Thursday Night Football Preview: Can the Vikings Clip the Cardinals' Wings?
This week's Thursday Night Football game features two likely NFC playoff teams in the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings.
And although both teams sit at or near the top of their division standings and hold impressive records, the Cardinals have momentum on their side, as they enter this matchup on a six-game winning streak. The Vikings, meanwhile, just suffered an embarrassing 38-7 blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
So how will these two teams fare when they meet this Thursday night in what may be a preview of the NFC playoffs?
The Pre-Game Rundown
With the division title almost all but closed up, the Cardinals now have their sights set on the 12-0 Carolina Panthers for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, as well as a first round bye.
Rookie David Johnson has maintained his efficiency despite his increased workload. Averaging a robust 0.03 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry and a Reception NEP per target of 0.81 that leads all backs with at least 30 targets, Johnson turned 24 touches against the Rams fourth-ranked rushing defense into 120 yards and a touchdown.
In the passing game, Carson Palmer is on pace for a career year. So far he's amassed 3,693 yards and 29 touchdowns over the season's first 12 games, and his 0.34 Passing NEP per drop back ranks him as the second most efficient signal-caller with at least 100 attempts.
It helps that he has an impressive quadruplet of receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Michael Floyd, and J.J. Nelson to throw to. Among all wideouts with at least 50 targets, Fitzgerald, Brown, and Floyd rank 34th, 5th, and 7th in Reception NEP per target, respectively, while J.J. Nelson actually leads this group with an impressive 1.40 Reception NEP per target on 22 passes thrown his way this year.
On the Vikings side of the ball, despite an impressive 8-4 record that has them near the top of the NFC North, the team feels like its in disarray. All-Pro tailback Adrian Peterson finds himself clamoring for more touches after rushing the ball just eight times for 18 yards in a 38-7 blowout loss to the Seahawks.
It doesn't get any better in the passing game, either. Despite coming on strong to start his rookie season, Stefon Diggs has slowed down significantly. Hauling in 25 receptions for 419 yards through his first four games as a pro, Diggs has caught just 17 passes for 207 yards in five games since then.
A lot of this regression can be blamed on Teddy Bridgewater, and the conservative play-calling the coaching staff has undertaken to hide the sophomore quarterback's poor play. And when I say poor play, that's putting it nicely.
Not only has Bridgewater thrown for over 200 yards just five times in his second season, with a Passing NEP per drop back of -0.016, the Vikings' signal-caller is the eighth least efficient quarterback on the year, sitting right behind Brandon Weeden and just ahead of Peyton Manning and Colin Kaepernick. That's not exactly a group that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing secondaries.
The Vikings' Game Script
With the passing game already struggling, Bridgewater and Diggs will have an even tougher time having any success against a Cardinals passing defense that ranks ninth against the pass this year. This is thanks in part to their strong play at safety with free safeties Rashad Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu ranking third and eighth, respectively, in interceptions this season.
As big a challenge the Vikings will have in the passing game, they may be facing an even bigger uphill battle in the ground game. Peterson takes on a Cardinals defense that ranks seventh against the run according to our NEP metrics. And despite his impressive 4.8 yards per carry on the season and an above-average 0.03 Rushing NEP per attempt, with the Cardinals defense keying in on the run, Peterson will have his work cut out for him as he faces what will likely be stacked boxes this Thursday night.
It's obvious that the Vikings will be hard-pressed to generate first downs against this tough Arizona defense.
The Cardinals' Game Script
Palmer should have an easy time orchestrating the Cardinals' second-ranked passing offense against the Vikings 15th-ranked passing defense. Underachieving Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes will have his hands full trying to contain Arizona's wideouts.
In the ground game, David Johnson must be licking his chops, as he's set to face a Vikings defense that ranks just 16th against the rush. And with word that the Vikings will be without four starters on defense in nose tackle Linval Joseph foot), linebacker Anthony Barr (groin), free safety Harrison Smith (hamstring), and strong safety Andrew Sendejo, the matchup for Arizona's newly crowned lead back just got that much juicier.
With the Cardinals offense and Vikings defense trending in opposite directions, the stage is set for Arizona to rack up a ton of yards and points on the Vikings this Thursday.
Fantasy Football Implications
On the Vikings side of the ball, you're starting Peterson at running back and no one else. Even then, while Peterson is nearly a must-start given his upside, facing a Cardinals defense that gives up the sixth fewest points on the year to the position and with a game script that likely will force the Vikings to abandon the run game as they fall behind early, AP will have a tough time putting up decent value in this game.
For the Cardinals, a number of players make fine plays for this Thursday. Fitzgerald, Brown, and Floyd make for nice starts, as they face a Vikings defense surrendering the 18th most points to wide receivers. And while the Vikings give up the 12th least points to quarterbacks, with Palmer's stellar efficiency in the passing game and the weapons surrounding him, it would be difficult to bench him for almost any other option this week.
David Johnson is also an excellent start this week. Though Minnesota allows just the 27th most points to running backs this year, with injuries to four key players in their run defense and Arian committed to getting his rookie the ball about 25 times in this contest, Johnson may be in store for a huge night.
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