The Minnesota Vikings played their second consecutive close game in Week 2 against the Indianapolis Colts, this time losing 23-20 after trailing 20-6 heading into the fourth quarter. Their first significant test is coming in Week 3 against the San Francisco 49ers, who are 2-0 and will play their third straight NFC North opponent to open the season.
Most of the experts will give the Vikings little chance of pulling off an upset at home on Sunday, but here are five players worth keeping an eye if Minnesota has any chance to win the game.
1. QB Christian Ponder
Ponder’s numbers were solid against the Colts, as he went 27-for-35 for 245 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. He was also sacked four times in the game, losing a fumble on one, and offered little as a runner with just seven yards on three carries. The Vikings’ offense may have to take more chances downfield against the 49ers to move the ball effectively, and they have the type of defense that will exploit the type of mistakes Ponder has largely gotten away with over the first two games of the season. The lack of great options in the passing game outside of Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph hurts him, but Ponder will have to overcome that and do whatever it takes to keep the chains moving if Minnesota has any chance to beat San Francisco.
2. DE Jared Allen
Allen has not registered a sack through two games, and his most noteworthy contribution to this point was negative with a personal foul penalty on Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck that helped extend a drive in Week 2. The call prompted him to criticize the replacement officials after the game, but that only serves to distract from the fact Allen also only has three total tackles so far this season. Quite simply the Vikings’ defense needs him to step up this week, win his matchup with 49ers’ left tackle Joe Staley and make life difficult for 49ers’ quarterback Alex Smith. Anything less from their most impactful defensive player and it could be a long day for the Vikings.
3. CB Antoine Winfield
Winfield has played with a heavy heart so far this season after his brother’s tragic death, but he was able to make an impact against Indianapolis last Sunday with nine tackles. His overall performance will be a key component for the Vikings’ defense this week, as his ability in run support will be vital to containing the 49ers’ run game. Winfield could be counted on to make an impact in pass coverage against tight end Vernon Davis on occassion as well, as Minnesota struggles defending tight ends that are not Davis’ caliber. Winfield has also shown a nose for the ball during his career, with 24 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries over his first 13 NFL seasons, and if he can make an impact in that regard the Vikings may be able to turn the momentum against a superior team this week.
4. WR Percy Harvin
Harvin has arguably been Minnesota’s most important offensive player through two games, with 18 receptions for 188 yards along with 33 rushing yards on seven carries. He had 12 catches for 104 yards against Indianapolis in Week 2, though he was bothered by cramps late in the game that limited his effectiveness at times. With the lack of downfield threats the team has at wide receiver, Harvin should again see plenty of targets against the 49ers and he is the one offensive player for the Vikings that can be a mismatch for opposing defenses. He could also have an impact as a kickoff returner and help tilt field position to Minnesota’s favor, which is also certain to be important if the Vikings are to stay close in the game.
5. TE John Carlson
Carlson has not made a significant impact through his first two games with the Vikings, though a preseason knee injury can be partially blamed for that. He should progressively see more action now that he is healthy, even if Rudolph is clearly the more talented of Minnesota’s tight ends. Carlson could start to become a key factor in the passing game this week, but his best impact stands to be made as a blocker as the Vikings try to keep a talented 49ers’ front seven on their side of the line of scrimmage. No one should expect big numbers from Carlson, but this may be the week he begins to justify the significant investment the Vikings made in him during the offseason even without filling up the box score.