NFL Preview - Minnesota (3-8-1) at Baltimore (6-6)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Matt Cassel will be under center for Minnesota on Sunday as the Vikings try to play spoiler against the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
The veteran signal caller confirmed the news on Wednesday after his coach Leslie Frazier hedged a bit, saying Cassel would "likely" start because Christian Ponder had not been cleared yet after suffering a concussion in the team's 23-20 overtime win over Chicago in Week 13.
Frazier has stubbornly stuck by Ponder this season despite egregiously poor play from the third-year signal caller. Cassel replaced the concussed former first-round pick late in the first half last week and finished the game 20- for-33 for 243 yards with one touchdown and an interception for the Vikings, who were coming off a tie with Green Bay. Ponder, on the other hand, was just 3-of-8 for 40 yards and flashed his now-patented awful pocket presence again and again.
Cassel has had a hand in all three of Minnesota's wins this season and has outperformed Ponder when given the opportunity. Against the Bears he moved the Vikings consistently and it finally paid off when Blair Walsh hit a 34-yard field goal with 1:43 left in the extra frame.
Adrian Peterson totaled 211 rushing yards on 35 carries and became the third fastest player to eclipse 10,000 career yards. His final three runs totaled 26 yards to set up Walsh's game-winner.
"That was a wild football game and I'm just glad we came out on top," said Frazier. "I'm very proud of the guys and the way they played."
Chicago began the extra frame with the ball and managed a pair of first downs, but had to punt near midfield.
Minnesota then got into field goal range and Walsh hit a 39-yard field goal for what appeared to be the winner. However, a face mask call on Rhett Ellison moved the ball back 15 yards, and Peterson lost three yards on a running play before Walsh missed a 57-yarder wide left.
Chicago's Matt Forte then carried the ball five times for 24 yards setting up the normally reliable Robbie Gould for a 47-yard attempt to win it on second- down, but he missed his chance to the right as the Vikings got one last chance.
A 4-yard run from Peterson was followed by a 17-yard catch from Greg Jennings to get the ball across midfield. After an incompletion, Peterson had runs of 11, 4 and 11 yards to get the ball down to the 16. Walsh then booted the ball through the uprights for the win.
"We always know if we get Walsh in a comfortable zone he is gonna knock it down and win the game," said Cassel. "It feels good to get the victory."
Baltimore also won a thriller in Week 13, edging AFC North-rival Pittsburgh 22-20 on Thanksgiving Night.
Justin Tucker drilled five field goals and Baltimore's defense came up with a decisive stop on a potential game-tying two-point conversion with 1:03 left to help the Ravens hang on.
Tucker's final field goal of the game gave Baltimore a 22-14 lead with 5:37 to play before Ben Roethlisberger guided the Steelers down the field, using a 29- yard catch-and-run from Le'Veon Bell to get the team to the Baltimore 20.
Two plays later, Roethlisberger fired a strike to Heath Miller up the middle for what appeared to be a 20-yard touchdown, but video review showed Miller's knee on the ground just before the ball crossed the goal line.
After being stuffed for no gain on the next play, Bell surged off the left side and dove for the end zone, where a huge collision ensued that sent Bell's helmet flying into the end zone.
Bell, who appeared to lose consciousness on the hit, fell backwards into the end zone for what was originally ruled a touchdown, but the rookie running back was ruled down just short of the end zone because his helmet came off before the ball broke the plane.
"I understand the rule that when a runner's helmet comes off, the play is over, but the issue that I had was I was told on the field that the touchdown was confirmed by multiple officials and then they reviewed it," Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said. "That's my issue from a mechanics standpoint."
Following an incompletion on third down, Roethlisberger hit Jericho Cotchery on a quick slant for a 1-yard touchdown, but Emmanuel Sanders was unable to hang on to a potential game-tying two-point conversion pass on the next play.
Pittsburgh then attempted an onside kick, but the ball never came close to traveling 10 yards and the Ravens were able to run out the remainder of the clock with a series of kneel downs.
With the victory, Baltimore slid into the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, thanks to a tiebreaker advantage over the Miami Dolphins.
"We are position to control our own destiny," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That is what you try to accomplish going into December. Now it's up to us to make the most of it."
Joe Flacco finished 24-of-35 passing for 251 yards and a touchdown, with Torrey Smith hauling in the score en route to a game-high 93 receiving yards in the win.
"Any time you score 22 points and you basically kicked all field goals, you scored on a lot of drives," Flacco said of his ability to move the offense.
The game, of course, was also marred by Tomlin's strange behavior on a 73-yard kickoff return by Jacoby Jones.
With 6:26 remaining in the third quarter, the Jones was slowed by Tomlin's positioning as he returned the kickoff. Tomlin, who had his back to Jones, was standing in the restricted white border that surrounds the field and stepped foot onto the field during Jones' return.
Jones was ultimately tackled from behind after appearing to have an opportunity at a touchdown. Tomlin should have been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, but no penalty was called.
"I take full responsibility for my actions, and I apologize for causing negative attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization," Tomlin said in a statement after being fined $100,000 on Wednesday. "I accept the penalty that I received."
The Vikings and Ravens have spilt four prior meetings with Minnesota winning the last one, 33-31, on Oct. 18, 2009 in Minneapolis.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This is one Baltimore has to get. After the Vikings, the NFL's only team without a road victory this season, the Ravens have division leaders Detroit, New England and Cincinnati on the schedule with the Lions and Bengals away from Maryland.
"The idea is to be at your best when it means the most," Harbaugh said. "That's what we try to do. We'll find out whether that is the case for this football team."
The Ravens are 5-1 at home and have allowed just 74 points or just over 12 points a contest.
The Vikings figure to try to make the Ravens one-dimensional on offense, a solid approach because Baltimore averages an NFL-worst 2.9 yards per rush. The Ravens, however, will counter with an imposing deep passing game against one of the league's worst secondaries.
The Ravens' offense could also get a big boost if tight end Dennis Pitta is ready to make his season debut Sunday after suffering a hip injury during training camp. Pitta set career highs with 61 receptions, 669 yards and seven TDs last season and Flacco has missed him, especially on third-down when trying to move the chains.
Minnesota continues to ride the quarterback carousel despite the fact Cassel has been far more effective than Ponder and its conceivable if the ex-Kansas City starter had been playing for a significant period, the Vikings would be in the hunt of what has turned out to be a rather pedestrian NFC North division.
Whomever starts at the game's most important position, however, the Vikings live and die with Peterson, who piled up 143 yards in his lone prior meeting against the Ravens. The best pure runner in football, Peterson leads the NFL with 1,208 rushing yards but hasn't been his explosive self this season due to a nagging groin injury.
"You have got to believe, you can't tuck your tail and run, you can't give up no matter how it looks you have to continue to fight," said Peterson when talking about Minnesota's current plight. "That's one thing that we have done all year; I haven't seen guys quit. When I look in their eyes there is fight there."
Make no mistake, the Ravens were hoping to see Ponder because Cassel can at least take advantage of some of the eight-and nine-man fronts opposing defenses use to try to stop Peterson.
That said the Ravens have won 26 of their last 30 in the Charm City and Flacco is an imposing 10-1 on his home field against NFC opponents, while the Vikings are the only NFL team yet to win on the road this season.
This will be tougher than most think because of Cassel's presence but Baltimore will hold serve in the end.
"We just have to win. If we win games, things are going to work out for us," Harbaugh said.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 27, Vikings 20
12/05 11:45:36 ET