Buccaneers at Vikings -- Week 8
Where: Mall of America Field, Metrodome, Minneapolis, Minn. (turf, indoors)
When: Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET (NFL Network)
Spread: Vikings by 6.5
Records: Vikings (Overall: 5-2, NFC North: 1-0); Buccaneers (Overall: 2-4, NFC South: 1-1)
Past results: Two most recent meetings -- Sept. 18, 2011: Buccaneers 24, Vikings 20; Nov. 26, 2008: Buccaneers 19, Vikings 13. Series record: The Vikings hold a 31-21 edge, but the Bucs have won five in a row, dating back to 2001.
What matters: Tampa Bay has played much better football than it did in 2011. It just doesn't have the results to show for it. The Bucs' four losses have all been by seven points or fewer. Still, results matter, and a loss would mean the team would fall to 2-5 -- the franchise's worst start since an 0-7 beginning to the 2009 campaign.
Who matters: Tampa Bay's wide receivers are taking turns having big days statistically. WR Vincent Jackson had a franchise-record 216 receiving yards on seven catches last week against the Saints. Fellow WR Mike Williams topped the century mark in yardage the previous week against the Chiefs. But the Vikings have the NFL's 11th-best pass defense and are third in the league in sacks. Protecting QB Josh Freeman will be key if Tampa Bay hopes to again have a big day through the air.
Key matchups: The Bucs have done very well against the run this season, turning what was the worst run defense in the NFL in 2011 into the third-best thus far in 2012 (allowing only 76 yards per game). But Vikings RB Adrian Peterson is the key to what has been the NFL's seventh-best rush offense thus far this season (132.3 yards per game). If Peterson has success, it makes life much easier for Minnesota's young QB, Christian Ponder.
Injuries of note: The Bucs sustained no significant injuries on Sunday against the Saints, but they could get one key player back in the near future, as DE Da'Quan Bowers returned to practice last week after suffering an Achilles injury in the offseason. Beyond that, the Bucs are as healthy as they have been all season.
Inside stuff: While much of the attention has rightly been heaped upon Tampa Bay's top two WRs (the aforementioned Jackson and Williams), Tiquan Underwood is emerging as a third option. Underwood caught his first career touchdown pass in the loss to the Saints, and has been targeted three or more times in each of the team's last three games. If the Vikings focus too much on Jackson and Williams, Underwood could make a big play or two.
Connections: Considering the two franchises were once rivals in the NFC Central (from 1978-2001), surprisingly few ties exist between them. Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams was an assistant for the Bucs in 2001, and Minnesota's defensive backs coach Joe Woods was a Tampa assistant in both 2004 and 2005.
Stat you should know: The Bucs are 11-5 all-time when Freeman has a QB rating of 95 or better. Of course, last week's loss to the Saints was one of those five losses -- another sign that the team's ability to improve in pass defense (currently 31st in the NFL, allowing 323 yards per game) is key if it hopes to have success in the second half of the season.
Looking ahead: The Bucs have another winnable road game at Oakland in Week 9 and continue a brief swing through the AFC with a game against the Chargers the following week. Finally, in Week 11, Tampa Bay gets back to NFC South play against a Carolina team the Bucs beat in Week 1. Winning at least one of these back-to-back road games is vitally important.
Prediction: Vikings 24, Bucs 20
For more from Tampa Bay Bucs blogger Patrick Southern, follow @CBSBucs on Twitter.