After playing five of their previous six games on the road, the Vikings return home this Sunday to play just their second home game since mid-October, as they look to formally wrap up the NFC North crown and keep their hopes alive for a first-round bye. Standing in their way will be Head Coach Mike Zimmer's former team, the Cincinnati Bengals.
It's been a rougher than usual year for the Bengals, who find themselves at 5-8 and playing for pride the rest of the way. Head Coach Marvin Lewis has come under fire, though Zimmer stood up for his mentor this week, saying Lewis should be able to coach there as long as he wants. The Bengals are coming off a 33-7 home loss to the Chicago Bears, and the combined record of the teams they have beaten this year is 15-39, with two of those wins coming against the 0-13 Browns.
Injuries have played a part, particularly last week in the loss to Chicago. Cincinnati was missing several key defenders, and that will again be the case today, as LB Vontaze Burfict, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, and LB Nick Vigil have all been ruled out. CB Adam Jones was recently put on Injured Reserve with a groin injury as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals are middle of the road in most key statistics, outside of rushing yards allowed per game where they are last in the NFL, allowing 132.1 yards per game. One would think, with all their defensive injuries, that could be an area the Vikings look to exploit with the tandem of Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray.
QB Case Keenum had an up-and-down game last week in Carolina, throwing for 280 yards and two scores, but also a pair of interceptions. He had to throw the ball 44 times, in part due to the team being down, but that number is probably about 15 throws too many in an ideal setup, so hopefully the aforementioned running game can pick up chunks of yards to setup the passing game with favorable situations.
TE Kyle Rudolph missed time late the Panthers game with an ankle injury that kept him out of practice all week, but he was upgraded from doubtful to questionable on the injury report on Saturday, and per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, is expected to play today.
The offense will likely be without another key player who hurt his ankle last week, with that being LT Riley Reiff. He did practice in limited fashion on Friday which is a good sign for his long-term availability. It's excepted that Rashod Hill, who has started at right tackle the last several weeks, will kick over to left tackle to fill in for Reiff, and that Mike Remmers, who has missed the last five games with a concussion and lower back injury, will make his return and start at right tackle.
Offensively, the Bengals has struggled all year long. After firing Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese early in the year, Bill Lazor took over and has helped write the ship to a degree, but their offense ranks last in the NFL in yards, is 28th in points per game, 26th in passing yards per game, and 31st in rushing yards per game.
The most obvious player to watch is A.J. Green, who has 65 catches for 950 yards and eight touchdowns. CB Xavier Rhodes, who was limited in practice this week with a hip injury, will likely be tasked with trying to limit Green's effectiveness. After Green, things are spread pretty evenly among their other pass-catchers, including Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard, who each have 27 catches. On Saturday, the team ruled out Mixon due to a concussion, leaving Bernard and Jeremy Hill to carry the load on the ground.
Despite the offensive struggles, QB Andy Dalton has a respectable stat line on the season. He's completing over 60 percent of his passes, has thrown 21 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions, and has a 90.4 rating. That being said, the Vikings defense, which is coming off – by its standards – a subpar outing against the Panthers will surely like to get back on track in front of the team's fans in a building that's been miserable on opposing team's offenses all season long.
Big-picture wise, the Vikings control their own destiny to secure a bye in the playoffs, as winning their last three games would give them just that at a minimum, and depending on what the Carson Wentz-less Eagles do to finish the season, the Vikings could lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Vikings hold a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Rams (who play at Seattle), Saints (who host the Jets), and Panthers (who host the Packers) for the second first-round bye. Minnesota holds the tiebreaker over the Saints and Rams given their head-to-head victories over those teams this season, but not of course with the Panthers, who beat the Vikings last week. So, if you're of the mind that you'd like to see the Vikings get home-field advantage, you want all of those teams to lose, but it's critical that the Panthers don't finish ahead of the Saints or that bye could be in jeopardy if the Vikings slip up over the final three weeks.
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