There's little doubt that Ken Whisenhunt and the Arizona Cardinals were already shifting focus to Minnesota on their first practice after last Sunday's loss. For our sake, we'll say that the shift in focus begins today. The bitter taste of the last two losses still resides in the team and the fan's mouths respectively. How can the Cardinals wash that away and chalk up a win on Sunday?
Defeat the Minnesota Vikings -- that's how. The same Vikings that reached the NFC Championship game last season. The same Vikings that were one of the best teams in the NFL last season. The same Vikings that the Cardinals upset last season. It can be done again, considering that Minnesota is clearly not the same team. It began with another offseason filled with Favre-mania, and continued when he joined the team late in training camp. It hasn't dissipated even halfway through the season, as Favre's aging body became more battered when he was knocked out of last week's game against the Patriots.
Brett Favre, who tossed 33 touchdowns last season and threw a career high 107.2 passer rating, has looked like a 41-year old man so far this season. He's already eclipsed his interception total from 7 last season, to 11 this season. His 69.8 passer rating this year is a career low. To make matters worse, he fractured two bones in his ankle two weeks ago to go along with the jaw injury he received last week. Favre should never be counted out of starting at quarterback -- factoring that he holds the longest starts streak in league history -- but his chances to play the Cardinals has grown increasingly unlikely this Sunday.
That is where the Cardinals defense comes into play...
We discussed earlier this week that the Cardinals defensive play has improved this season. Playing a bruised and battered Favre would give them the edge. Playing his back up would be even better. Tarvaris Jackson would be the man leading the Vikings' offense should Favre sit out. He does little to strike fear in the eyes of opposing defenses. Count me as a fan that also isn't worried about his play. Yes, he is the same Jackson that threw four touchdowns against the Cardinals two seasons ago in a Minnesota victory. He's also the conservative-armed quarterback that owns a 58.8% completion and 78.6 passer rating. Beating Jackson would be less of a challenge for the defense then a limping Favre.
However in Minnesota, the quarterback isn't the only focus. A running back named Adrian Peterson poses as a problem for any defense, and has been a reason for their success the last two years. Peterson, who's been arguably the best running back in the league the last four seasons, has gained 970 total yards and 6 touchdowns in 2010. The Cardinals defense shutdown Peterson in front of a wild home crowd on Sunday Night Football last season, limiting him to just 19 yards on 13 carries. Obviously repeating that defensive performance is easier said than done, but at least we know it's possible. Peterson should and will be the defense's primary focus.
Another reason Minnesota was so successful last season was because of their dominant defensive play. With playmakers at all three levels, the Vikings were able to stifle opposing offenses en route to the NFC Championship game. However this season, even the defense has been middle of the road at best. It becomes a matter of whether or not the Cardinals can enforce their will against the Vikings.
As we've already found out, the Cardinals offense has been stagnant and inconsistent. It begins with the play at quarterback. The Max Hall experiment blew up in our faces and now Derek Anderson is back at the helms. He orchestrated a few impressive drives last week, but ultimately failed in the end when he threw the game-losing interception. This week, turnovers may be the least of Anderson's worries, as the Vikings defense is currently ranked 29th in the league with a -7 turnover differential and have only intercepted 6 passes this season. The Jared Allen-led pass rush hasn't been what it once was, as the Vikings defense had recorded a league low with 6 sacks in 2010.
Beanie Wells, assuming he plays, will need to be a big part of Sunday's game against Minnesota's defense. Incorporating Tim Hightower and LaRod Stephens-Howling into the offense will also be needed. The Cardinals defeated the Vikings last season because of a successful running game that wasn't afraid of Minnesota's defensive line.
It's difficult to pinpoint why the Vikings have faltered this season. The distractions of Brett Favre and the now departed Randy Moss haven't helped. It's not as if they are a terrible team. Their average point differential is only -2.2 this season. They have Pro Bowlers and playmakers on both sides of the ball as well. For the Cardinals to pull out a win in Minnesota on Sunday, it will take a big effort. After two straight losses, this is one win the Cardinals desperately need. I won't say a victory will be easy, but consider that the Cardinals usually play their best with their backs against the wall and when everyone's doubting them. So please rule the Cardinals out of this game NFL analysts -- we need this one.