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.
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. Chargers (5-1)
Why: Assuming the Chiefs don’t pull an upset today in San Diego, we should be able to stick with early MVP front-runner Philip Rivers, the No. 3-ranked defense and those league-low two giveaways for at least four more days. Then San Diego travels to Denver for what will be the best game of the season to that point.
2. Broncos (4-1); 3. Cardinals (4-1); 4. 49ers (4-2); 5. Eagles (5-1); 6. Cowboys (5-1); 7. Seahawks (3-2); 8. Colts (4-2); 9. Patriots (5-2); 10. Panthers (3-2-1); 11. Bengals (3-1-1); 12. Ravens (4-2); 13. Lions (4-2); 14. Packers (4-2); 15. Browns (3-2); 16. Bears (3-3); 17. Giants (3-3); 18. Texans (3-3); 19. Bills (3-3); 20. Titans (2-4); 21. Chiefs (2-3); 22. Saints (2-3); 23. Steelers (3-3); 24. Dolphins (2-3).
25. Vikings 2-4 (Last week: 24): The Vikings fell another spot after failing to compete at home against the Lions. It’s amazing that a road team can put together one solid four-minute drive to start the game and then protect that lead by doing nothing offensively for 56 minutes. Add it up and you have a 17-3 outcome, not to mention one of the dullest NFL games in recent memory. Having lost four games by double digits, the Vikings could tumble further down the rankings. Of course, that also would require some of the seven stinkers below them — particularly Atlanta, which got mauled by the Vikings — to start winning some games.
THE REST OF THE REST
26. Falcons (2-4); 27. Rams (1-4); 28. Redskins (1-5); 29. Jets (1-6); 30. Raiders (0-5); 31. Jaguars (0-6).
WORST OF THE BUNCH
32: Buccaneers (1-5): Welcome back, Tampa Bay. The Bucs missed the bottom rung so much that they managed to allow the words “Joe Flacco” and “could set the NFL record for touchdown passes in a single game” to be uttered together in the same sentence during the first half of last week’s game. Last week’s Worst of the Bunch, Oakland, showed a strong pulse against the Chargers. So we’ll push them up a couple of notches and slide the Bucs back to the bottom.
THREE REASONS FOR VIKINGS FANS TO BE HOPEFUL
1, Honestly, three reasons might be stretching it at this point. But, looking long-term, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater appears to have the personality to use painful experiences such as last week to improve. So even if the Vikings lose at Buffalo today, there’s something to gain from Bridgewater’s first NFL road start.
2, The defense is much better than last season. Yeah, we know. That’s not saying much. It has improved from 32nd in points allowed last season (30.0) to 20th (23.8). Mike Zimmer’s schemes, calls, adjustments and teaching techniques are making a difference. But it would help if the defense played better coming out of the gate.
3, Blair Walsh has quietly stabilized his game. He has made 11 of 13 field goal attempts, including 2 of 2 from 50 yards and beyond. Opponents also have been able to return only four of his kickoffs.
THREE REASONS FOR VIKINGS FANS TO BE NERVOUS
1, The Vikings haven’t been able to provide a safe environment for their quarterback. That’s the nice way of saying the offensive line is getting the QB clobbered. There have been 14 sacks the past two games. Keep that up and Christian Ponder will be starting again real soon.
2, Not sure if you’ve heard this the few million times that it’s been stated, but this team is struggling with getting the ball to Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson could help the situation by getting open more often.
3, Buffalo won at Detroit, which won at Minnesota. Also, the Lions’ defensive line has 14 ½ sacks, a total that’s two fewer than Buffalo’s defensive line.
Vikings plus-5 ½ at Bills: Bills 24, Vikings 17.
Why: We picked the Vikings here last week because we clearly overestimated their offensive line’s ability to perform against one of the best defensive fronts in the league. So we’re not going to make that mistake again. Especially with the Vikings being on the road.
Last week: Lions minus-1 ½ at Vikings: The pick: Vikings 27, Lions 24. The final: Lions 17, Vikings 3. Vikings pick record: 3-3.
Saints plus-2 ½ at Lions: Saints 31, Lions 28
Why: Wow, this guy just won’t learn his lesson when it comes to not trusting the Lions. Yeah, that’s a risky thing to keep doing. But it’s also hard to picture Drew Brees falling to 2-4.
Last week: Packers minus-3 ½ at Dolphins. The pick: Dolphins 24, Packers 21. The final: Packers 27, Dolphins 24. Record: 1-5.
Bengals plus-3 at Colts: Colts by 6
Seahawks minus-6 ½ at Rams: Seahawks by 10
Falcons plus-7 at Ravens: Ravens by 14
Dolphins plus-3 at Bears: Bears by 7
Browns minus-5 ½ at Jaguars: Jaguars by 3
Panthers plus-6 ½ at Packers: Packers by 7
Titans plus-5 at Redskins: Redskins by 3
Chiefs plus-4 at Chargers: Chargers by 7
Giants plus-6 ½ at Cowboys: Cowboys by 3
49ers plus-7 at Broncos: Broncos by 3
Texans plus-3 at Steelers: Steelers by 6
Cardinals minus-3 ½ at Raiders: Cardinals by 7
Record: Last week/overall: 8-5-1/49-35-1. Versus spread: Last week/overall: 10-4/40-45.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wasn’t happy with his offensive line this week. And for good reason. The starting five has underachieved in the team’s four losses and played well enough in the two wins to suggest Zimmer has every right to demand a whole lot more than last week’s effort in a 17-3 loss to the Lions at home.
Zimmer was asked this week if there would be any personnel changes on the offensive line. He said one word: “Possibly.”
Apparently, changes won’t happen this week. Asked Friday if the same five guys will be starting on Sunday in Buffalo, left guard Charlie Johnson said, “Yeah. That’s how we’ve been practicing. So no changes.”
Meanwhile, Johnson said the offensive line has moved on from last week’s performance, which contributed to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater being sacked eight times.
“We just handled it the way we can,” he said. “Just work. Come to work and try to get better. Work on the things that have been giving us problems. At this point, that’s all you can do. You can’t worry about what happened last week. You have to move forward.
“I think Sunday [at Buffalo] will be a similar challenge to last week. They have first-rounders and Pro Bowlers just like Detroit had last week.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer had an unscheduled minor procedure performed earlier this morning after pain from a kidney stone, according to an NFL source, and is feeling well enough to return to the team Saturday morning.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner talked to reporters after practice at Winter Park without specifying the nature of Zimmer’s malady.
“He was uncomfortable and he wasn’t feeling real good [this morning],” Turner said. “So, obviously, that’s where that’s at. I just talked to [head athletic trainer Eric] Sugarman and [Zimmer] is doing great and will be ready to go in the morning.”
Asked what was wrong with Zimmer, Turner said, “Right now, nothing because he’s gone through the procedure.”
Zimmer was doing well enough for Turner to crack a joke when asked what he told the 2-4 Vikings about Zimmer when he huddled them after today’s practice.
“I told them six weeks with them and look what they’re doing to the guy,” Turner said. ” So let’s go play better and win. Right?”
Greenway likely a game-time decision
Listed as out on the injury report are tight end Kyle Rudolph (hernia surgery), defensive end Corey Wootton (lower back) and linebacker Gerald Hodges (hamstring).
Listed as questionable are defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (elbow), who was limited in practice today after missing practice on Thursday, and linebacker Chad Greenway, who had full participation all week but might still be a game-time decision because of his broken ribs and broken wrist.
“It’s going to be a deal where they continue to evaluate [Greenway],” Turner said. “It’ll probably be a decision made Sunday morning.”
Listed as probable are nose tackle Linval Joseph (ankle), receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (hip), cornerback Jabari Price (hamstring), tight end Chase Ford (foot), free safety Harrison Smith (ankle) and linebacker Michael Mauti (illness).
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wasn’t with the team at practice Friday because he’s having a “minor procedure” done, according to Bob Hagan, Vikings executive director of public relations.
Zimmer will return to the team tomorrow and will coach Sunday when it plays at Buffalo, Hagan said.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Zimmer was at Winter Park on Friday morning, but “was uncomfortable and wasn’t doing real good.” Turner did not say what Zimmer’s malady was, but said he had a “procedure” and would return on Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, we just finished the portion of practice that’s open to reporters. Defensive end Corey Wootton (lower back), linebacker Gerald Hodges (hamstring) and tight end Kyle Rudolph (hernia surgery) were not practicing. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (elbow), who sat out Thursday’s practice, was back practicing. Also practicing for the third straight day is linebacker Chad Greenway, who missed the past three games because of a broken wrist and broken ribs.
For the Vikings Week 7 road trip to Buffalo, we reached out to Jay Skurski, who covers the Bills for The Buffalo News, for this week’s edition of “Behind Enemy Lines.” Here are five questions we asked Skurski about the game.
1. Has the offense been more efficient under quarterback Kyle Orton the last two weeks?
JS: The offense has averaged about a half yard more per play under Orton (5.1) than it did in Manuel’s two straight losses (4.55), so it’s been better, but not by a great deal. Orton, though, does have a significantly better completion percentage (66.7) and yards per attempt (7.49) than Manuel did (58.0 and 6.4, respectively), so the Bills are throwing the ball better since the quarterback change. The switch did sacrifice mobility at the position. Orton has been sacked seven times in two games, while Manuel was sacked just six times in four starts.
2. Why have the Bills struggled to run the ball with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson?
JS: You can divide that answer into thirds among the running backs themselves, the offensive line and the coaching staff and be pretty close to having the right answer. Spiller in particular has a bad habit of kicking runs outside when he should just take what’s in front of him. The offensive line, though, hasn’t helped either running back. Starting right guard Erik Pears has the lowest grade at his position in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and rookie left guard Cyril Richardson is only four spots ahead. That has made running up the middle a big challenge. The coaching staff also needs to do a better job of getting the ball in Spiller’s hands in space, whether that be in the screen game or by calling more sweeps or runs of that nature.
3. What has made the Bills defensive line so good in pass rush situations?
JS: Start with the fact they’re just really good. Three of the Bills’ defensive linemen — Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams — made the Pro Bowl last season. The one who didn’t, Jerry Hughes, had 10 sacks. Mario Williams is a freak, plain and simple. There are very few players in the history of the game who have his combination of size, strength and speed. Marcell Dareus has developed into a do-it-all defensive tackle, adept at clogging running lanes and rushing the passer. Kyle Williams remains an excellent interior pass rusher, even though he’s dealing with a knee injury. Hughes has excellent speed off the edge and has come along as a run defender.
4. How have rookies Sammy Watkins and Preston Brown looked so far?
JS: Watkins has been up and down. He was the best player on the field in a Week Two win against Miami, and had a huge catch to set up a game-winning field goal against Detroit in Week Four. But the Bills haven’t looked his way often enough, including last Sunday when he wasn’t targeted in the first half at all against Darrelle Revis and the New England Patriots. He was slowed early in the season by bruised ribs, but is 100 percent now. I’d expect the Bills to look his way early Sunday. Brown has been a valuable defender specifically because of his versatility. He can play any of the three linebacker positions for the team, and has done so through the first six weeks. He leads the team with 45 tackles and has a fumble recovery. He’s also taken the most defensive snaps of any defensive player on the team.
5. What do the Bills need to do to win this game?
JS: Establishing the run game — which last year was the strength of the team — will be a top priority. The Vikings’ run defense numbers suggest that should be possible. On the other side of the ball, the Bills’ defensive line is surely licking its chops after Minnesota gave up eight sacks to Detroit a week ago. If the Bills can get the Vikings into difficult down-and-distance situations and bring the crowd to its feet, they should be able to harass a rookie quarterback making his first start on the road. If that happens, it could lead to turnovers — an area the Bills have had a good differential in this season.
|San Francisco||4||Top 4th Inning|
|San Diego||10/23/14 7:25 PM|
|Detroit||10/26/14 8:30 AM|
|Buffalo||10/26/14 12:00 PM|
|St. Louis||10/26/14 12:00 PM|
|Houston||10/26/14 12:00 PM|
|Minnesota||10/26/14 12:00 PM|
|Seattle||10/26/14 12:00 PM|
|Baltimore||10/26/14 12:00 PM|
|Miami||10/26/14 12:00 PM|
|Chicago||10/26/14 12:00 PM|
|Philadelphia||10/26/14 3:05 PM|
|Oakland||10/26/14 3:25 PM|
|Indianapolis||10/26/14 3:25 PM|
|Green Bay||10/26/14 7:30 PM|
|Washington||10/27/14 7:30 PM|
|Houston||54||3rd Qtr 9:25|
|Indiana||43||3rd Qtr 6:19|
|Utah||73||3rd Qtr 7:28|
|Portland||25||1st Qtr 1:21|
|LA Clippers||9:30 PM|
|San Jose||3||3rd Prd 3:34|
|NY Rangers||3||3rd Prd|
|Toronto||5||3rd Prd 1:58|
|Detroit||1||3rd Prd 13:50|
|Arizona||2||2nd Prd 5:07|
|Carolina||1||2nd Prd 5:27|
|Vancouver||0||2nd Prd 20:00|
|Florida||2||1st Prd 5:24|
|Tampa Bay||0||1st Prd 5:23|
|Arkansas State||16||2nd Qtr 7:14|
|Connecticut||10/23/14 6:00 PM|
|(18) East Carolina|
|Miami-Florida||10/23/14 7:00 PM|
|So Florida||10/24/14 6:00 PM|
|Troy||10/24/14 6:30 PM|
|BYU||10/24/14 8:00 PM|
|(6) Oregon||10/24/14 9:00 PM|
|North Texas||10/25/14 11:00 AM|
|UAB||10/25/14 11:00 AM|
|Rutgers||10/25/14 11:00 AM|
|Maryland||10/25/14 11:00 AM|
|Texas||10/25/14 11:00 AM|
|(11) Kansas State|
|Minnesota||10/25/14 11:00 AM|
|Memphis||10/25/14 11:00 AM|
|North Carolina||10/25/14 11:30 AM|
|San Jose St||10/25/14 12:00 PM|
|Northern Ill||10/25/14 12:00 PM|
|(25) UCLA||10/25/14 1:00 PM|
|Akron||10/25/14 1:00 PM|
|Massachusetts||10/25/14 1:00 PM|
|Ohio U||10/25/14 1:00 PM|
|Ga Southern||10/25/14 1:00 PM|
|Kent State||10/25/14 1:30 PM|
|Oregon State||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|Fla Atlantic||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|Louisiana Tech||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|(1) Miss State||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|Georgia Tech||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|(22) West Virginia||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|Texas Tech||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|Michigan||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|(8) Michigan State|
|Boston College||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|Central Mich||10/25/14 2:30 PM|
|Vanderbilt||10/25/14 3:00 PM|
|Old Dominion||10/25/14 3:00 PM|
|UNLV||10/25/14 3:00 PM|
|Temple||10/25/14 4:00 PM|
|(15) Arizona||10/25/14 5:00 PM|
|Texas-El Paso||10/25/14 6:00 PM|
|Wyoming||10/25/14 6:00 PM|
|Syracuse||10/25/14 6:00 PM|
|Texas State||10/25/14 6:00 PM|
|(3) Ole Miss||10/25/14 6:15 PM|
|(4) Alabama||10/25/14 6:30 PM|
|So Carolina||10/25/14 6:30 PM|
|(13) Ohio State||10/25/14 7:00 PM|
|(20) USC||10/25/14 9:00 PM|
|(14) Arizona State||10/25/14 9:45 PM|
|Nevada||10/25/14 10:59 PM|
|Montreal||10/24/14 5:30 PM|
|Saskatchewan||10/24/14 8:30 PM|
|Hamilton||10/25/14 3:00 PM|
|Brt Columbia||10/25/14 6:00 PM|