A hotshot young coach takes over a disappointing team, instills a renewed sense of discipline, and gets them back into playoff contention in his first year at the helm. That's the basic storyline not only for the Jets this season, but also for the Vikings. Minnesota's Brad Childress and Gang Green's Eric Mangini have made great progress, but both see their playoff hopes dwindling as they face off this weekend.
JETS (7-6) AT MINNESOTA VIKINGS (6-7)
Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL The Vikings have the league's best run defense, holding their opponents to an average of just 54.1 yards a game. Last week they held the Lions to minus-three yards on the day, the lowest total in a game since the 1970 AFL–NFL merger. They are very likely to break the record for fewest rushing yards in a 16-game season, a mark set by the Ravens when they won the Super Bowl in 2000. Minnesota's opponents have averaged just 2.7 yards a carry.
The key to their strong play is defensive tackle Pat Williams, who deserves serious consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Another important contributor is middle linebacker Napoleon Harris, whom the Vikings acquired in the Randy Moss trade last year.
What tends to happen, though, is that Minnesota's opponents abandon the running game early, choosing instead to pick on the Vikings secondary. The aggressiveness of players like cornerback Antoine Winfield and safety Darren Sharper has led to 18 interceptions — tied for third most in the league. However, the Vikings do give up a lot of yards in the passing game — 228.8 a game, which ranks them 27th — and they've given up too many long pass plays.
This is actually a good matchup for the Jets, who haven't had consistent success with their running game anyway. Backs Leon Washington and Cedric Houston have each had 100-yard multi-touchdown games, but those have been the exception rather than the rule. When the Jets move the ball it has been through the air. The emergence of Jerricho Cotchery has been the most important development for the Jets offense this season. He and Laveranues Coles have already combined for 140 catches, making them the most prolific receiving duo the Jets have had since Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet combined for 158 in 1998. They're on pace for 172 receptions, which would be the most for a pair of receivers in franchise history.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL Despite their record-setting defense, the Vikings are just 6–7 because of a plethora of problems on the offense. Veteran Brad Johnson took over the offense this year with a reputation for consistent if unspectacular play. The 38 year-old passer has been a major disappointment, having thrown 15 interceptions and just eight touchdown passes.
After a particularly bad performance against the Bears two weeks ago, fans were calling for Johnson to be benched. Unfortunately, the Vikings don't have much of an alternative behind him. Former Jets backup Brooks Bollinger is no. 2 on the depth chart, but a separated shoulder will probably keep him out of action for the rest of the season. Drew Henson and rookie Tarvaris Jackson simply aren't viable options.
Minnesota's running game has been solid. Chester Taylor is a hard-nosed runner, a power back who is also effective as a receiver. When he was sidelined with a rib injury last week, backup Artose Pinner came through with 125 yards and three touchdowns. If nothing else, it's a strong indication that the Vikings' success on the ground derives from a powerful offensive line.
That's going to mean trouble for the Jets, who continue to struggle against the run. It's been frustrating, because they have generally played better over the last three or four weeks. Blown assignments and sloppy tackling in recent games have led to big plays by their opponents. The outside defenders have played well, particularly ends Shaun Ellis and Bryan Thomas, but they've struggled up the middle. Tackle Kimo Von Oelhoffen often can't hold his ground, and middle linebacker Jonathon Vilma is neutralized when teams bring their guards out to attack him directly.
KEY TO THE GAME The Vikings have killed themselves with penalties and turnovers, and the Jets need to be aggressive to make those things happen. They've also got to unleash their passing game if they're going to get points on the board. Pennington has thrown five touchdown passes and nine interceptions over his last six games, a ratio which must improve for the Jets to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Lahman's Pick: Vikings 23–20