The Thursday Night Football schedule was expanded in 2012, allowing every NFL team at least one chance to play under the bright lights in a primetime game. This week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are traveling to Minnesota to take on the Vikings at Mall of America Field.
From a fantasy football standpoint, the two teams seem evenly matched. At QB, Josh Freeman has four more fantasy points than Christian Ponder. And combined, the top two receivers on each team, WRs Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams for the Bucs and WR Percy Harvin and TE Kyle Rudolph for the Vikings, are separated by just three points. The biggest scoring edge goes to Adrian Peterson, who has a 30-point edge over the rookie Doug Martin. (Though it should be noted that the Minnesota Vikings have not yet had their bye week and have thus played one more game than the Buccaneers.)
The similarities continue into many of the offensive team statistics. There is just an 11-yard per game difference between the two offenses. A mere six seconds separates the Bucs' and Vikings' average time of possession. And Tampa Bay's points-per-game total is just 0.8 higher than Minnesota's. Defensively, however, the two team's statistical strengths lie in different areas, and knowing how could affect how you set your fantasy lineups in Week Eight.
1. Can Anyone Contain Peterson?
Before the season began, many were discounting Adrian Peterson, at least for the early months. Peterson was, on average, the seventh running back off the board during August drafts, taken around pick number seventeen. But the Viking star has been paying off for those who took the gamble after his late season ACL tear. He is the fourth highest-scoring running back in the NFL, tied for third in total yardage. And he jumps even higher in PPR (points per reception) formats, with 22 catches so far this season.
Which leads us to the defensive strength of the Buccaneers: stopping the run. All season long, the Buccaneers have limited some of the premier runners in the game. Week One against the Carolina Panthers, who led the league in team rushing a season ago, the Bucs held Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert to a combined 5 yards rushing. In Week Three, DeMarco Murray was held to just 38 yards. And in Week Six, the league's leading rusher, Jamaal Charles was only allowed 40 yards.
With Peterson coming off a monster 153-yard, one-touchdown performance against Arizona, good for second in RB fantasy points last week, once again the Buccaneer defense is faced with a tough task. There is no doubt that Peterson is a must-start any week at this point, as he has been for years, but this week don't be surprised if his yardage points are limited against a Buccaneer team that is holding offenses to 76 yards rushing per game, third best in the league.
2. Feast or Famine Passing Games
Neither Vikings' quarterback Christian Ponder nor Buccaneers' quarterback Josh Freeman has been a consistent fantasy star this year, which has certainly been a factor in their start percentages across the leagues. Neither of the two quarterbacks are started in more than 15 percent of leagues in which they are owned. But there are reasons you may wish to bump that percentage by starting either one this week.
Christian Ponder has had four week in which he has put up 15 or more fantasy points, and two weeks in which he eclipsed 19. On the other side of the spectrum though, he has also shown us an eight-point performance, a four-point performance, and most recently, a lowly two-pointer. Against the Buccaneers, he'll be looking to rebound against the league's 31st ranked pass defense, which has allowed three 21 point games to opposing fantasy quarterbacks.
His primary target, WR Percy Harvin, is an all around weapon and offensive ballhawk. His 53 receptions are second best in the league and his yardage is also in the top 10. That doesn't even factor in his massive return-game potential, if that is a part of your league's scoring. But, again, we see his numbers fluctuate quite a bit, often tied in with the success of his quarterback. In Ponder's four-point week against the Lions, Harvin managed just 22 receiving yards. In Ponder's three most prolific weeks, Harvin has broken 100 yards each time. If one has a big day, expect the other to follow suit. Both are primed for above-average output tonight.
Freeman hasn't exactly been inconsistent; rather he had a slow start to the season from a fantasy standpoint. In the first four games of his season, Freeman accounted for 42 total fantasy points. But in the last two weeks, Freeman has put up 52 points, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Robert Griffin III.
While the Vikings pass defense is performing better than either the Kansas City or New Orleans secondaries, there is no arguing that Freeman has massive momentum going into the Thursday night game. Are we in for another 420-yard performance? That might be stretching it, but you can reasonably expect him to be closer to his recent numbers than those he put up at the beginning of the season.
Freeman is working with a receiving duo that has made some noise of their own over the last few games. Vincent Jackson is coming off a 200 -yard performance and is averaging 97.7 yards per game, good for fourth in the NFL. Factor in his five touchdowns on the season, and you have the third highest scoring receiver in all of fantasy football. Opposite him, Mike Williams is showing a resurgence of his rookie season numbers. His 368 yards and three scores have made him a top-30 fantasy receiver as well. A bonus for Williams owners, Fantasy Outsiders points out that the Minnesota Vikings rank last in the NFL defending a team's number-two wideout. That's a factor you may want to keep an eye on.
3. The Key to Buccaneer Success
Last week, the fantasy highlight for the Buccaneers was a 95-yard bomb from Josh Freeman to Vincent Jackson. And so far this season, it has been the big-play ball that has given the Buccaneers a big fantasy edge. At any point, any number of Buccaneer players can break a play that instantly adds five or more points to their stat line.
In their six games this season, the Buccaneers have a league-leading eight pass plays of 40 or more yards. With that, they have averaged six yards per play, good for the fifth-best in the NFL. More impressively, if you look at their yards per play in the last three games, that number jumps to 7.9, a yard and a half more than the highest team average in the NFL.
The big gain has definitely been the Buccaneer wild card throughout the season, but it is also a spot where the Vikings defense excels. In their seven games, they have allowed only one pass play longer than 40 yards. And their defensive yards per play is tied for third best in the NFL at 4.8.
The key to many of the Buccaneers statistics, especially through the last three weeks has been in the long gains, the big passes, and the exciting runs after a catch. To capitalize on these stats, and produce the fantasy numbers that owners are beginning to expect from Tampa Bay's stars, they are going to have to stand up to one of the top defenses in the league.