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Victorious Vikings Trip Critical For Cardinals

In murky playoff landscape, wins must be stacked down the stretch

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Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer hopes to find success against a stingy Vikings defense.

MINNEAPOLIS – A blast of frigid air greeted the Cardinals when their plane doors opened Saturday evening.

When they depart Sunday night, they'll hope their playoff chances aren't similarly cooled.

While the Cardinals (4-4-1) are in the thick of the postseason race in the NFC, nearly everyone else in the conference can say the same. In order to continue a second-half push which began – barely – last week against the 49ers, the Cardinals must beat a formidable foe on the road.

The Vikings are reeling, losers of four straight after starting the season 5-0, but have one of the NFL's best defenses and will be playing in a stadium that coach Bruce Arians has been told can be louder than Seattle.

Both teams are smack in the middle of the conference logjam. A Cardinals win could bump them all the way up to the second wild-card spot, and a loss could drop them as low as 12th place.

"It's two desperate teams," defensive tackle Frostee Rucker said. "The one that's more desperate should be the victorious one."

The Cardinals are second in the NFL in total defense (295.2 yards per game) and tied for third in scoring defense (17.8 points per game). The Vikings offense has been among the NFL's worst this season, so on paper the Cardinals have a big advantage.

While the defense has dominated statistically, it has sometimes let down at crucial times. If this game is close late, defensive coordinator James Bettcher doesn't want to see a redux of the Patriots, Seahawks, Rams and 49ers games, when his group allowed fourth-quarter scoring drives which allowed the opponent to tie the game or take the lead.

"You have to relish those opportunities and we've got to play better in those moments," Bettcher said. "We need to be a defense that wins the game in that situation. Period."

This game is a toss-up because the Vikings have an elite defense as well. Minnesota is third in total defense (308.8 yards per game) and first in scoring defense (16.9 points per game), boasting talented players at every turn.

 The Cardinals are averaging nearly 80 more yards per game than Minnesota, but it's only resulted in an average of three more points per contest. If the offense can't convert yards into points, this one could be low-scoring.

The difference may come down to the play of each team's offensive line. The Cardinals have lost right guard Evan Mathis and left tackle Jared Veldheer to season-ending injuries, while the Vikings have lost an astounding four offensive tackles.

If a backup on either side becomes a glaring weakness, it could help decide the game.

"We talked about it in our room already," Arians said. "Who is going to be the guy who steps up on our defensive line? And which team can run the ball and keep their quarterback clean?"

The Cardinals have taken some baby steps of late, going 3-1-1 in their past give games to scratch back to .500, but there has yet to be a signature win against a good opponent after those were so commonplace in 2015.

Get one here, and it could temper the frustration of the fanbase. It would also keep the Cardinals in the playoff herd if it begins to thin.

Right tackle D.J. Humphries will let that sort itself out. The Cardinals need players like him to hold up in a tough environment, and he's focused on pull blocking, not pulling for certain outcomes.

"If you don't win, it doesn't matter anyway," Humphries said. "The only thing that matters is getting out there, putting your best foot forward and getting that 'W.' Then you can talk about if this person loses, or whatever. It doesn't matter if the standings are great but then you lose. Then it's like, 'Aww, OK.'

"Even in college, I've never been one of those guys. Right after the game, I'm like, 'Man, who do we play next week? Oh, OK, yeah.' In reality, it doesn't matter. I've got a job to (focus on), no matter if we're playing the Greek Gods or if we're playing the Vikings."

Images of key players for this week's opponent, the Minnesota Vikings



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