x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Vikings are passing their test

This is a big week in London for the NFL but not in America, where there is only one marque game - the clash between the undefeated Minnesota Vikings (6-0) and the revived Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2).

The Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, No 4, has done far more than what was probably expected of him this season.
The Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, No 4, has done far more than what was probably expected of him this season.

This is a big week in London for the NFL but not in America, where there is only one marque game - the clash between the undefeated Minnesota Vikings (6-0) and the revived Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2). Traditionally, this should be a game of pounding defence and thunderous runs, but those are your grandfathers' Steelers and Vikings. They are now two of the most prolific passing teams in the league with the Steelers producing 75 per cent of their offence with the pass while the Vikings have thrown more than they have run in each of their last five games.

Adrian Peterson has run well enough to lead the NFL with 618 yards but the Vikings quarterback Brett Favre has done far more than was probably expected of him, throwing 12 TD passes and only two interceptions - the fewest over any six-game span in his career - so it is unlikely the Steelers can totally shut Minnesota down. That means the Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger must continue his hot hand against a defence tied for the NFL lead with 21 sacks.

Roethlisberger is completing a remarkable 72.5 per cent of his throws but the edge goes to the more balanced Vikings at home. The New Orleans Saints (5-0) could be tested by the Miami Dolphins (2-3), who have won two in a row with their "Wildcat" offence, which snaps the ball directly to running backs Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams. The Wildcat is averaging 200.5 yards and will challenge the Saints' fifth-ranked run defence. That test will be no stiffer than the one Miami have trying to stop quarterback Drew Brees and the NFL's No 1 offence.

The difference is the Saints are more balanced, averaging 159.6 yards rushing as well. Combine that with a defence forcing a league-high 15 turnovers and you have a team on their way to another win. A player with ties to both the Chicago Bears (3-2) and the Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) is this game's deciding factor. Four years ago the Bears made running back Cedric Benson the fourth player taken in the college draft but it was not until he ended up in Cincinnati that he blossomed. Now he is the NFL's third leading rusher (531 yards).

Chicago's stingy defence is sixth in run defence. The side which dominate that aspect prevail. Around the rest of the NFL, the undefeated Indianapolis Colts (5-0) hope to stay that way playing the winless St Louis Rams (0-6); the Atlanta Falcons (4-1) should handle the Dallas Cowboys (3-2), whose three victories have all come against winless teams, if they can protect their quarterback Matt Ryan; and the Arizona Cardinals (3-2) can make a statement against the New York Giants (5-1), who are smarting from the thumping they took last weekend in New Orleans.

"It's going to be an opportunity to see where we are at," the Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. Where that will be is the wrong side of the score. The Buffalo Bills (2-4) take on the Carolina Panthers (2-3) in a battle of sinking ships but the Bills' starting quarterback Trent Edwards is out with a concussion and will be replaced by Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick. This is one area of life where a Harvard education will not help.

Meanwhile London is excited about the New England Patriots (4-2), the three-times Super Bowl champions, playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-6) at Wembley Stadium. The Tampa head coach Raheem Morris said: "I'm sure [the Patriots coach] Bill Belichick is licking his chops. He should be." That is no vote of confidence. Elsewhere, the New York Jets (3-3) are in disarray as they travel to face the Oakland Raiders (2-4). The Jets have lost three in a row and their rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez has thrown eight interceptions and only one touchdown in those defeats. The Raiders' JaMarcus Russell has been worse so this is likely to be a defensive struggle decided by turnovers.

The Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) were supposed to be terrible but what is the San Diego Chargers' (2-3) excuse? Lose again and they will be out of them. The Green Bay Packers (3-2) have significant offensive line problems but the undermanned Cleveland Browns (1-5) have 12 players with the flu, so go with the team without the sniffles; the San Francisco 49ers (3-2) visit the Houston Texans (3-3) with running back Frank Gore back from injury and rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree likely to make his debut, but it will not be enough to beat the improving Texans; and on Monday the Philadelphia Eagles (3-2) face division rivals the Washington Redskins (2-4) at the right time.

The Eagles were stunned by the Raiders, 13-9, last Sunday so the turmoil-ridden Redskins are the right opponents with their head coach Jim Zorn stripped of the right to call the plays by the owner Daniel Snyder. Consultant Sherm Lewis, who has been retired since 2004, is now in charge. Bad idea. @Email:rborges@thenational.ae