Luck faces his biggest test yet in Zimmer's defense

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) From Aaron Rodgers to Eli Manning, Cam Newton to Marcus Mariota, Mike Zimmer has devised game plans that have made some of the league's best and most dynamic quarterbacks look like lifelong backups.

Next up for the Minnesota Vikings' defensive mastermind: Andrew Luck .

The Indianapolis Colts (6-7) come to Minnesota on Sunday on the outside of the playoff chase, and Luck knows that he'll be facing one of his most difficult tests of the season.

''Coach Zimmer is obviously an incredible defensive mind,'' Luck said. ''You have to be able to run and throw the football, have to protect the football, have to be able to stay ahead of the chains. You don't want to get caught in third-and-long. When you get down in the red zone, you better score some points.''

Luck comes in ranked fifth in the league in yards per game, having topped 300 yards four times this season. He's also an underrated running threat with 304 yards rushing, good for second on the team behind starting running back Frank Gore.

''He's a tough guy. I really admire guys like him,'' Zimmer said. ''He gets hit, and he doesn't complain to the official or anything like that. He just goes about his business, and like I say, he's a tremendous, tremendous quarterback.''

The Vikings (7-6) are one of just three teams in the league that has yet to allow a 300-yard passer this season. The defense ranks second overall, third against the pass and first in points allowed, serving as the backbone of the Vikings' desperate push for the postseason.

With an offense that has struggled to put up points this season behind a patchwork offensive line, and a special teams unit that had to change kickers midseason because of Blair Walsh's shaky right leg, the defense has been left to carry the load. And that's just the way Zimmer likes it.

Here are some key angles about the game:

ADRIAN LOOMS: Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson has missed the last 11 games have having surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. He returned to practice this week and said he is taking things day by day. Initially, he targeted the game at Green Bay on Dec. 24 to come back. But Peterson also said he likely wouldn't risk playing again this year if the Vikings were eliminated from playoff contention. A home loss to the Colts would push them pretty close to that edge.

HARRISON SMITH UPDATE: Vikings standout safety Harrison Smith missed last week's game against Jacksonville with a severely sprained ankle. Zimmer expressed optimism this week that Smith could defy the odds and return sooner rather than later. Smith missed practice the first two days of the week, leaving his status in doubt for the game. The Vikings certainly could use one of their biggest playmakers back to help them against the Colts, Packers and Bears.

PLAYOFF WATCH: Nine AFC teams already have more wins than the Colts, and four of those hold head-to-head tiebreakers over Indianapolis. Add the Colts' 4-6 record against conference foes and that it's worse than any of the teams in front of them. It's obvious just how precarious their situation is: Win, and they can keep playoff hope alive, lose and they could easily be eliminated.

PAGANO WATCH: Chuck Pagano got his first win as a head coach over the Vikings on Sept. 16, 2012. Since then, the Colts have gone to the playoffs three times, won two division titles and reached the AFC championship game in 2015. They also missed the playoffs last year and if they miss them this year, it would be the first time Indy has failed to make the postseason in back-to-back years since 1997 and 1998. Critics already are calling for Pagano's ouster, and a second straight loss to a playoff contender would only increase the calls for the coaching change.

MILESTONE WATCH: Gore has been passing Hall of Famers all season on the NFL's career rushing list. This week, he needs 77 yards from scrimmage to pass Tony Dorsett (16,293) for No. 10 on the league's career list. WR T.Y. Hilton needs five receptions to post a career high (82 in 2013 and 2014) and 143 yards to surpass his previous career best (1,345 in 2014). Luck's next 300-yard game will move him into a tie with the late John Unitas (26) for No. 3 on the franchise's career list, and K Adam Vinatieri's next victory will give him 200 regular-season wins in his career.

---

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.