By Joseph Gunther
The Minnesota Vikings do not have to win out to make the playoffs, but it would be a lot easier to do so. The Vikings will begin that quest with a road game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium.
The Texans can clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a win over the Vikings.
The Texans enter the game with an 11-2 mark. Its only two losses came to teams that have already clinched their respective divisions: the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots. They have a 4-2 record against teams in the playoff hunt this season and have won six of their seven home games this season.
Texans on Offense
The Texans are a run-first offense that uses their running game to open up the passing attack.
The best matchup is Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway vs. Texans running back Arian Foster. Greenway leads the league in tackles and Foster is second in the league in rushing. There is not a better head-to-head matchup in this contest.
The matchup the Vikings need to take advantage of is Everson Griffen vs. Texans right tackle Derek Newton. Griffen is emerging as a versatile, athletic pass rusher. Newton is a second-year seventh round draft pick. He has started 12 of the team’s 13 games this season. The Vikings need Griffen to show he can be an every down player.
The worst matchup for the Vikings is the team’s cornerbacks vs. Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson. The Vikings have struggled against big, physical receivers in recent weeks. and Johnson is one of the best receivers in the league. The Vikings should get Chris Cook back from an injury, but how much rust will there be after eight weeks? A.J. Jefferson has struggled in coverage. The other corners (Antoine Winfield, Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels) are at a great size disadvantage.
Texans on Defense
The Texans run a 3-4 scheme that generates pressure up the middle instead of the edge.
The best matchup is Vikings center John Sullivan vs. Texans defensive tackle Shaun Cody. Sullivan is quietly becoming one of the top centers in the NFL. Cody is not one of the stoutest defensive tackles in the league, but he controls the middle of the line and gets space for J.J. Watt and the inside linebackers to do their thing.
The matchup the Vikings need to take advantage of is tight end Kyle Rudolph vs. the Texans linebackers and safeties. Rudolph has a size and athleticism advantage over all four Texans linebackers and both safeties. He should be able to keep the offense moving in the right direction when Adrian Peterson is not getting the ball.
The worst matchup for the Vikings is its right guards vs. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. Watt is a matchup problem for just about every team, but the Vikings’ biggest hole on the offensive line should be staring at him most of the game. Brandon Fusco has struggled against physical rushers and Geoff Schwartz has not played all that much this season.
Texans Players to Watch
Running back Arian Foster: The fourth-year veteran is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards, but had 165 against the Indianapolis Colts last week. He is a physical running back that could have a huge game if the Vikings are not at their best.
Defensive end J.J. Watt: The 2011 first round draft pick is the favorite to be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. No 3-4 scheme defensive ends can create pressure up the middle like he can. He has 19.5 sacks (three in last week’s win over the Colts) and has forced a fumble in three consecutive games.
Both teams are looking for a win. The Vikings need the win the help their playoff chances while the Texans have already clinched their division, but can clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win. Minnesota has struggled on the road (1-6 this season) and the Texans have been good at home (6-1).
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Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. His work can be found on Examiner.com.