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NFL Preview - Buffalo (2-9) at Minnesota (4-7)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Last weekend brought about an outpouring of joy from the Minnesota Vikings that's rarely been seen during this season, as well as feelings of pain and frustration from the Buffalo Bills that have been all too familiar for the long-suffering franchise.
Fresh off an uplifting road win in their new head coach's debut, the Vikings head back to the Metrodome this Sunday to take on a Bills team trying to bounce back from a potentially devastating loss in their latest outing.
Minnesota put forth a noticeably determined effort this past Sunday to give Leslie Frazier a successful first game upon taking over for the unpopular Brad Childress, with the highly-charged Vikings stopping a nine-game road losing streak (including last January's NFC Championship Game defeat at New Orleans) by posting a 17-13 victory at Washington. Particularly inspiring was the play of a defense that held the inconsistent Redskins to a mere 29 rushing yards and just 216 total, accounting for season lows in both categories.
The Vikings also received a turnover-free day out of Brett Favre, the aging quarterback's first of this disappointing 2010 campaign, and the 41-year-old helped seal the win with a 10-yard scramble for a first down just prior to the two-minute warning.
Favre presented the game ball afterward to Frazier, promoted from his post as defensive coordinator after Childress was relieved of his duties following Minnesota's embarrassing 31-3 home loss to rival Green Bay on Nov. 21.
The Vikings also managed to withstand a sprained ankle to Adrian Peterson that knocked the star running back out of last Sunday's contest in the second quarter, with rookie Toby Gerhart grinding out 76 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in his most extensive action of his pro career.
Peterson is tentatively expected to be available for this week's matchup, though the three-time All-Pro will almost certainly be limited if he's indeed active.
While Minnesota experienced a surge of euphoria from its most recent result, the beaten-down Bills were dealt yet another tough blow in their clash with Pittsburgh over the weekend. Buffalo fought the AFC North co-leaders tooth- and-nail for a full 60 minutes and beyond before ultimately falling short in a 19-16 overtime setback.
The Bills sent the game into additional time on kicker Rian Lindell's clutch 49-yard field goal with two seconds remaining in regulation and had a golden opportunity to win in overtime, but wide receiver Steve Johnson dropped a would-be 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick 4 1/2 minutes into the extra session. Buffalo wound up punting the ball back to the Steelers, who subsequently marched into range for a game-ending field goal.
The loss was the 2-9 Bills' third this season on the road in overtime to an AFC contender, having also come out on the wrong end of nail-biters to Baltimore and Kansas City. Each of their past four defeats have come by a three-point margin.
Sunday's tilt kicks off a stretch of three straight home dates for Minnesota, which has compiled a 3-2 record at the Metrodome thus far in 2010.
Minnesota leads its all-time series with Buffalo, 7-4, but has dropped its last two head-to-head meetings with the Bills. Buffalo was a 17-12 home winner when the teams last met, in 2006, and took a 45-39 overtime decision when they last visited the Metrodome in 2002. Minnesota's last win over the Bills occurred in 2000, a 31-27 triumph in the dome.
Buffalo head coach Chan Gailey is 0-3 in his career against Minnesota, with each of those defeats coming during his tenure with Dallas from 1998-99. Gailey's Cowboys lost to the Vikings in both the 1998 and 1999 regular seasons, as well as in the 1999 NFC Playoffs. The Vikes' 27-10 win over the Cowboys in a 1999 NFC Wild Card matchup marked the final game of Gailey's tenure in Dallas, a contest that was played one day after the Bills lost to Tennessee in the memorable "Music City Miracle" game. Frazier will be opposing both Gailey and the Bills for the first time.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo has developed a very capable offense over the course of this season under Gailey's direction, as running back Fred Jackson (621 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 7 total TD) has averaged a tick over 100 rushing yards over the past three weeks and Fitzpatrick (2226 passing yards, 19 TD, 10 INT) has piled up 265 yards or more in four of his last six tests and thrown a respectable 19 touchdown passes for the year. Despite last week's forgettable performance in which he had a total of five drops, Johnson (59 receptions, 796 yards, 9 TD) has still put together a strong breakthrough campaign as Fitzpatrick's preferred target, and the excitable third-year pro's emergence has often rendered more established counterpart Lee Evans (34 receptions, 4 TD) into an afterthought in the game plan. Undrafted rookie David Nelson (23 receptions) has had some good moments as the No. 3 receiver, and Jackson's a quality pass- catcher who amassed a career-best 104 yards and a touchdown on five grabs in last Sunday's tough loss. The versatile back has had to take on a greater role with heralded rookie C.J. Spiller (164 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 1 TD) having missed the last two games with a hamstring strain, but the 2010 first- round pick appears on track to return this week to help ease the burden on Jackson.
Expect the Bills to air it out on Sunday, as there's a good chance they'll encounter difficulty running the ball on a Minnesota defense anchored by the outstanding interior tackle tandem of Kevin Williams (22 tackles, 1 sack) and veteran Pat Williams (22 tackles). The Vikings are yielding only 92.7 rushing yards per game (5th overall) and 3.6 yards per attempt on the season, and the group completely stifled Washington's ground attack a week ago. The Vikings' ninth-ranked stop unit (307.9 ypg) hasn't been as adept at containing opposing quarterbacks, however, with the team having had trouble finding a reliable cornerback to play opposite the steady Antoine Winfield (62 tackles, 1 INT) once starter Cedric Griffin sustained a season-ending ACL tear in mid- October. A pass rush that was non-existent earlier in the year has really ratcheted it up a notch as of late, having generated 15 sacks over the past four weeks, but the Vikes could be without a key cog up front with end Ray Edwards (24 tackles, 5.5 sacks) incurring a high ankle sprain in last Sunday's victory. That could mean more double teams for All-Pro running mate Jared Allen (41 tackles, 7.5 sacks), who's overcome a sluggish start to register an impressive 6 1/2 sacks in his last four appearances.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
The coaching switch seems to also have brought about a change in philosophy for the Minnesota offense. The Vikings ran the ball a season-high 38 times against the Redskins even with the dangerous Peterson (1016 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 9 total TD), the NFC's top rusher, forced to the sidelines for much of the afternoon. Early indications are that the game-changing back will play on Sunday, but his injury may cause the team to lean more heavily on the physical Gerhart (162 rushing yards, 1 TD, 15 receptions). It's hard to argue with the more conservative approach, seeing how erratic Favre (2446 passing yards, 10 TD, 17 INT) has been in his 20th NFL season and how the receiving corps has struggled to gel because of injuries to the talented Sidney Rice (4 receptions) and fellow wideout Bernard Berrian (18 receptions). With Rice having missed the first nine games while recovering from preseason hip surgery, second-year playmaker Percy Harvin (51 receptions, 5 total TD) has usually been Favre's go-to guy with support from trusty tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (33 receptions, 2 TD). Minnesota enters this week's play having scored the third-fewest points in the NFL (17.2 ppg), and that subpar number can mainly be attributed to the club's poor minus-12 turnover margin. Favre has been the main culprit, having tossed a league-high 17 interceptions.
It would make sense for the Vikings to continue their run-based rationale for another week, as the Bills are dead-last in the NFL in rushing defense (167.4 ypg) and have surrendered 200 yards or more on the ground five times this season, with Pittsburgh bullying its way for 206 yards in last week's win. Making matters worse is the likelihood that Buffalo will be without two starters along the front seven on Sunday in end Dwan Edwards (57 tackles, 1 sack) and outside linebacker Reggie Torbor (41 tackles) due to hamstring and shoulder injuries, respectively. Buffalo also hasn't made many plays against the pass, having garnered a league-low four interceptions and a modest sum of 20 sacks so far. The defense's lone standout has been energetic nose tackle Kyle Williams (60 tackles, 5 sacks), who came up with two of the team's season-high five takedowns of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 12. Strong safety Donte Whitner (104 tackles) has also been quite active, leading all defensive backs in tackles this year.
Peterson owners have a dilemma on their hands this week, as it may not be known until Sunday morning whether the fantasy stud will be active and his participation could very well be sporadic even if he does suit up. The best course of action may be to sit the premier back if you have a worthwhile fill- in on your roster. Those with Gerhart in their stable also need to monitor the situation, though the youngster should still get enough work regardless of Peterson's status to make him a usual flex play. There's little guesswork needed on the Buffalo side, with Jackson the clear-cut workhorse who's on an excellent roll, therefore keep riding the hot hand. It's also safe to lock Johnson into starting lineups, as he's not only the Bills' best receiver, but there's a good chance Fitzpatrick gives him plenty of looks in an attempt to restore his confidence. Harvin's the lone attractive choice among the Minnesota receivers, with Rice having yet to make a significant impact since returning to action. Favre is no longer starting caliber, but Fitzpatrick has shown himself worthy of consideration as a lower-end alternative at quarterback. Avoid both Lindell and Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell, both of whom stand near the bottom of the league in field goals made, and the Buffalo defense as well. Minnesota's recent sack surge has made its defense relevant again, but keep in mind that the Bills have the ability to score.
One thing we've learned about the Bills is that they'll battle hard right to the end, so the Vikings will need to display the same enthusiasm they came into Washington with if they're intent on building off last week's success. The feeling here is that they will again compete with a purpose in order to enhance Frazier's chance of keeping the head job on a permanent basis, and as the more talented of these two teams, that should be enough to give Minnesota the edge. Buffalo won't make it easy, having been in every game they've played since returning from a bye in Week 6, but a rare scoring outburst from the Vikings sends the Bills to another tough-to-take defeat.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 30, Bills 27
12/02 12:48:10 ET