I don’t normally write on Thursday Night Football games (unless it’s the season opener, of course). For the most part, the games don’t offer the same quality we’ve come to expect from NFL primetime, obviously due to lesser days of preparation. It’s also a gratuitous excuse of getting every NFL team at least one primetime game, whether the matchup is good or bad.

This time, however, I’ve made an exception. This week’s Thursday Night Football matchup should be a good one, with the Minnesota Vikings (8-4) taking on the Arizona Cardinals (10-2) in the sun filled desert of Phoenix. Arizona’s passing offense against Minnesota’s run heavy offense should be a good time, and with 2 of the best defenses in the league to boot, we should expect a tight game.

With that said, I’ll be introducing a new segment called Crunchtime Matchups, where I’ll highlight the best matchups from the last 4 weeks of the season (we’re talking about playoffs). This TNF matchup gets its own exclusive article.

For creative purposes, I’ll list the keys to winning for both teams, and then give a final prediction.

 

Minnesota Vikings: Keys To Winning

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The heart behind the Vikings 8-4 record this season has been the return of future Hall of Fame runningback Adrian Peterson. After a slow start to the season, Peterson’s been on a wear and tear, running for 98 yards per game for 1,182 yards and 4.8 yards per attempt.

Part of this is AP’s intelligence at the line of scrimmage. He’s always been a runningback that’s been able to create yards by himself, and behind a weak Vikings offensive line, has done such. Against the Raiders, he provided an example.

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At 3:12 in the first quarter, on 1st and 10, the Vikings designed a run up the middle for Peterson. The Raiders front-7 sniffed it out and blocked any passing through to occur.

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Peterson, however, noticed this, and “audibled” over to the right side of the field, using speed to create something out of nothing for a 17-yard run.

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Such creativity has helped Peterson become the excellent RB he’s been over the course of his career. Sadly, the bad pass protection has consumed Teddy Bridgewater this season. A very promising rookie last year, Teddy has been held back by his offensive line and lack of good receiving options. As a result, he’s been forced to result to checkdowns and short passes for most of the season. His deep accuracy remains a concern, but his decision-making is better than people give him credit for.

Against a good Cardinals defense, I don’t expect things to change, which is why the Vikings must rely on the run game yet again. If the Cardinals offense has a weakness, it’s from the last 2 weeks against the 49ers and Rams. The offense failed to score much in the first half of both games before the defense kept it close. The Vikings can do the same to the Cardinals tonight, but on enemy turf, it’s a tougher test.

The defense, which has been solid under Mike Zimmer, must cover deep, because the Cardinals have one of the top 2 vertical offenses of 2015 (Pittsburgh being the other). This is essential to claiming a must win to stay like in the NFC North race.

 

Arizona Cardinals: Keys To Winning

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The Arizona Cardinals have been one of the best surprises of the 2015 season. The offense has been stellar, and the numerous amounts of storylines make this a feel-good team. Last week, the Cardinals won their 10th game of the season, their 3rd straight season doing such. Before 2013, the Cardinals franchise only recorded 7 10+ winning seasons from 1920 to 2012. Appreciate what you have now, Phoenix.

The receivers have been great, and the run game has been mostly above average, but it’s the play of MVP candidate Carson Palmer that’s the real story of the Cardinals’ success. His deep throws and improved mobility are great on their own, but it’s the ball placement that have impressed me enough to make him (in my opinion) the best QB and the MVP front runner of the 2015 season.

We needn’t look any further than last week against the Rams for a perfect example of Palmer’s sublime ball placement.

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At 10:12 in the first quarter, on 3rd and 15. Palmer dropped back.

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On the right side of the field, Palmer noticed a small gap gifted by the Rams in which he could give J.J. Nelson a shot at a catch. This situation is difficult, because Carson has to place it out of harm’s way where the coverage is tight.

Fortunately, Palmer, as he’s done all season, did such, trusting his receiver and delivering a terrific high throw (not to mention taking a hit) over any defenders in the way for Nelson to make a great TD catch.

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It’s the stuff we’ve seen since the beginning of the season, and Bruce Arians has done a tremendous job of crafting an offense capable of constantly storming downfield, and with Palmer having the best season of his career, it’s easy to see why. The run game has been complimentary in comparison, though the acquisition of Chris Johnson has helped the cause. Michael Floyd, Nelson, and the revived Larry Fitzgerald have all been great this season too.

Arizona simply has to keep challenging downfield while stretching the field of play at the same time. On the opposite side, force the Vikings to beat you with Teddy and the pass protection by shutting down Adrian Peterson.

 

Final Statements

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This should be a good matchup between two surprising NFC contenders. I think the Vikings will come off stronger after a humiliating loss at home to the Seahawks, enough to make this a game. I have the Cardinals winning another close one.

 

(Photos via hngn.com, forbes.com, pennlive.com, profootballtalk.nbcsports.com, thevikinggage.com, azcentral.com, and nfl.com)

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