The Baltimore Ravens are looking to continue their push for a sixth consecutive playoff berth Sunday when they play the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens (6-6) have won two straight to take control of the last playoff spot in the AFC and are coming off an emotional victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. What Baltimore can't afford is a letdown against the last-place Vikings (3-8-1).
The Vikings are quietly playing their best football of a disappointing season, rallying from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday. And while the Ravens are playing for their playoff lives, coach Leslie Frazier and the Vikings players are equally desperate because their jobs could be on the line in the final month of the regular season.
This is how ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley see the fifth meeting between these teams unfolding:
Jamison Hensley: The Vikings have only lost once in their past four games. What's been the biggest difference with the Vikings recently?
Ben Goessling: The biggest constant in the two wins (and the tie against Green Bay) has been their quarterback play; it still hasn't been great, and probably won't be at any point this year, but Christian Ponder (or Matt Cassel last week) has been able to keep the offense moving without turning the ball over as frequently as the Vikings' QBs were earlier this season. In their three wins and one tie, the Vikings have a combined four turnovers. With Adrian Peterson coming off his two best games of the season, the rest of the offense doesn't have to be great. It merely has to hang on to the ball, keep drives moving and let Peterson do his work.
What's been the problem with the Ravens' running game? Ray Rice was never the most efficient back, in terms of yards per carry, but it's been stunning to see how limited he's been. What's going on there?
Jamison Hensley: The Ravens' running game has been the biggest weakness on offense all season. Ray Rice doesn't have the same burst, and the offensive line isn't creating any space for him. Rice, who is averaging 2.9 yards per carry, can't shoulder all the blame. Backup Bernard Pierce is gaining 2.8 yards per carry. The Ravens haven't totally abandoned the running game, they're just not relying on it. Rice has only carried the ball more than 20 times once in the past seven games. Baltimore could test the Vikings' run defense, which ranks 23rd, just like it did against the Bears last month. But this has been a pass-heavy offense for most of the year.
It's a totally different story with the Vikings. Peterson is leading the NFL with 1,208 yards rushing, which is 235 more than the Ravens have totaled as a team. How does he continue to be effective when defenses are always focused on stopping him?
Goessling: That's the remarkable thing about him -- he does all this when everybody knows he's getting the ball. And right now, he's doing it with a strained groin that has robbed him of some of his breakaway speed. He had 211 yards on Sunday, but probably could have pushed toward 250 if he'd been able to extend a couple of runs the way he normally does. Peterson is the best in the business at a lot of things, but chief among them might be his ability to find cutback lanes and isolate himself on one defender. Once he does that, your odds of bringing him down aren't very good; if he doesn't have his top speed, he'll just run you over.
It seems like the Ravens' defense is finally hitting its stride with all of its new pieces after a rough start to the season. What has led to that, and do you think the Vikings will be able to run effectively on the Ravens with Peterson?
Hensley: The Ravens knew their defense was going to be a work-in-progress, especially in the first half of the season. Baltimore had to replace six players who started on defense in the Super Bowl. As expected, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have provided pressure off the edge. The surprising part has been the play in the middle of the defense with defensive lineman Art Jones, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and safety James Ihedigbo. The run defense ranks No. 6 in the NFL, although I wouldn't describe the Ravens as dominant in this area. The Ravens can't expect to shut down Peterson. The key is containing him and keeping him under 120 yards.
While the focus is undoubtedly on Peterson, the other storyline is the Vikings' starting quarterback position, which has been in flux all season and remains up in the air for Sunday. Is there a drop-off if Matt Cassel has to replace Christian Ponder against the Ravens?
Goessling: I really don't think so; the Vikings' passing game, in some ways, has functioned better with Cassel than it has with anyone else all season. He's still the only Vikings quarterback to throw for more than 240 yards in a game, and he just looks more assertive commanding the offense than Ponder does. Greg Jennings has his only three touchdown catches from Cassel, and part of that, I think, is that Cassel gets the ball out quickly and finds Jennings in stride better than Ponder can. Jennings needs a quarterback who will give him room to run after the catch, and Cassel has done that effectively. If he starts, there's no reason he can't be as productive or more productive than Ponder.
After winning a Super Bowl and getting his big contract, Joe Flacco doesn't look the part of an elite quarterback right now. Can he turn it around against a Minnesota pass defense that's been pretty inept all year?
Hensley: Flacco has been slowly turning around his season lately, and he could be on the verge of a big game against the Vikings. One of the reasons why the Ravens have won their past two games is Flacco's ability to stretch the field again. Baltimore's offensive line has been giving Flacco a safer pocket, which has allowed him time to find the likes of Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones deep downfield. Flacco has to like what he saw on tape from last Sunday's game, when Josh McCown threw for 355 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota.