Breaking down Sunday's Baltimore Ravens at Minnesota Vikings game (1 p.m., CBS) ...
1. Third down's the charm. Whether you're flipping stations (perhaps hitting up the Red Zone Channel if you're lucky enough to have it) or grabbing a beer or using the restroom or making cookies -- whatever it is you do during the down times in games -- make sure you're around for third down in this game, because that's what distinguishes the 2009 Vikings from any of their mediocre predecessors of the recent past.
Minnesota is converting a remarkable 48.6 of its third-down opportunities, which ranks third in the NFL. (League average: 37.7 percent.) In '08, with Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson at the helm, they managed a much more pedestrian 39.4 percent (18th in the NFL), and a year earlier it was 34.5 percent (27th). That's an enormous difference played out over 16 games. The difference between, say, a first-round playoff exit and the Super Bowl, perhaps.
Chalk that all up to one man: Brett Favre. Really, the guy's job has become as regimented as this: hand the ball of to Adrian Peterson on first and second downs, then make up the difference -- whatever little that be -- on third. And Favre's getting it done with a 68.6 completion percentage on the game's most important down. (That's almost 10 percentage points higher than his career third-down average.) Of course, it helps to have two speedy receivers, BernardBerrian and Percy Harvin, who run the slant to perfection. Paired with the wily old vet, that receiving group sits atop the league in third-down receptions.
This is the type of improvement that can push the Vikings over the hump, but first they need to show they can keep doing it against stiff competition. Only one of their first five opponents -- who've combined for a 7-17 record -- even boasts a pass defense in the top 10. (That would be No. 10 Cleveland, whose figures are skewed by their opponents' success in running the ball.) None of those teams has a third-down defense in the top 12.
And the Ravens? They're No. 8 in the league on third down, largely thanks to a nasty pass rush that employs blitzers from an array of angles. So far, Favre has a stupendous passer rating of 113.54 against the blitz. Question is, can he keep it up against Baltimore's aggressive 'backers?
2. Rice against the rush. Baltimore will be dealing with some of the same pass rush issues: a nasty interior combined with some -- but not nearly as much -- blitzing. And they're built to beat it. A perfect template for how they will approach Minnesota came last week against the Bengals, who kept intense pressure with their improving line up front but backed off in the secondary, allowing nothing more than the short underneath stuff.
In that game, the Ravens leaned heavily on Ray Rice for a series of short passes and screens aimed at slowing any kind of added pressure in the middle. And it worked effectively, right down to a line-of-scrimmage dump-off to Rice that went for 48 yards and a score.
Against Minnesota, it's safe to assume that Derrick Mason will see Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield in coverage. And Mark Clayton has been a disappointment when he's been expected to step up. So look for Cam Cameron to once again dial up his backs in a receiving role. He's been doing it all year out of necessity and these backs rank first in the league with 43 receptions among them.
But questions remain: How effective will that be in slowing the Vikings' pass rush? And with Rice getting most of his touches as a receiver -- not a runner -- how can Baltimore build up for a few play-action, long-ball connections, to which the Vikings' secondary has been vulnerable of late?
3. Michael Oher vs. Jared Allen. It's time for the Ravens' young buck of a tackle to demonstrate the full extent of his value. Baltimore's regular left tackle, Jared Gaither, is expected to miss another game after injuring his neck against the Patriots, which means Oher, the Ravens' 2009 first-round pick, will slide to the left for the second game in a row. Last week, against Cincinnati, Oher did a number on the NFL's sack leader Antwan Odom, suggesting the Raven is ready to stick at that position.
If not, we'll most certainly know as much by the end of Week 6. Why? Up next for Oher is my leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Jared Allen. The guy's playing out of his mind. Three forced fumbles, a safety, 6.5 sacks and a pass defended through his first five games. The only thing keeping him from running away with the award is his lack of competition.
Allen's lone quiet game came against rock-solid Joe Thomas in Cleveland. He's feasted elsewhere on lesser-known guys in Detroit, San Francisco and St. Louis, plus he got a huge boost against a decimated Packers unit. Whether Allen's really the beast he appears to be will crystal clear on Sunday afternoon. A real animal would take the rookie to school.
Thinking longer term, guess who Oher faces next week? (Assuming he's still on the left side.) Elvis Dumervil of the Broncos, who's tied with Odom for the sack lead. If Oher comes out of that three-week murderers' row having allowed anything less than two sacks, then he was a steal at No. 23 in the draft ... not that things will get any easier. One week later it's Odom again; and then in Week 11 he gets Dwight Freeney, who's No. 4 on that sack list. In other words, it could be Michael Oher or bust for the Ravens this season.
4. The Ravens vs. themselves. After the way Baltimore went down in New England, I had the Ravens pegged for a rampage victory last week. Surely they were going to make Cincinnati pay for what the refs did -- or didn't -- do to them a week earlier. But things didn't play out that way. With the game on the line and just under 2:30 minutes left, the Ravens imploded with a series of boneheaded mistakes -- some excusable, others not -- that ultimately cost them the game. Needing 80 yards to win, the Bengals were handed 30 easy ticks on three penalties (illegal contact, unnecessary roughness, pass interference) and pulled off yet another Carson Palmer fourth-down scramble when everyone saw it coming.
While there's a part of me that wants to think the officials are out to get the Ravens (just try telling me Chad Ochocinco wouldn't have been flagged for pass interference if he were a defender on that deep Palmer misfire at the 1:20 mark), the reality of the situation is that the Ravens are doing it to themselves.
Every week, I'll lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 6 matchup:
Ray Rice -- Not the most obvious pick against Minnesota's typically stout run-stoppers, but I like Rice here for his receiving acumen. He's a no-brainer in PPR leagues.
Bernard Berrian -- Time for Favre and his highest-paid receiver to finally click against a defense that allows eight yards per attempt, fourth worst in the league, and more than a touchdown per game.
Derrick Mason -- Last week against the Bengals, we learned what Mason can do against a top-notch corner: zero catches, zero yards.
Joe Flacco -- Once again his stuff will come in short little bunches. This is the toughest defense Flacco's seen since last year's playoff game against Pittsburgh, and in that game he had zero touchdowns and three interceptions.
First a little on the Game of the Week pick itself: Why wasn't it Denver-San Diego? Or New York-New Orleans? Simply put, these are, in my opinion, the two best teams in the two best divisions, making this game much more important. (Sorry, Cincy fans, I still think Baltimore wins last week's game seven times out of 10.) For the Ravens, a win is absolutely necessary to stay in the thick of things before a rough stretch that includes Denver, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Green Bay over their next six games. For the Vikings, the going gets just as tough (Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Seattle, Chicago, Arizona and Cincy in their next six). They'd be doing themselves a huge favor by staying ahead of the NFC North pack.
On to the pick: Baltimore simply needs it more, and I believe it's a better team than we've seen the past two weeks. I think its experienced 3-4 defense (as opposed to Green Bay's learning-on-the-fly version) will cause fits for a Vikings line that's still young and whose best player, Steve Hutchinson, has been battling a back injury.
I think Adrian Peterson, the most fumble-prone player in the NFL during his three-year career, had better be careful against a defense that has caused the most fumbles in that same time frame. And I think Brett Favre is due for a flop of a game against an opportunistic defense. Favre's only other game against Baltimore in the past five years yielded two interceptions and zero touchdowns.
I like Baltimore 31-17.
Overall record: 3-2 (Week 1 prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20. Result: Packers 21, Bears 15).(Week 2 prediction: Cowboys 23, Giants 10. Result: Giants 33, Cowboys 31).(Week 3 prediction: Vikings 23, Niners 20. Result: Vikings 27, Niners 24).(Week 4 prediction: Saints 31, Jets 24. Result: Saints 24, Jets 10).(Week 5 prediction: Ravens 38, Bengals 20. Result: Bengals 17, Ravens 14).