Sunday's meeting between the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams could serve as all but an elimination game in the NFC playoff race.
While St. Louis might need a win at home to remain in the hunt, Minnesota could move into a tie for a wild-card spot or potentially make its road to the postseason significantly tougher.
The Vikings (7-6) ended a two-game skid and breathed life into their playoff hopes with a 21-14 home win over Chicago last Sunday. They still have an outside chance at winning the NFC North, but the more likely route to their first postseason appearance since 2009 would be through one of two wild-card berths. They're a game behind the Bears and Seattle for those spots.
The Rams (6-6-1) can't catch those teams this week but have avoided elimination by winning three in a row. However, their postseason hopes would be dashed if they lose Sunday and enough other contenders all win.
St. Louis has trailed at halftime in each game during its current win streak but won't want to fall into an early hole against Minnesota, which hasn't trailed in six of its seven wins.
The Vikings' formula for success last week was the same as usual: get an early lead and use heavy doses of
"If we're able to build some sort of lead, I think our defense can handle pretty much any offense in the league," defensive end
Grabbing a lead allows the Vikings to hand the ball off to Peterson even more often. He carried the ball a career-high 31 times for 154 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday.
Peterson, who underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL less than a year ago, appears to be running away with his second rushing title. No player is within 300 rushing yards of his season total of 1,600, which is 160 shy of his career-best mark from 2008. He'll become the seventh player in history to reach 2,000 in a season if he averages at least 134.0 rushing yards in his final three games.
"I think about it," Peterson said of the 2,000-yard plateau. "I don't try to think about it too much. I feel like it will happen. It's obvious we're going to continue to run the ball and the chips will fall where they may."
The sixth-year pro is riding a career-best streak of seven consecutive 100-yard games, averaging 157.3 in that span with eight TDs.
The Rams have not allowed an opposing running back to gain more than 65 yards in four straight games. They held Buffalo's sixth-ranked rushing attack to 61 yards - 80 below its season average - in a 15-12 road win last Sunday.
If St. Louis makes the playoffs for the first time since 2004, it might have to do so largely without help from the offense. The Rams' 324.3 yards per game rank 25th in the NFL and their average of 18.2 points is 29th.
The three-game winning streak has come despite only four offensive TDs, but opponents have been limited to 14.0 points per game in that span.
"At the end of the day a win's a win," coach Jeff Fisher said. "We're not equipped like New England to put 40 up on everybody. Hopefully we'll get to that point, but right now we're finding ways to win."
Still, St. Louis' offense was able to put together a 14-play, 84-yard drive against Buffalo that ended with the game's winning score - a 13-yard pass from Sam Bradford to Brandon Gibson with 48 seconds left.
"Anytime you can go out and win a game in the final minutes, it can give you confidence," said Bradford, whose 81.9 passer rating ranks 22nd in the league.
Ponder is even worse at 78.3, lowest among current NFC starters. His passer rating has been below that mark in six of the past seven games as he's failed to throw for 100 yards three times, including 91 against Chicago. Ponder's 5.98 yards per attempt are fewer than Peterson's 6.0 per carry.
Coach Leslie Frazier said that the second-year player must particularly improve his footwork, decision-making and throwing mechanics.
"Whether it be moving around in the pocket, stepping up or moving to the left or to the right, all these things are part of him being successful," Frazier said. "We're always working on his fundamentals and his technique at the position, and we'll continue to do that."
The Rams have won seven of the last 10 regular-season meetings but lost the most recent one, 38-10 at St. Louis in 2009 as Peterson scored two TDs.