Last weekend, the Vikings had sole possession of first place in the NFC North for one day, and this weekend they will attempt to begin proving that they are the real deal and not just an early surprise.  At 3-1, the Vikings are unexpectedly ahead of the Packers (2-2) and the Lions (1-3), while holding the same record as the Bears who head to Jacksonville this weekend.

The opponent this week are the Tennessee Titans (1-3) whose injury woes have brought on a state of disarray.  Former Vikings Steve Hutchinson, Darius Reynaud, and Chris DeGeare return to the Metrodome hoping to crush our hopes and I want to take a look at what this game holds in store for us.

The Passing Offense

To put it plainly, the Vikings just simply aren’t winning any games by throwing the ball yet, and average only 199 yards per game (26th in the NFL).  However, while Christian Ponder has yet to dominate a game, he has proven to be efficient and capable of taking care of the football.  He is the only starting quarterback in the league that has yet to throw a pick, he is the 5th most accurate passer in the league with a completion percentage of 68.3%, and is 8th in the league with a quarterback rating of 97.7.

Ponder bulked up this season, and the Vikings drafted left tackle Matt Kalil in the first round, as everyone knew that his ability to stay healthy this season would be key to his success.  Kalil has yet to allow a sack, but Ponder is nonetheless dealing with a pesky knee injury that caused him to practice on a limited basis twice this week.

Ponder is expected to have his full arsenal of pass catchers available to him this week, including Michael Jenkins who suffered a rib injury that has hampered his practice efforts.  Of course, Percy Harvin (30 catches, 299 yards), Kyle Rudolph (15 catches, 146 yards, 3 touchdowns), and Jerome Simpson (4 catches, 50 yards) figure to be the top targets this point forward.  No Viking has ever had as many catches in the first four games of a season as Harvin has this year, and yes that does include Cris Carter and Randy Moss.

If Ponder is to have a breakout performance anytime soon, this could be the week, as the Titans present a golden opportunity.  They are allowing 285 yards per game (27th in the NFL) and have generated only six sacks through four games.  Perhaps even more telling is that they have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 75.3% of their passes and a combined quarterback rating of 118.3, of which rank the Titans as the worst in the NFL.

The Edge:  Vikings

The Running Offense

The return of Adrian Peterson has, thus far, gone as well as anybody could have possibly expected.  The Vikings have been willing to use Peterson as the workhorse they had grown to rely on and because of that he is right back to where he was… a top ten running back.

His 332 yards (10th in the NFL), 4.2 yards per carry average (10th), and 79 rushing attempts (6th) have been a big reason that the Vikings offense has been able to stay competitive.  Percy Harvin, of course, has been able to jump start the offense by carrying the ball a few times per game with an average of 4.9 yards.  Even Ponder has added to the total by carrying the ball 12 times for 46 yards and a touchdown.  Credit should also be given to the offensive line (and front office) as they are clearly an improved unit from last season.

The Vikings are ranked 10th in rushing offense so far this season, with Toby Gerhart being the only really disappointing variable with a 2.7 yard average, no touchdowns, and three fumbles.

Outside of Ponder’s knee issue, left guard Charlie Johnson is the only player important to the running game that is listed on the injury report.  Johnson has been dealing with a lower back issue but is listed as “probable” for Sunday’s game.

Conversely, teams have been able to find great success against the Titans by running the ball this season.  They are giving up 136.5 yards per game (27th) on the ground, but they are only giving up 3.9 yards per carry (13th), which means that opponents are simply building a lead against them and then grinding the clock down with the run game.  If a team were to find themselves down to the Titans, however, they are still capable of collapse (see: week three versus Detroit).

With just one more game rushing for 100 yards or more, Peterson will tie Robert Smith’s franchise record of 29 career games in which the century mark is crossed.

The Edge:  Vikings

The Pass Defense

With reports surfacing that starting quarterback Jake Locker and star receiver Kenny Britt will both be out on Sunday with injury, you know I’m going to be giving the edge to the Vikings on this one.  Matt Hasselbeck?  Please.  Nate Washington?  Nope.

The Titans have the 18th ranked passing offense and are going to try and prove the Vikings secondary are just a group of pretenders (ranked 14th).  The fact is, however, that this Vikings defense seems to have found some swagger and confidence while the Titans passing game, even with all their starters, has been best described as “blah.”

Hasselbeck turned the ball over three times last week during his relief duty, and appears just as immobile and uninspired as we would expect.  Of course he is a veteran to be respected, but the Vikings pass rush (8th most sacks in NFL) and newfound proficiency in the secondary should keep him in check for most of Sunday afternoon.

The Edge:  Vikings

The Run Defense

The Titans have “CJ2k” in their backfield, and swiped Steve Hutchinson to bulk up their O-Line, so they must be dominating the run game, right?  Well, last week Chris Johnson broke out with 141 yards against the Texans, but the Titans are still stuck in the statistical basement in this category, too.

They have rushed for only 68.8 yards per game (28th), are averaging 3.7 yards per carry (20th), and have yet to score a rushing touchdown.

On the flip side of that, the Vikings rush defense is ranked 7th in the NFL, only allowing 85.2 yards per game.  They are allowing 3.3 yards per carry (6th) and might get an added boost as starting linebacker Erin Henderson is expected to make his return on Sunday.

One more interesting note here:  The Vikings are one of only five teams that has yet to allow a run of 20+ yards, with their longest run allowed being 15 yards.

The Edge:  Vikings

Special Teams

The Vikings have the NFC’s special teams player of the month, but the Titans have the AFC’s equivalent in Darius Reynaud.  Harvin leads the league with a kick return average of 38.3 yards, but Reynaud has a respectable 27.2 yard average.

Meanwhile, Reynaud is averaging 5.2 yards on punt returns, but Marcus Sherels is far outperforming that stat with an 18.8 yard average of his own.

All three players undeniably pose a threat to the opposition, but there is also no doubt that each has benefitted from playing against the Lions and their porous coverage unit.

Blair Walsh missed his first field goal attempt last week, but Rob Bironas has yet to hit one from 40 or more yards out, having already missed two this season.  Both are proficient in kicking off with a long ball, with minimal chance of a return, which could offset the threats posed by each teams’ return men.

Both Chris Kluwe and Brett Kern have punted 19 times this season, but Kern has been able to place one more inside the 20 yard line than Kluwe and is averaging 3.3 yards more per punt.

The coverage unit of the Vikings is giving up slightly more yardage than the Titans, both on kicks and punts, but neither have allowed any touchdowns.

I firmly believe that Harvin is a better return man than Reynaud and Walsh is a better kicker than Bironas, but these units seem extremely even statistically.  This aspect of Sunday’s battle should be a fun one to keep track of.

The Edge:  Vikings (just barely)

Prediction

Well, I have given the Vikings The Edge in each section here, so you know I am going to predict them as the winners.  However, they are only two weeks removed from one of the most pathetic performances I have seen out of the Vikings in years at the hands of the Colts, so reverting to that penalty-ridden and incompetent play is possible in my mind.

However, the Vikings are at home and on a roll, so I just don’t see the Titans becoming the “trap” that we worry about at this point.

Adam’s Prediction:  Vikings 30, Titans 19

Brett’s Prediction:  Vikings 27, Titans 21