|Cincinnati||12/27/14 12:00 PM|
|Duke||12/27/14 1:10 PM|
|(15) Arizona State|
|Miami-Florida||12/27/14 3:00 PM|
|Boston College||12/27/14 3:30 PM|
|(25) Nebraska||12/27/14 7:00 PM|
|St Marys-CA||11:00 AM|
|TX-San Antonio||11:00 AM|
|Portland State||11:00 AM|
|Tenn Tech||11:00 AM|
|Eastern Washington||11:00 AM|
|Rhode Island||12:00 PM|
|(1) South Carolina|
|Fairleigh Dickinson||12:00 PM|
|Mount St Marys|
|Stony Brook||12:00 PM|
|William & Mary|
|Alabama State||12:00 PM|
|TX-Pan American||12:00 PM|
|South Dakota St||12:00 PM|
|Saint Josephs||12:00 PM|
|(5) Notre Dame|
|(3) Texas||12:30 PM|
|(4) Texas A&M|
|South Florida||1:00 PM|
|Sam Houston St||1:00 PM|
|(14) Maryland||1:00 PM|
|Coll of Charleston|
|NC A&T||1:00 PM|
|Eastern Illinois||1:00 PM|
|SC State||1:00 PM|
|Cleveland State||1:00 PM|
|Kent State||1:00 PM|
|South Alabama||1:00 PM|
|Saint Peters||1:00 PM|
|Youngstown St||1:00 PM|
|Indiana State||1:30 PM|
|Southern U||1:30 PM|
|Wright State||1:30 PM|
|(19) Oklahoma St||2:00 PM|
|Ark-Little Rock||2:00 PM|
|Northern Ariz||2:00 PM|
|North Dakota||2:00 PM|
|Western Ill||2:00 PM|
|(6) North Carolina|
|Ball State||2:00 PM|
|(8) Kentucky||2:00 PM|
|New Orleans||2:00 PM|
|Chicago State||2:00 PM|
|Bowling Green||2:00 PM|
|SE Missouri St|
|Northern Ill||2:00 PM|
|(23) Iowa||2:05 PM|
|Central Michigan||2:30 PM|
|Western Carolina||2:30 PM|
|Cal Poly||3:00 PM|
|No Dakota State||3:00 PM|
|Cal State Fullerton|
|Idaho State||3:00 PM|
|(18) Michigan State||3:00 PM|
|Fresno State||4:00 PM|
|St Francis-PA||4:00 PM|
|(10) Louisville||4:00 PM|
|(21) Miss State|