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NFL Preview - Minnesota (2-12) at Washington (5-9)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Has it only been two seasons? Really?
Indeed, after winning 12 of 16 regular-season games in 2009 and rolling through a home playoff date with Dallas, the Minnesota Vikings were on the verge of their fifth Super Bowl appearance -- and first since the days of Bud Grant and Fran Tarkenton more than three decades prior.
And while the run to a title ended with an overtime interception and subsequent loss to eventual champion New Orleans in the NFC Championship, it's hard to comprehend that less than two calendar years have passed to bring the Vikings to their current state.
Ironically, it was a 42-20 loss to the Saints last week, in which Minnesota allowed 573 total yards and 36 first downs, that dropped the Vikings to 2-12 for 2011 and in distinct jeopardy of finishing with the worst mark in the franchise's 51-year history.
Minnesota visits the Washington Redskins Saturday at FedEx Field in an effort to avoid ignominy.
The team's poorest 16-game record was 3-13 in 1984, while the 1961 Vikings were 2-11-1. This year's edition will end the 2011 season with a New Year's Day trip to Soldier Field in Chicago.
"There's a lot at stake," Minnesota linebacker Erin Henderson said. "[The coaches] are watching closely right now to see who's still fighting, who's still coming out here trying to give their best and give it their all, and look to see who they can build this team with next year and continue to move forward with."
Head coach Leslie Frazier, who replaced Brad Childress 10 games into last season, is just 5-15 since taking over but remains upbeat about the future -- assuming he remains in charge.
"I'm really optimistic about the future, as difficult and as crazy as that may sound," he said. "I think I have a good idea of what we need to do to not be in this situation in the future. So no, I'm not concerned about 2012 at this point."
Among the questions he or the next coach will need answered is what to do about the quarterback position, which has been in flux since the aforementioned Brett Favre miscue two Januarys ago.
Favre returned for an injury-riddled 2010 and made 13 starts with various bumps and bruises, stepping aside for three games started by Joe Webb (two) and Tarvaris Jackson (one).
Veteran Donovan McNabb was brought in as the next resume-packing savior this season, but that experiment ended when he was released after six largely ineffective outings. The subsequent starts have been taken by Webb and 2011 No. 12 overall pick Christian Ponder, leaving some to opine the team would be wise to pursue Stanford sensation Andrew Luck should their record end as the worst in the league.
The Vikings "trail" 1-13 Indianapolis by a game in the chase for the No. 1 pick in 2012.
"With Christian, like so many young quarterbacks, you don't want to base your judgment on one or two games," Frazier said. "Give him a chance to have an offseason to get with our coaches in [offseason training activities] that are going to help him. I think it's a little bit too early to panic about Christian."
Meanwhile in Washington, well-traveled gunslinger Rex Grossman is trying to make a case he's worthy of maintaining incumbent status into 2012.
The University of Florida alum, a free agent after this season, completed 15- of-24 passes for 185 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in a surprising 23-10 defeat of the New York Giants last week.
Grossman has thrown 18 interceptions in 11 games and his 71.4 passer rating is 29th in the league, in the neighborhood of Ponder's pedestrian 72.3. He was also benched for a three-game stretch in favor of John Beck at midseason.
Still, Grossman has continued to hold the support of his teammates.
"We've been feeling that rhythm again once Rex got back out there, giving us that swag that he carried on the first part of the season," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "That's leading us to go out there and do what we do. We needed a guy like that to take advantage of those opportunities that we have."
Washington owns an 8-7 edge on the Vikings in regular-season play, but Minnesota has won four of the last six meetings in the series and was a 17-13 victor at FedEx Field during Week 12 of the 2010 campaign, a game that happened to be Frazier's debut as head coach. The Vikings are 3-1 in their last four games as the visitor in this set, having also recorded a 19-16 triumph in Landover in 2006 as well as a 14-9 decision in 1993. The Redskins last bested Minnesota via a 33-21 result at the Metrodome late in the 2007 season, a win that helped Washington edge out the Vikings for the NFC's final Wild Card berth that year.
In addition to their regular-season advantage, the Redskins have a 3-2 lead in their all-time postseason series with Minnesota. The Vikings knocked Washington out of the NFC playoffs in 1973 and 1976, and the Redskins earned postseason wins over Minnesota in 1982, 1987, and 1992. The most memorable matchup between the teams is the 1987 NFC Championship, which Washington won by a 17-10 score en route to a Super Bowl title.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan has a 2-3 lifetime record against Minnesota, including a 2-2 mark while at the helm of the Denver Broncos from 1995-2008. Frazier won his only prior encounter with Washington and Shanahan as a head coach with last season's outcome.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Ponder has thrown seven touchdown passes in the past three games and aims for a fourth contest in a row with two or more scoring strikes. Adrian Peterson, who returned last week from a three-game absence caused by a high ankle sprain, rushed for a touchdown in the teams' last meeting and since entering the NFL in 2007, leads all players with 6,714 rushing yards and 63 touchdowns on the ground. Peterson has nine touchdowns (8 rushing, 1 receiving) in his past seven games as well. Backfield mate Toby Gerhart had a pair of receiving touchdowns last week and has three scores in the past two games. He rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown in last year's win over Washington. Wide receiver Percy Harvin has five receiving touchdowns in his past five games and a career-high 72 receptions on the year, and needs 213 yards for his first career 1,000-yard season. Harvin is the only player in the NFL with a rushing, receiving and return touchdown in each of the past two seasons.
For the Washington defense, outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan is tied for second among NFC rookies with 7 1/2 sacks and has added a nine-yard interception return for a touchdown and four forced fumbles for the year. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall has an interception in two of three career meetings with Minnesota and linebacker Brian Orakpo had a sack in last year's loss to Minnesota. Orakpo also had a sack last week and has seven or more in all three of his NFL seasons. Cornerback Josh Wilson has an interception in two straight games, but is questionable for Saturday's tilt after sustaining a concussion against the Giants. Up front, fifth-year end Adam Carriker has 28 tackles and five sacks in Washington's 14 games.
Statistically speaking, Minnesota's offense is 19th in scoring (21.0 ppg), 18th in total yards (327.5 ypg), 28th in passing (184.8 ypg) and fourth in rushing (142.7 ypg). On defense, the Redskins are 16th in points allowed (21.4 ppg), 12th in yards allowed (332.7 ypg), 14th against the pass (220.7 ypg) and 15th against the run (112.0 ypg).
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Grossman is 3-1 in his career against Minnesota and aims for a third win in a row against the Vikings. Running back Roy Helu has rushed for 387 yards (96.8 per game) and two touchdowns in his past four games, posting three 100-yard efforts over that span, and is the only rookie in franchise history to rush for 100-plus yards in three consecutive games. He leads NFC rookies with 47 receptions as well and is the only first-year player with 600-plus rushing yards (635) and 300-plus receiving yards (331) this season. In his past four games, Helu has compiled 505 yards from scrimmage (126.3 per game). Fullback Darrel Young had his first career rushing touchdown last week, while Moss aims for a third game in a row with a touchdown catch of 20 or more yards. He has 493 receiving yards and needs 207 to reach 700 for a ninth consecutive season. Fellow wideout Anthony Armstrong has five career receiving scores, including four of 30-plus yards, and had a 45-yard grab in the teams' last meeting. Wide receiver Jabar Gaffney has a team-best 842 receiving yards and needs 158 for his first career 1,000-yard season.
Minnesota's defense is led by end Jared Allen, who is second in the league with 17 1/2 sacks and needs 5 1/2 to break the NFL season record of 22 1/2 set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Allen has 27 1/2 sacks in his past 23 games, including 16 in the last 12, and has amassed a league-best 100 1/2 sacks since entering the NFL in 2004. In two career meetings with Washington, he has four sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Linebacker E.J. Henderson had a sack and an interception in last year's win over Washington and aims for a third game in a row against the Redskins with a sack. Tackle Kevin Williams has a sack in three of his past five games, while end Brian Robison got to the quarterback in last season's victory over Washington. Safety Jamarca Sanford had a forced fumble last week, while sixth-year cornerback Cedric Griffin has 62 tackles and three forced fumbles in 14 games this season.
By the numbers, Washington's offense is 26th in scoring (18.0 ppg), 16th in total yards (329.5 ypg), 14th in passing (233.6 ypg) and 29th in rushing (95.9 ypg). On defense, the Vikings are dead last in points allowed (29.0), 24th in total yards allowed (366.1 ypg), 30th against the pass (260.4 ypg) and 10th against the run (105.6 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Grossman. The Vikings' output when defending the pass has been something less than stellar this season, which surely has to pique the interest of Shanahan and Grossman, who've been successful when slinging the ball and limiting the mistakes. Expect Washington to try to exploit the Minnesota secondary.
APB on AP. Always among the league's elite backs since arriving from the University of Oklahoma four years ago, Peterson has been nearly anonymous while slogging to another standout season for a subpar team. The Redskins are middle of the road in stopping the run, which may provide a breakout possibility.
Ponder this. Though they used a first-round pick to draft their rookie quarterback last April, the Vikings have to be considering the possibility of a chance at Stanford's Luck this time around. If he wants to solidify his place as the passer of the future, Ponder needs to end the year strong.
If it feels like nearly two months since Minnesota has won a game, that's only because it nearly has been. Whether by 45-7 blowout or 35-32 gut-wrencher, the Vikings have dropped six in a row since their bye week. Meanwhile, though they're just 2-5 over the same stretch, the Redskins have seemed pointed in a better direction, especially with Helu emerging as a star. That trend should continue in a shootout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Redskins 31, Vikings 21
12/22 17:23:39 ET