The Minnesota Vikings have emerged as early contenders in the NFC, but a showdown with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on NFL Network's Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET) will give the nation a chance to see what this team is all about. Propelled by the surprising recovery of running back Adrian Peterson and the re-emergence of a top-10 defense, the Vikings have jumped out to a 5-2 record while downing a pair of 2011 playoff teams (the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions) in impressive fashion.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, have been competitive in every game under new head coach Greg Schiano, but the team must find a way to get over the hump in the fourth quarter to secure a victory. Both squads are hoping to build momentum heading into the second half of the season, so this hard-hitting affair should provide plenty of intrigue -- and reveal which team is ready to make a postseason push.
Here are three key questions heading into this matchup:
1. How will the Buccaneers slow down Adrian Peterson?
Peterson has been one of the league's biggest surprises this year. He's shown no ill effects after an impressive recovery from a knee injury that ended his 2011 season, and remains the best running back in pro football. On Sunday, Peterson ran roughshod over the Arizona Cardinals, rolling up 153 yards on 23 attempts with a touchdown. In addition to flashing the speed and quickness that have been trademarks of his game since he entered the NFL in 2007, he showed the strength and power needed to grind it out between the tackles. With Peterson back to Pro Bowl form, the Buccaneers must build their game plan around containing him for most of the game. We should see more eight-man fronts from the Buccaneers; I wouldn't be surprised if Greg Schiano calls more run blitzes on early downs in an attempt to force the Vikings into long-yardage situations. If the Buccaneers can hold Peterson to less than 3.5 yards per attempt, the Vikings will be forced to abandon their grind-it-out approach and rely on a shaky Christian Ponder to carry the offense.
2. Can Christian Ponder bounce back from a bad performance?
Ponder has completed 67 percent of his throws in 2012 while posting a respectable 87.5 passer rating, but the second-year player's struggles against the Cardinals on Sunday sparked questions about his ability to guide the Vikings into the postseason. He connected on just eight of 17 passes for 58 yards and threw a pair of interceptions for the third straight game. This is a disturbing trend for the Vikings. Their ball-control offense is led by Peterson's remarkable running skills, but it depends on Ponder functioning as a game manager. The Buccaneers will be intent on taking away Peterson and the running game; Ponder must be able to take advantage of the single coverage that accompanies eight-man fronts. In addition, he must capitalize on the playmaking skills of receivers Percy Harvin and Jerome Simpson and tight end Kyle Rudolph on the perimeter. If Ponder can complete 70 percent of his passes while generating explosive plays (25-plus yards) in the passing game, the Vikings should be able to roll to their sixth victory of the season.
3. Will the Vikings opt to play coverage or bring pressure?
Under new coordinator Alan Williams, the Vikings' defense is once again one of the best in the NFL. The unit has relied extensively on the front four to generate pressure while consistently dropping seven defenders into coverage to neutralize the opponent's top receiving weapon. On Sunday, the Vikings didn't blitz at all against the Cardinals, but still finished the game with seven sacks and numerous pressures. This week, the Vikings have the daunting task of facing a pair of big-time receivers, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, who have the size and athleticism to pose problems on the perimeter. To counter them, the Vikings likely will feature Tampa 2 coverage to double both receivers on the outside, forcing Josh Freeman to settle for the second or third option in the route progression. If Vikings defenders Jared Allen and Brian Robison can generate a consistent rush without help from an additional linebacker or defensive back, the Vikings could take away the Buccaneers' top threats and harass Freeman into a dismal performance on the road.
This game will be a lot closer than most expect it to be, but I believe that playing in front of the home crowd will give the Vikings a significant advantage, and enable their defense to overwhelm the Buccaneers.
Vikings 20, Buccaneers 14
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.