Consensus line: Vikings -6.5, total 42.5

Current betting percentage: 52% action on the Buccaneers, 64% action on the OVER

Individual Team Trends:

  • Buccaneers are 12-3 ATS in their last 15 road games against a team with a winning home record.
  • Buccaneers are 13-6-1 ATS in their last 20 road games.
  • Buccaneers are 2-10-1 ATS in their last 13 games after allowing less than 90 yards rushing in their previous game.
  • Vikings are 6-2-1 ATS in their last 9 home games against a team with a losing road record.
  • Vikings are 4-11 ATS in their last 15 games following a straight up win.
  • Over is 4-1 in Buccaneers last 5 road games.
  • Under is 5-1 in Vikings last 6 games overall.
  • Under is 9-2 in Vikings last 11 home games vs. a team with a losing road record.

Head-to-Head Trends:

  • Buccaneers are 5-0 ATS in the last 5 meetings.
  • Home team is 9-2-1 ATS in their last 12 meetings.

This is the first Thursday Night Football game this season where there is literally 50/50 action on both sides. You can see why. It’s really tough to feel completely confident that the Vikings are going to be able to put up enough points to win by a touchdown, and it’s equally as tough to see the Bucs keeping the game close.

The Buccaneers don’t look like a very appealing side to bet on right now. After leading the Saints by two touchdowns in the first half last week, the Bucs crumbled, and found a way to lose by a touchdown at home. All in all, this is not a very good team, and things won’t get any easier in the Metrodome tonight.

Tampa Bay’s key to success on offense will be to run the ball effectively. Josh Freeman threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns against the Saints last week, but the Vikings secondary has proven to be formidable this season, while the Saints are atrocious. I wouldn’t read too much into that game. Minnesota’s number one cornerback Antoine Winfield has been arguably the best defensive back in football this season, and the rest of the secondary has stepped up as well. Rookie Harrison Smith has proven to be an outstanding and reliable free safety thus far while Chris Cook has done an impressive job opposite of Winfield.

I’m not the biggest fan of Freeman, and I don’t see him having much success throwing the ball down the field tonight. Freeman has impressive arm strength and is capable of tossing a good deep ball, but he often holds the ball for far too long and is quite frequently guilty of making bad decisions. The Vikings are tied for third in the NFL in quarterback sacks with 22 and you can bet that Jared Allen and company will be licking their chops with Freeman in the backfield.

Minnesota has a huge edge in this contest because they’re one of only a handful of NFL teams that are capable of using only their front four to rush the quarterback. Jared Allen gets all the credit in Minnesota, but the Vikings also have Brian Robison at the other defensive end position and Kevin Williams at defensive tackle. Both Robison and Williams are a huge force on the defensive line as well. Minnesota is able to generate pressure with their defensive line, and that often allows them to drop up to seven players into coverage. Freeman has notoriously struggled against seven and eight-man coverage schemes in the past, so don’t be surprised if he makes a couple of boneheaded throws, or takes a handful of sacks in tonight’s contest.

The Buccaneers will have to do their best to establish Doug Martin. I mention Martin and not LeGarrette Blount because Blount proved to be utterly useless in last week’s game against the Saints. It looks like Martin is now shouldering the full load in Tampa Bay and was pretty effective, rushing for 85 yards on 16 carries last week. Again however, the Saints and Vikings defense are very different defensively.

The Vikings allow an average of only 3.9 yards per carry and rank 12th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. Their outside linebackers Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson are tackling machines and rarely let opposing running backs pick up extra yards after initial contact. However, the Vikings have been inconsistent in rush defense this year and surrendered a whopping 104 yards to LaRod Stephens-Howling last week, who had previously never topped the 100-yard mark in his four year NFL career. If the Bucs stay committed to the run, there’s a chance they could have some success.

Taking a look at Football Outsiders advanced offensive line metrics, the Bucs have been one of the best rushing teams in the league when they run behind the left side of their offensive line, while the Vikings have been merely average on runs to the left side. With Donald Penn and Carl Nicks manning the left side of the offensive line for the Buccaneers, that’s a matchup that they’ll need to exploit tonight. Freeman isn’t capable of converting consistent third-and-long situations, but he can be an extremely difficult to defend in short yardage situations, as most mobile quarterbacks are.

All in all, Winfield should be able to erase Vincent Jackson, the slowest wide receiver in the history of the NFL, while Chris Cook will have his hands full with Mike Williams on the other side of the field. Cook erased Nate Burleson and Mario Manningham in games earlier this season, but he gave up some big yardage to Andre Roberts and Donnie Avery. He has have the size to be a force against Williams though. Freeman will convert some first downs here and there, and the Bucs will have moderate success running the ball, but I doubt Tampa Bay will be moving the chains with any sort of consistency.

The good news for the Bucs is that I’m not sure the Vikings will be moving the chains consistently either. The matchup between the Vikings offensive line and Buccaneers offensive line may just be what decides this game. Minnesota’s offensive line is led by center John Sullivan, who has become one of the most reliable centers in the league. Sullivan and company have done a great job of opening up space for Adrian Peterson, and Peterson has undoubtedly returned to his old form as he continues to punish defenders when they’re making tackles.

Peterson goes up against the league’s best rush defense as the Bucs give up only 3.1 yards per carry and have wreaked havoc on opposing running backs all season. Tampa Bay gives up absolutely no yardage through the middle of their defense as Gerald McCoy has lived up to all expectations after a biceps injury cut his 2011 season short. McCoy gets penetration on almost every snap and middle linebacker Mason Foster is usually in support to clean up anything that might slip through the cracks. This is one of the only teams the Vikings will play this season where they won’t have an edge in the running game.

But they should have a big edge in the passing game. I use the word “should” because Christian Ponder has looked inept in his last four starts, compiling only five touchdowns to six interceptions, and losing a fumble. Ponder is more of a game-managing quarterback than a game-changing quarterback, so he needs to cut out the turnovers for the Vikings offense to be efficient.

The good news for Ponder is that this is the perfect matchup to get back on track. Tampa is still without their stud cornerback Aqib Talib due to a suspension, which creates a huge mismatch on the outside with Percy Harvin going up against Eric Wright. Harvin has given better cornerbacks a lot of trouble this season, so he should be able to exploit Wright frequently. The problem is that Harvin thrives in the short passing game, which is much more effective when Minnesota’s running game is working. If the Vikings struggle to move the ball on the ground, Ponder will have to take more shots downfield, and that takes him out of his comfort zone a little bit. That’s not to say that he won’t be successful though.

Tampa Bay’s pass defense is borderline atrocious. It’s hard to fault them for getting torched by Drew Brees last week because everyone seems to get torched by Brees nowadays, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that they’ve given up an average of 323 yards per game through the air. To put that into perspective, that’s actually worse than New Orleans’ pass defense. The Bucs secondary hasn’t been all that bad, but their complete lack of a pass rush is killing them. Tampa Bay has a bunch of stout run defenders in their front seven, but no one that’s capable of consistently applying pressure to the quarterback. With defensive end Adrian Clayborn on injured reserve and second-round draft pick Da’Quan Bowers on the PUP list, the Bucs are missing their best two pass rushers. Defensive end Michael Bennett will have to exploit his matchup with Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt if the Bucs defense wants to get off the field.

Similar to Tampa’s offense, I don’t see the Vikings moving the ball consistently here. They’re not a team that’s equipped to become a pass first offense, and that might be what things become here if the Bucs can bottle up Peterson, as I expect them to.

With all of that said, the Buccaneers still have to overcome a short travel week. The flight from Tampa Bay to Minneapolis is over 1,300 miles and the Bucs could easily be flat coming off of their emotional loss to the Saints last Sunday. The best football teams in the league have trouble overcoming situations like this, so it’s hard to imagine the Bucs doing so.

But then there’s another part of me that looks at the Vikings schedule so far this season and can’t help but think that they’ve been gifted their 5-2 record. Minnesota did knock off San Francisco in Week 3, but remember that the 49ers were in a huge flat spot coming off of back-to-back wins over the Packers and Lions. Other than that, the Vikings have beat up on the league’s bottom feeders, and even lost outright to the Colts. In fact, their only two losses this season have come against mobile quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, so it’s conceivable that they could struggle with Freeman here.

At the end of the day, though, the Bucs are one of the league’s bottom feeders, which means that Minnesota should be able to win yet another game and improve their record to 6-2. The Bucs don’t do a lot of things right, and even if they manage to keep the game close, they have a significant disadvantage against the Vikings special teams unit. Minnesota does a lot of little things that go unnoticed and are consistently able to win field position battles because they have one of the best punting units in the league. The Bucs, on the other hand, have one of the worst.

Prediction: Vikings 23, Buccaneers 17.

Recommendation: I absolutely hate this game. I don’t like the side and I don’t like the total. This looks like a game where all teasers will middle because I think that both the spread and total are set very accurately. With a gun to my head, I’d take the Bucs +6.5 and the UNDER 42, but I can assure you that I won’t bet a single dollar on this game tonight.

It’s just hard for me to trust the Vikings laying a touchdown. They really shouldn’t have come close to covering last week against the Cardinals, yet they got it done with smoke and mirrors. The Bucs also deserved a better fate against the Saints. My final decision was based solely on the fact that I’ll be out at a sports bar watching the game with a Vikings fan tonight and I really want to cheer against his smug ass. That’s literally how much confidence I have in my selection for this game.

UPDATE (2:45 PM): The Vikings are down to 5-point favorites in nearly every spot right now. In spite of the fact that I predicted the Vikings to win by 6 points, I’d still be more likely to bet the Bucs +5 than the Vikings -5. With 50/50 action and the line coming down nearly 1.5 points in a couple of hours, it looks like the sharps are liking Tampa Bay tonight. I can’t argue with the move. How can you possibly trust Minnesota laying points with their lack of offensive consistency?