When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens. TV: Fox.
These are two clubs who represent the up-and-down middle class in the NFL. Despite good moments, neither team has been able to reach the consistency it takes to make the postseason.
Who will come out on top? ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and NFL Nation columnist Kevin Seifert breakdown the matchups:
Walker: Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is a South Florida native with plenty of interest out of Miami. How is his development in his rookie season?
Seifert: He has really come on, via a steady ascendance that makes him without question the best of the rookie quarterbacks in 2014. The Vikings' major goal for Bridgewater's first season was to keep him from getting beat up and beat down. Coach Mike Zimmer was especially cognizant about not ruining him behind a bad offensive line or on a bad team or putting him on the field before he was ready to succeed. That's why the Vikings began the season with Matt Cassel as the starter.
Bridgewater got on the field earlier than they expected because of Cassel's Week 3 injury, and after some expected early struggles -- most notably on deep accuracy -- Bridgewater has gotten on a nice little run. The Vikings are 4-3 in his past seven starts, he has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in his past three starts and thrown for at least 300 yards in his past two. Most recently, the Vikings trusted him in a pass-first game plan against the Detroit Lions' stout defense. He completed 31 of 41 passes for 315 yards, the highest completion percentage for a rookie in a game when throwing at least 40 passes in NFL history. People in South Florida know Bridgewater has a calm personality that allows him to navigate pressure situations well. The early returns are that the Vikings have found their starter for a long time to come.
The Vikings are protecting Bridgewater with three backups on their offensive line, at right tackle, right guard and left guard. Are the Dolphins still as strong up front defensively as they were earlier this season?
Walker: It's an interesting question, because a month ago I would have pegged this as a huge advantage for Miami. However, its defensive line has mostly disappeared the past several games. It has been a mystery here in Miami, because that was the strength of the team in the first half of the season. The Dolphins got zero sacks on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady last week and he put up 41 points. Before that, Miami allowed 661 rushing yards in a three-game stretch from Weeks 12-14. Teams have pretty much done what they wanted against Miami's defense, which at one point was ranked as high as No. 2 in the NFL. The Dolphins are running on fumes, and it is most evident on the defensive line. On paper, it's still an advantage for Miami, but the group must prove it on the field.
Although it doesn't always show in the standings, the Vikings are playing solid football in the past month. What's led to their recent surge?
Seifert: A few things, with Bridgewater's development being the most significant. When you're getting production from that position, everything else is a little easier. It took some time for the Vikings to recover schematically from the suspension of tailback Adrian Peterson. They've used a backfield-by-committee system, getting 538 yards from rookie Jerick McKinnon, who is now on injured reserve, and 421 yards (and seven touchdowns) from Matt Asiata. Dolphins fans can expect to see a mix of Asiata, veteran Ben Tate -- claimed off waivers from the Cleveland Browns -- and Joe Banyard. Bridgewater has benefited from the emergence of receiver Charles Johnson, who was signed off the Browns' practice squad earlier this season. Johnson has replaced the disappointing Cordarrelle Patterson in the starting lineup and has 19 receptions for 355 yards in his past five games. Finally, the Vikings' defense has begun taking the form Zimmer wanted to see when he took over the team this year. Zimmer still calls the defensive signals, and he has helped mold a pair of youngsters -- defensive end Everson Griffen (12 sacks) and cornerback Xavier Rhodes -- into frontline players. The Vikings' three losses over the past two months have all been by one score or less. Even after losing Peterson and Cassel in the first month of the season, they've got a chance to finish .500.
How should we expect the Dolphins to respond emotionally in this game? They're all but eliminated from the playoffs. Do you think they'll pack it in? Will they fight for Joe Philbin's job? Or has the decision already been made?
Walker: I will start with the last question. The decision has not been made officially on Philbin, but the gears are beginning to click in motion. The past two weeks were an eye-opener for the decision-makers in the organization. The team didn't show up in two huge games against the Baltimore Ravens and Patriots. Philbin now has a three-year record of 22-24 and hasn't made the playoffs. His teams play their worst football when it matters most, in key games late in the season. That's not good enough for Miami owner Stephen Ross.
The best Philbin can do is prove he can motivate the Dolphins to play well in these final two games when nothing is at stake. That will be a challenge in itself. A 9-7 season at least gives Philbin a leg to stand on, although I'm not sure that will be enough without making the playoffs. I expect Miami to play for Philbin because he is well-liked in the locker room. But if things get really difficult in this game -- like it has the past two weeks against the Patriots and Ravens -- I'm curious to see how the players respond.
I would be remiss if I didn't ask about the Peterson controversy. Has that worn off on the team, even with new details emerging?
Seifert: I think it did hang over the locker room and the coaching staff for a long time, mostly because there were several stops along the way when it seemed as if Peterson's return was imminent. There were some genuinely shocked players and coaches when the final ruling came down that Peterson would not return this year. Now, I think everyone is past it. The appeals, accusations and lawsuits are all essentially irrelevant to the Vikings' 2014 season. Peterson isn't going to be on the field this season, and he might never be in a Vikings uniform again. My perception is that most of the players and coaches who will decide the outcome of this game Sunday are well beyond worrying about it.
The Vikings are tied for sixth in the NFL with 38 sacks but Ryan Tannehill has taken the sixth-fewest sacks in the league. What has been the key for the Dolphins' pass protection, and do you think it'll hold up against the Vikings?
Walker: The numbers are a bit skewed due to a stellar first half of the season. The Dolphins' pass protection was very good when Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert was healthy and guarding Tannehill's blindside. A strong case can be made that Albert was Miami's first-half MVP. However, a season-ending knee injury to Albert exposed some holes on Miami's offensive line. Rookie Ja'Wuan James moved from right tackle to left tackle and the struggling Dallas Thomas was put at right tackle. Since Albert went down in Week 10, Miami has allowed 21 quarterback sacks in five games. That's a little more than four sacks per game. The Patriots and Ravens registered 10 combined sacks. I do expect the Vikings to get pressure on Tannehill.