The Thursday Night Primetime game features two young teams headed in opposite directions.
The Minnesota Vikings (5-2) have been one of the most surprising teams in the NFL as we near the mid-way point.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4) have struggled to find ways to win games late. They have lost four games by a combined 22 points and have blown two fourth quarter leads this season.
The Vikings are a perfect 4-0 at home, while the Buccaneers are still looking for their first road victory of the season (0-2).
If Tampa Bay wants to hand Minnesota it's first home loss they will have to play a near flawless game.
The Bucs are coming off a 35-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints (2-4) in which they believed they'd scored a game-tying touchdown as time expired, but an illegal touching penalty on Mike Williams cost the Buccaneers a chance in overtime.
The Vikings are coming off a 21-14 victory against the Arizona Cardinals (4-3). The score was not an indication of how the game went, the Vikings were in control the entire game. Adrian Peterson led the way rushing for a season high 153 yards and proved to everyone that his repaired knee is 100%.
There are three things that will decide the outcome this Thursday night.
1. MINNESOTA PASSING ATTACK vs. TAMPA BAY SECONDARY
The Vikings come in ranked close to the bottom in passing offense this season. They rank 27th in the NFL, but Tampa Bay's 31st ranked passing defense could be just what the doctor ordered for Minnesota's passing woes.
Percy Harvin has been one of the best players in the NFL this season. He leads the league in total yards and has shown he can take it to the house anytime he gets his hands on the rock. He ranks seventh in the NFL with 577 receiving yards and his 53 receptions are second most in the league. He is also a dangerous threat returning kicks ranking second in the NFL averaging 35.1 yards/return and has taken one back to the house. If Harvin has a big game against Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers struggles on the road will continue.
It will be crucial for Tampa Bay to shut down Harvin. Ronde Barber will be asked to keep a close eye on the Vikings most illusive threat. The 16-year veteran has proven he can still get it done this season. His three interceptions are tied for fourth in the NFL. He will have his hands full against Harvin, and I expect Harvin to have an advantage against anyone who lines up on the other side.
Tampa Bay has allowed four 300-yard passers in six games. They allow 323 yards/game and I expect the secondary issues to continue. They are without their best defensive back, Aqib Talib, who is currently serving a four-game suspension for violating the leagues' substance abuse policy. I don't think Minnesota will reach the 323 yards that Tampa Bay is giving up per game, but they will do enough to carve up Tampa Bay's weak secondary.
2. TAMPA BAY RUSHING DEFENSE vs. ADRIAN PETERSON
While the Buccaneers pass defense has suffered, their rushing defense is among the best in the NFL. They rank third in rushing defense allowing only 76 yards/game. However, a lot of this has to do with teams being able to torch Tampa Bay's secondary through the air.
Adrian Peterson hasn't missed a beat this year after tearing his ACL and MCL in week 16 against the Washington Redskins nearly 10 months ago. Peterson has rushed for 652 yards and three touchdowns this year. He ranks third in rushing yards, t-4th in yards/game, 4th in carries and first in the NFL with seven rushes of 20+ yards. He is coming off a season-high performance on Sunday, but the short turnaround could affect Peterson this week.
Greg Schiano's main goal coming into the season was to fix the Buccaneers horrible run defense from 2011. They ranked dead last in the NFL allowing 156.1 yards/game on the ground. This has been the one bright spot on the defensive side of the ball for Schiano's team. Tampa Bay has one of the most physical young defenses in the NFL.
Only two guys have rushed for over 50 yards in a game against Tampa Bay this season. The Washington Redskins are the only team to eclipse the century mark this year and the Skins have the top rushing attack in the NFL.
I expect Minnesota to stick to the running game early to open up the passing attack later. Peterson will get a hard-earned 75 yards rushing and find the endzone once Thursday night. The Buccaneers run defense will do a good job containing Peterson and making sure Alfred Morris is still the only guy to rush for more than 100 yards in a game vs. the Buccaneers through seven games.
CHRISTIAN PONDER vs. JOSH FREEMAN
This could very well be the deciding factor in the game. Both young quarterbacks have shown glimpses of what they are capable of, but have also shown they still have a long way to go.
Christian Ponder has been a roller coaster ride this season. Good defense and a strong rushing attack have been the main reason why Minnesota is 5-2 and only a half-game behind Chicago for the NFC North lead.
Ponder threw for a season high two weeks ago against the Washington Redskins then followed that effort with a 52-yard performance in a 21-14 victory against Arizona last week. It was a season-low for Ponder but it didn't matter because the Vikings still pulled out the win.
It will be different this week if Minnesota struggles to get the running game on track against an outstanding Buccaneer's run defense. Ponder will need to step up this week and show he can lead Minnesota if the rushing attack is stagnant against the third ranked rushing defense.
Minnesota is 1-2 this year when they rush for under 100 yards and are 4-0 when they eclipse the century mark.
Despite Tampa Bay off to a 2-4 start, the play of Josh Freeman has been impressive this season. He has thrown for 1,538 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. He ranks 15th in passing yards/game, 2nd in yards/completion, and has the 11th best QBR in the NFL. Over the last three weeks he has thrown for 1,047 yards, seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. No Buccaneers quarterback has ever thrown for this many yards in a three-game span.
Expect Freeman to look for Vincent Jackson a lot on Thursday. Jackson has 586 yards receiving and five touchdowns. He is 6th in yards, 4th in yards/game and t-4th in touchdowns. He has been one of the best deep threats in the NFL. He ranks 3rd in the NFL averaging 21.7 yards/rec. and t-4th with 10 receptions of 20+ yards.
Tampa Bay's 15th ranked passing attack goes up against the 11th ranked passing defense and this could be a significant factor in determining the outcome. If Tampa Bay can get their passing attack going early it could spell trouble in Minnesota. The Vikings love to play with the lead so it will be crucial for Tampa Bay to force Minnesota to throw the ball early.
The Buccaneers need to stop Peterson early and try and open up with an early lead. If Peterson gets on track Thursday, it will be tough for Tampa Bay to find a way to pull out their first road victory of the season.
PREDICTION - MINNESOTA 24 TAMPA BAY 20
BETTING LINE - MINNESOTA: -6.5 / Over-Under: 42 (VEGAS SPORTSBOOK)