MINNEAPOLIS — Listed generously at 6-foot-1, Case Keenum has played for three teams in three NFL seasons and came to Minnesota in the offseason knowing he was the backup from Day 1.
At 6-foot-6, Joe Flacco is the statuesque, Super Bowl-winning quarterback who has been unquestioned starter in Baltimore for the last decade.
Yet the two find their roles reversed heading into a matchup on Sunday. Keenum is playing the best football of his life and has revived the Vikings’ playoff hopes while filling in for the injured Sam Bradford. Flacco and the Ravens’ passing offense have struggled mightily to cash in on myriad opportunities provided by a turnover-happy defense.
With no sign that Bradford will be ready to play anytime soon, Keenum has filled in capably. He has been unafraid to throw the ball downfield, and his sense of calm in the pocket has helped a Vikings offense weather the storm of losing Bradford, running back Dalvin Cook and receiver Stefon Diggs.
“No matter what offense I’m in, I’m continually trying to master it,” said Keenum, who has completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,134 yards with five touchdowns and one interception in five games. “I never feel like I’ve arrived. I’m always striving for more. That’s my mindset. I want more. I’m continuing to work and to grind and to continually master this craft.”
Keenum has played well enough to allow the Vikings (4-2) to not have to try to rush Bradford, who has struggled with knee problems, on to the field again after starting him against Chicago two weeks ago and having to pull him just before halftime.
Not so for Flacco and the Ravens’ (3-3) passing offense, which is only ahead of Jay Cutler and the Dolphins when it comes to yards per game. Flacco is posting career lows in yards per attempt, yards per game and rating. But coach John Harbaugh said there is plenty of blame to go around with receivers dropping passes, two of which wound up in the hands of Bears defenders for interceptions in a ghastly 27-24 home loss to Chicago last week.
“We have to figure it out as a group. It’s a collective effort. It’s on everybody,” Harbaugh said. “The quarterback shoulders the criticism, but it’s on everybody.”
Here are some key angles for the game:
GROUND IT OUT: Harbaugh doesn’t care that Minnesota owns the third-ranked rush defense in the NFL. With a pass attack that ranks 31st in the league, Baltimore would love to keep it on the ground.
“For us, the way we’re built, it’s always important to establish the run,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a big part of who we are. So it doesn’t really matter where they’re ranked.”
Alex Collins has become the featured back for the Ravens, backed by Javorius Allen. The duo combined for 123 yards last week, and Collins averages a crisp 6.4 yards per carry this season.
“He’s got great balance,” Harbaugh said of Collins. “He’s got great feet, quickness and good vision.”
WALLACE RETURNS: Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace played the 2015 season with Minnesota after stops in Pittsburgh and Miami. He has made himself at right at home in Baltimore.
Wallace has 15 receptions for 239 yards this season, including career catch No. 500 last week. He caught 72 passes for 1,017 yards in 2016, his first year with the Ravens.
“He’s confident, he wants the ball, he wants to play,” Harbaugh said.
Just as importantly, he’s made a difference in the locker room.
“Mike Wallace has been nothing but a leader, nothing but positive, nothing but energetic,” Harbaugh said.
FRENZIED FINISHES: The last two meetings between these teams were thrillers.
In snowy Baltimore on Dec. 8, 2013, an NFL-record five touchdowns were scored over the final 125 seconds of the game won 29-26 by the Ravens. Matt Cassel connected with Cordarrelle Patterson on a 79-yard touchdown pass for the Vikings with 45 seconds left before Flacco found Marlon Brown in the end zone with 4 seconds remaining.
At the Metrodome on Oct. 18, 2009, Steven Hauschka’s 44-yard field goal at the final whistle went wide left to give the Vikings a 33-31 victory . Brett Favre’s 58-yard completion to Sidney Rice set up Ryan Longwell’s field goal after the Ravens rallied from a 17-point deficit with 10 minutes to go to take a one-point lead. Flacco passed for 385 yards and two touchdowns that afternoon.
TEDDY’S BACK: Almost a year and a half after a devastating knee injury, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater returned to practice this week to continue a remarkable comeback bid. Bridgewater’s knee was dislocated in a fluke accident during practice right before the 2016 season started, and only some fast action by Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman and the team’s medical staff saved his leg from being amputated.
“We still don’t know where it’s going to go or where that’s going to lead to,” Zimmer said. “But, I think everybody feels good for him because they know what kind of kid he is and how hard he has worked.”
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