Breaking down Sunday's Cincinnati Bengals at Minnesota Vikings game (1 p.m., CBS)...
1. The blueprint for beating Minnesota -- did Arizona unveil it? Such has been the chatter all week long, the suggestion being that the Cardinals' win last Sunday night exposed some serious chinks in the Vikings' armor. Whether that's the case is debatable. To say so would suggest that other teams could match Arizona's spread-out, multi-weapon offensive attack, for one. I'm not so sure Cincy can do that. Nonetheless, Arizona was incredibly successful, racking up nearly 400 total yards of offense and hanging 30 points on the league's 8th-ranked defense, so the game is worth revisiting.
How'd they do it? They passed (against a secondary that was missing Antoine Winfield). They passed some more. And then they passed again. In the end, the pass-rush tally looked like this: 27-25; but that includes nine run-out-the-clock rushes with under 10 minutes left and the outcome sealed. It's been suggested for years, but few teams actually execute it: a relentless passing attack is the way to go against Minnesota.
Defensively, the Beating Minnesota Blueprint would go something like this:
Step 1. Play tight pass defense. Step 2. Take both of the Vikings' offensive tackles out of the game.
Only one of those seems like something Cincinnati (or any other team, for that matter) can realistically hope for. And in the case of the Cardinals matchup, Step 2 pretty much led to Step 1. With Minnesota's run game suffering in the absence of tackles Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt, Arizona was able to sit back in pass coverage and shut down the Vikings' receivers.
2. The Benson Factor. Here's one reason Cincinnati could have a tough time sticking to the Cardinals' successful pass-pass-pass plan: Cedric Benson. The Bengals use Benson to set up their passing game, and they use him to the tune of 24-plus carries per game, the highest average in the NFL. In fact, he has the four highest single-game workloads of the past two seasons: games of 38, 37, 36 and 34 carries. He's their bread and butter, and there's a difference between abandoning a Beanie Wells-led rushing game and one spearheaded by Benson. At the same time, there's something to be said about the idea of preserving Benson, who'd never averaged more than 18 carries a game coming into this season, and who has a perfectly serviceable backup in Larry Johnson.
If Cincinnati gets even modest successes against a Minnesota rush defense that's proven penetrable lately (4.0 yards per carry and 117 yards per game after Nov. 15), it'll be tough to abandon the running game. Simply put, Cincy's not built to come out throwing every down.
That isn't to say they can't do it. Take for example the Chicago Bears, whom the Bengals and Cardinals share as a common opponent. Carson Palmer had his best game of the year against the Bears' relatively weak secondary, passing for a remarkably efficient 233 yards and five touchdowns on just 24 attempts. He doesn't need that kind of day against Minnesota, but it'd sure help.
3. Breaking the blueprint with Adrian Peterson. Getting Peterson back on track is the easiest way for the Vikings to blow up this supposed blueprint, so I have one suggestion for Brad Childress: get your workhorse out around the edges, specifically the left side, where Cincinnati is vulnerable. (Opponents have rushed for 6 yards per carry off left tackle). That starts with getting left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who was limited in practice Thursday, back on the field. And it ends with a dedication to the running game that Childress seemingly couldn't afford as Arizona pulled away last week. When the Vikings did run (they hit a season low with just 20 rushes), many of those went straight up the middle for no gain. Against Cincy, it's time to kick it outside.
4. The inevitable return of "Bad Brett Favre." The guy turned 40 two months ago, so it's not beyond all reason to suggest that 16-game seasons might actually take some sort of toll on Favre, explaining his recent end-of-year drop-offs. Whatever the reason, the numbers are there. Over the past three Decembers, Favre has tossed 10 touchdowns versus 15 interceptions and his passer rating hovers just under 70, nearly points 40 below his November rating in that period. He may not be Tony Romo, but he's been close lately.
Last week was just the latest example: one legit touchdown, a garbage score, and two interceptions -- after having thrown just three in the past 11 games. (OK, that last point may not be fair; his streak entering the game was just plain silly.) I'll give you one play to demonstrate that Favre may still have a reckless streak in him, and that his decision-making is at a low for the season.
After opening the second half against Arizona last week with an interception, Favre was tossed to the ground by defensive end Calais Campbell. Clearly Favre wasn't happy about it; he thought the body slam came after the whistle. And did he let it go? Hell no. First he tried to get in Campbell's face, but he got danced out of the way by Darnell Dockett. Favre gritted his teeth and stared down Campbell. Then, in classic Favre form, he raged into the next play, determined to avenge the wrongdoing. What resulted was an unnecessary interception aimed at Sidney Rice but forced into a group of four Cardinals defenders.
Afterward, Favre explained, "I let my temper get the best of me. I was kind of thinking outside the box and not thinking, period. It wasn't like I was surprised by the coverage... I just didn't make good decisions, from my end."
Welcome back, Bad Favre? We'll see...
5. Infirmary Report: Advantage Cincinnati. The Bengals will undoubtedly be without run-stopping defensive tackle Domato Peko, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last week. His absence last week against Detroit no doubt played a part in Kevin Smith's 104-yard game.
But Cincy has nothing on Minnesota's injury report. As mentioned, both offensive tackles are iffy. Neither has participated in a full practice this week yet. The Vikings are also dealing with a trio of head-related injuries -- safety Tyrell Johnson, guard Anthony Herrera and cornerback Cedric Griffin -- at the absolute worst time ever for head-related injuries. All three could be forced to sit out. Additionally, Percy Harvin hasn't practiced all week due to migraines. Meanwhile, linebacker E.J. Henderson is done for the year after breaking his right thigh bone, and cornerback Antoine Winfield still might not be ready to return from a foot issue.
Every week, I lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 14 matchup:
Adrian Peterson -- Lest you take last week's 19-yard rushing effort too seriously, let me remind you that we're talking about A.P., and that he still had 12.5 points in standard-scoring PPR leagues. It was the second-worst rushing day of his career; it won't happen again. If you're in the playoffs, it's safe to assume you rode Peterson's coattails to get here. Keep ridin'.
Carson Palmer -- Here's a good one: Who would you start, given the choice of Palmer or Favre? Palmer would seem to make less sense with just three TDs in his past five games. (Favre has 14 in that span.) But let this game stand on its own. Only two quarterbacks have managed multi-TD games against the Bengals all year, and only one has topped 300 yards. Meanwhile, Palmer faces what could turn out to be a seriously depleted secondary.
Bernard Berrian -- Sidney Rice should get the blanket treatment from Leon Hall, who's turning in a Pro Bowl year. At the same time, Berrian the Burner gets healthier every week after a hamstring injury. His 11 grabs over the past two Sundays mark his best two-game stretch of the year.
Cedric Benson -- One has to imagine Marvin Lewis knows better than to wear out his workhorse, especially with his preferred backup, Bernard Scott, nursing a turf toe injury. Also keep in mind that Benson's per carry average has tumbled every month this year. In November and December combined he's going just 3.2 yards at a time.
Bengals defense -- The league's stingiest scoring defense (15.6 points per game) faces the second-highest scoring offense (29.9). Call that a draw. But Minnesota also runs the second-safest offense in the league, with just 13 giveaways, and that's a fantasy bummer.
I just can't get that one play out of my head: Favre forcing one into Rice downfield in a fit of rage. That sure leaves a bad taste. Compounded with all of those Minnesota injuries and Cincinnati's record against good teams, it should be enough for the Bengals to overcome the Vikings' serious home field advantage at the Metro..., er, Mall of America Field. (Never gonna get used to that one.) Peterson stays bottled up with his line dinged, and Chad Ochocinco makes mincemeat of a patchwork secondary. The latter could lose his head if he really tries to take the Minnesota mascot's Viking helmet, as he suggested Thursday, but Chad will come away a winner on the scoreboard. Bengals, 27-23.