Buccaneers - Vikings Thursday Night

MINNESOTA VIKINGS CAN MOVE TO 6-2 WITH THURSDAY NIGHT WIN OVER TAMPA BAY BUCS

Not many fans, pundits, or sports bettors were thinking of the Minnesota Vikings as a serious playoff threat entering the 2012 NFL season. The Vikings play in the tough NFC North...where Green Bay has been king...where Detroit made the playoffs as a Wildcard last year...and where Chicago upgraded in the offseason in hopes of making the playoffs this year. Minnesota? Maybe they'd make a run at respectability. Maybe they'd struggle for another year as a new coach and young quarterback continued to develop.

Forget about that!

The Minnesota Vikings enter their Thursday Night NFL TV appearance at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a 5-2 record and a chance to control their own playoff destiny. They already have a road win over Detroit, and still have FIVE games left in the division where the standings look like this entering Week Eight:

NFC NORTH
Chicago 5-1
Minnesota 5-2
Green Bay 4-3
Detroit 2-4

It's not going to be easy because Chicago and Green Bay both look to be for real. But, Minnesota just might be too! They did beat San Francisco way back in Week Three when nobody thought that was likely. If you can beat the 49ers at home...then you can beat Chicago and Minnesota at home. Just pencil wins there and vs. Detroit along with tonight's game...and Minnesota is starting at 9 victories and a guaranteed winning record.

That's the good news if you're a Minnesota fan. Some of the bad news will become clearer as we run through our key indicator stats for Thursday Night's showdown...

TAMPA BAY BUCS at MINNESOTA VIKINGS (8:20 p.m. on NFL NETWORK)
Las Vegas Spread: Minnesota by 6.5, total of 41.5

The market definitely has respect for the Vikings based on that line. They are seen as 3.5 points better on a neutral field in what's been a condensed league this season. No bad news yet! Oddsmakers and sharps see Minnesota as a legitimate Wildcard threat who should be favored by near a touchdown at home against a non-contender like Tampa Bay.

WON-LOST RECORDS (scheduled strength according to USA Today)
Tampa Bay: 2-4 (27th ranked schedule)
Minnesota: 5-2 (24th ranked schedule)

This is where things start to get dicey for the Vikes. They've played a weak schedule so far...one that only gets weaker with this game against the Bucs (who are 2-4 against a soft schedule!). Minnesota has wins over Jacksonville and Tennessee, who sit near the bottom of most respected Power Ratings even if the Titans have sleazed some close victories they may not have deserved. Last week's win came over Arizona and John Skelton...another team low on the totem pole in terms of current expectations. Heck, the Vikings LOST to Indianapolis and Washington who probably aren't playoff caliber teams this year (certainly not Indy, the jury is out on the Skins). Yes, Minnesota's win over San Francisco was a biggie. It's not clear yet whether or not that was a bit of a fluke.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Tampa Bay: +4
Minnesota: -1

This is a bad sign for Tampa Bay...in that they have a bad record vs. a soft schedule even though they've been winning the turnover category. It does speak well to the discipline that new coach Greg Schiano was supposed to instill when he took over. Maybe they can use that to their advantage against a Vikings team whose only turnover "victories"came in those high profile wins over San Francisco and Detroit.

OFFENSIVE STATS
Tampa Bay: 346.7 yards-per-game on 6.0 yards-per-play
Minnesota: 335.2 yards-per-game on 5.2 yards-per-play

Tampa Bay has been a big surprise offensively this year. That yards-per-play number in particularly is very impressive. Unfortunately...the numbers might be polluted by a string of games against bad defenses. Tampa Bay lit up New Orleans, Kansas City, and Washington the last three weeks...and those guys are having trouble stopping anybody (Washington's defensive woes are one of the big unreported stories of the young season). The Bucs will be in for a much tougher test here.

DEFENSIVE STATS
Tampa Bay: 399 yards-per-game on 6.2 yards-per-play
Minnesota: 319.7 yards-per-game on 4.8 yards-per-play

See what we mean? Minnesota's only allowing 4.8 yards-per-play for the year to everyone. Tampa Bay's offense struggled on the road in Dallas...and Minnesota has an even better defense than Dallas. You can make a good case that the key to picking this game is figuring out exactly what Tampa Bay is going to do with the ball. A legitimate offense will be in great shape to cover a spread this high. A struggling offense will have trouble hanging within a touchdown even if Minnesota's offense doesn't sparkle. You'll see in last week's boxscores that Minnesota beat Arizona by seven even while having a horrible game themselves!

LAST WEEK'S BOXES

NEW ORLEANS 35, TAMPA BAY 28
Total Yardage: New Orleans 458, Tampa Bay 513
Rushing Yards: New Orleans 81, Tampa Bay 98
Passing Stats: New Orleans 27-37-1-377, Tampa Bay 24-42-0-415
Turnovers: New Orleans 1, Tampa Bay 0
Third Downs: New Orleans 60%, Tampa Bay 33%
Vegas Line: New Orleans by 1, total of 49

This was an exciting shootout...but it exposed weaknesses on defense for both teams that aren't likely to go away any time soon. Tampa Bay has had some success vs. lesser teams though...it's not like Christian Ponder Thursday Night is going to be as good as Drew Brees or Eli Manning. What jumps out to us there on the negative side is the third down rate for the Bucs. They sure did make a log of big plays (totaling 513 yards!). But, they couldn't move the chains and grind up clock. If they don't make big plays Thursday vs. a better defense, they'll just spend the night punting.

MINNESOTA 21, ARIZONA 14
Total Yardage: Arizona 356, Minnesota 209
Rushing Yards: Arizona 126, Minnesota 166
Passing Stats: Arizona 25-36-1-230, Minnesota 8-17-2-43
Turnovers: Arizona 2, Minnesota 2
Third Downs: Arizona 43%, Minnesota 10%
Vegas Line: Minnesota by 6, total of 39.5

If you didn't watch any of this game, you may not be aware that Ponder was horrendous and the Vikings offense on the whole pretty dismal. They won because of a defensive touchdown, and the fact that they did manage to shoehorn the bulk of their yardage into a pair of successful TD drives. You don't see many playoff teams with quarterbacks who EVER post a passing line like 8-17-2-43 unless the game's being played in a blizzard. This was indoors!

BEST EXPECTATION
We can now sum up the strikes against Minnesota even with their solid 5-2 record. They've played a crap schedule, and they still can't count on their quarterback! They may not even be a .500 caliber team in the big picture, even if they do rise to 6-2 after a victory tonight. If you're going overtime with Jacksonville, losing to Indianapolis, and needing help to beat Arizona, then you're not somebody who's going to be scary in January. Minnesota can take a step forward more serious legitimacy with a good performance Thursday. We do think they have the better team, the better defense, and home field advantage.

As we said earlier, the key to picking the game will be an evaluation of Tampa Bay's offense. It's easy to envision a 20-10 yawner that's similar to Tampa Bay/Dallas (16-10) or Arizona/Minnesota (21-14). But, if the offense of the past three weeks is representing true improvement...then this has shootout potential more in the line of a 27-24 coin flip.

Best of luck picking on your own. If you'd like some help, a BIG, JUICY WINNER from JIM HURLEY is just a few clicks away! Game day releases in all sports are always available for credit card purchase right here at the website. You can grab tonight's Bucs/Vikings game, tonight's Game Two of the World Series, and tonight's college football in one fell swoop. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453 for more information.

Back with you Friday to start a two-day set of college previews for games that will impact the BCS rankings. We'll study Florida/Georgia in the Friday edition of the SPORTS BETTING NOTEBOOK, the de-facto championship game of the SEC East that will be televised nationally by CBS. In Saturday's report, we move to the prime time showdown matching Notre Dame and Oklahoma that's set for national coverage on ABC.

Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of legal sports betting!

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