Vikings-Giants: What to Watch

NEW YORK -- We're about six hours away from kickoff between the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants at MetLife Stadium tonight, as both teams try to begin the process of turning around seasons that have gone well off-course. I'll be heading to the Meadowlands in a couple hours to write about this one, as will ESPN New York's Dan Graziano, but in the meantime, here are a few things to keep in mind from the Vikings' perspective:

Reprieve for run defense? The Vikings have been uncharacteristically bad against the run this season, ranking 20th in the league in yards allowed and 29th in touchdowns after years of being in the top 10. Minnesota will be without safety Harrison Smith -- one of the team's top run defenders -- but could catch a break with the absence of bruising Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, who will likely miss the game with a hamstring injury. That means Peyton Hillis gets the start for the Giants, and while Hillis can be a sledgehammer between the tackles, it's tough to say how he'll fit with the Giants' offense and what he'll bring to the team after signing with them five days ago. If the Vikings can stop the run, they might have more luck making the Giants one-dimensional and capitalizing on Eli Manning's penchant for turnovers. Speaking of that ...

Picking off Eli: The Vikings have said all week that Manning looks like the same quarterback who has won two Super Bowls, but even that quarterback was prone to interceptions at times. And behind a shaky offensive line, Manning has thrown a league-worst 15 interceptions, becoming the first quarterback to hit that total in six games since Dan Fouts in 1986, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Smith is the only Vikings defensive back with an interception this season, and Minnesota's depleted secondary could have its hands full with Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Rueben Randle and others, but the Vikings haven't won a game where they lost the turnover battle since 2010, and that required Brett Favre to throw for a career-high 446 yards. For the Vikings, winning the turnover battle has been the most direct route to success in the past few years, as it is for many teams. They need to take advantage of the opportunities Manning gives them tonight.

Freeman's debut: With quarterback Josh Freeman making his first start, the Vikings will likely run with a slightly leaner game plan than usual, though Freeman and coach Leslie Frazier both downplayed how much the team will have to change things to get Freeman up to speed. The biggest challenge for the 25-year-old quarterback, who signed with Minnesota on Oct. 7, will be verbalizing changes to plays and protection schemes, especially if the Vikings end up in a two-minute offense. "Some of these plays get somewhat lengthy, and there’s stuff within the play," Freeman said. "You understand exactly where everyone is going whether it’s a motion, whether it’s a route tagged in there, whether it’s a concept, you understand what everybody is doing, but being able to spit that out when you’re on the clock, when it’s loud, when stuff is going on, when you’re out of breath, whatever is going on, being able to spit that out and knowing exactly what you’re saying." Freeman has emphasized this week how he's got some familiarity with the Vikings' scheme after working with Ron Prince -- who previously coached with Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave -- at Kansas State. His ability to recall it on the fly could be a key for the Vikings tonight.

Improvement on third downs: Both the Vikings and Giants have had atrocious third-down defense this season -- they have the two worst opponents' conversion rates in the league -- and whichever team can break that trend might have a chance to turn the game tonight. Third downs could be especially important on offense for the Vikings, who are at their best when they can get a lead, extend drives and run Adrian Peterson. Considering how thin the Vikings are defensively, and how much they've struggled with time of possession this season, they'll need to give their defense a break by draining the clock on offense.