Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and sports fan Ben Johnson. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The Minnesota Vikings, who were unimpressive during the pre-season, open the 2013 regular season Sunday at Detroit. How do you size up this team? Will they return to the playoffs? What’s your prediction for their final regular-season record?
-Dorr: It’s impossible to tell anything from the exhibition games. Adrian Peterson never carried the ball, their all-pro blocking back is suspended to begin the season, the offensive line – especially highly-touted Matt Kalil – had a less-than-impressive performance, there’s a new punter, the linebacking positions are a question mark, and we don’t know if the receiving corps will be any better than last season. Did the team over achieve to be 10-6 last year or can they do better? Without looking at who they play (they say the schedule is tougher), a record at or a little over .500 would be decent, say 9-7. Another 10-6 would be very good. The Vikings are not a extremely talented team, despite what many of their fans think.
-Marxhausen: Even though there are some new faces on the team, I see the same team as last season. There is no doubt that Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league and is looking at a difficult workload ahead of him. In the first six games of last season, Peterson only broke 100 yards in one game. Although they won four of those games, the Vikings should have reversed those two losses. Quarterback Christian Ponder has not convinced me that he is a playoff quarterback and in the thick of it, he will not be able to pull the team to victory. I like to view them as playoff contenders, but they are still on the bubble with me when it comes to the playoffs. The Vikings will titter on the edge, but I see them at 9-7 or 10-6, just in the playoffs or just out.
-Larson: The Vikings showed little in the pre-season and maybe that was by design. As Luther points out, there are so many uncertainties for the team heading into the season. Too many to consider this team reaching the playoffs. The Vikings are in a rugged division and face a tough schedule. Everything points to a 7-9 record.
-Johnson: If it makes any sense, I think the Vikings will have a better team in 2013 than they did in 2012 but their record will not be as good. Looking at their schedule I see a 9-7 record. There is always a “head scratching” win during a season but there will be an unexpected loss as well. If Adrian Peterson gets hurt at any point in the season, this record goes out the window and just a small handful of victories would follow.
•Question: So, who wins Sunday, the Lions or the Vikings?
-Dorr: Detroit is favored by four and one-half points. So, I’ll take the Vikings, 19-16.
-Marxhausen: The Vikings start the season at Detroit and at Chicago. Two tough teams to play on the road. The Vikings will lose a close one to the Lions, 24-23.
-Larson: The Vikings’ season will get off to a rough start as the Lions win, 24-17.
-Johnson: I’ll go with the Vikes, 27-20.
•Question: Take a stab at who will be playing in the NFC and AFC finals this season?
-Dorr: Broncos and Patriots in the AFC and 49ers and Falcons in the NFC.
-Marxhausen: In the NFC I see Super Bowl hopes for the likes of Green Bay, Atlanta San Francisco and Seattle. In the AFC I see hopes for New England, Baltimore, Houston and Denver. When it boils down to it, I will go with San Francisco against Seattle and Houston against Denver in the conference finals. In the offseason San Francisco and Seattle were the aggressive buyers in the market, looking to take it one step farther and I feel they both snagged what they needed. The same can be said with Denver signing receiver Wes Welker to add another weapon to quarterback Peyton Manning’s arsenal. Houston signed Super Bowl champion safety Ed Reed to add to the Texans’ defense. The Texans will be a most formidable opponent.
-Larson: How about Seattle and Atlanta in the NFC finals and New England and Denver in the AFC title game? All four have rosters composed of talented veterans and that’s what counts when the playoff begin.
-Johnson: Now days, NFL teams change so frequently in terms of success that it is hard to go off of last year’s results. So, I’ll throw some new teams in the playoffs for 2013. I’ll take Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, Green Bay, Philadelphia, and New Orleans for the NFC playoff teams and Pittsburgh, Denver, Houston, New England, Kansas City, and Cincinnati in the AFC. Atlanta beats New Orleans and Denver beats Cincinnati in the league championship games.
•Question: The University of Minnesota football team opened its season by swamping Nevada-Las Vegas 51-23 Aug. 29 at TCF Bank Stadium. What are your thoughts on that game?
-Dorr: I was at the game and was surprised that UNLV moved the ball as easily as it did, although some long plays made the stats lean toward UNLV maybe more than was deserving. The defense did tighten down a bit as the game wore on. But, how good is UNLV? Probably not very good. I haven’t seen any report on it but I doubt if there have been many games in Gopher history where a blocked field goal, interception and kickoff were all returned for touchdowns. There was some speed shown in those returns that has been a missing element of the last few years. Quarterback Philip Nelson had a so-so passing game and ran well. But, again, how good is UNLV? Let’s see if there is improvement against New Mexico State this week before we get too excited. How good is New Mexico State?
-Marxhausen: Good thing the defense and special teams showed up to play in the second half or this might be a different story line. The Gophers started slowly in the first half with a 48-yard run by quarterback Philip Nelson and a 10-yard pass from Nelson to receiver Maxx Williams being the highlights. They finished the half only up by three points. The Gophers swung the door wide open with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to the start the second half and followed it up seven minutes later with a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown. In the fourth quarter there was another interception returned 89 yards for a touchdown, followed by two rushing touchdowns to round out the game. The Gophers were running by committee in this game with very little emphasis on the throwing the ball. As much as the Gophers need to win the non-conference games, they still need to be able to utilize all their weapons. Minnesota will have need a passing game when tit faces better teams. I would like to see Nelson show he’s the dual threat that he has the potential to be.
-Larson: First, I’ll answer Luther’s question about New Mexico State. Athlon magazine had New Mexico State No. 122 in its pre-season ranking of the 122 Division I teams. So, the Gophers should do well this week, considering that they handled No. 104-ranked Nevada Las Vegas in their opener. And, Minnesota gets a shot at 102-ranked Western Michigan in its third game. New Mexico State lost to 15th-ranked Texas 56-7 in its opener.
Minnesota’s defense, something that was considered a strong point, was disappointing as Nevada-Las Vegas netted 419 yards, 99 yards more than the Gophers. And the Rebels completed 37 of 51 pass attempts. Minnesota will need to balance out its offense as the season moves on. The crowd was listed at about 44,000, thanks to free tickets and free food for students. Beating a cream puff is much better than losing to one, so, overall, it was a good opener for Minnesota.
-Johnson: Quarterback Philip Nelson didn’t throw the ball very well in the victory but he rushed for 83 yards and ran in two touchdowns. Although UNLV was 2-11 last year, a win is a win and the Gophers took care of business in the opener. Last year the Gophers slipped by UNLV 30-27 in overtime, so it was much better to start the season with a 51-23 win.
•Question: The Minnesota Twins traded former American League MVP and longtime Twin Justin Morneau to the Pittsburgh Pirates Saturday. The Twins received 28-year-old outfielder Alex Presley and a player to be named later. In 205 Major League games Presley has a .264 batting average and 13 home runs. What did you think of the trade?
-Dorr: I’ve defended GM Terry Ryan to this point but might stop after the Morneau trade. It wasn’t as bad as Bill Smith trading J.J. Hardy (76 homers, 218 RBIs, 1 Gold Glove and only 21 errors in the nearly three years he’s been gone) to play Tsuyoshi Nishioka. But, as a season ticket holder, I have tickets for nine remaining games and now Morneau, besides Mauer, is gone. Hapless Houston’s starting lineup Monday against the Twins had three guys with more homers than Minnesota’s leader (Brian Dozier with 16). Morneau hit nine in August before being peddled. Why should I have to pay full price for tickets to watch a lineup with a bunch of Class AAA and AA guys? I see that StarTribune columnist Jim Souhan wants Mauer to play first now to lessen his chance of another concussion. I wonder how the replacement catcher would feel, knowing that they’d rather have him have the concussion than Mauer. If you’re worried that Morneau didn’t provide enough power at first for $14 million, what will it be like to have Mauer, at $23 million, hitting fewer homers than Morneau? I don’t like the trade. Incidentally, while sitting in the Gopher press box last week, a Twin City media guy made a complaint I’ve heard many times through the years: After the Twins lost three to Kansas City, he said the Twins had thrown in the towel for the year. I disagreed and there were a few snickers. The next night, unbelievably, Liam Hendricks beat Yu Darvish and the Twins took two of three from division-leading Texas. Some writers and broadcasters like to think they can tell when a team has quit. They usually can’t – and the Twins haven’t.
-Marxhausen: With Staling Marte in left field and Andrew McCutchen in center field, there was only one spot left for outfielder Presley to contend for a starting spot with Pittsburgh. He only spent part of the season playing in right for the Pirates, moving back and forth from Triple-A. With Morneau on the brink of being a free agent, the move had to made to show that the Twins were not planning on re-signing him in the offseason. I think that the trade will make the Twins wait a little bit longer before they start posting bigger numbers in the win column. Money aside, this is a huge step back for the Twins and not a step forward. It is going to be a long time before the Twins are back in the division race.
-Larson: Another bad transaction by general manager Terry Ryan, the Pohlad brothers’ puppet. There’s no loyalty in that crowd, just penny -pinchers. Ryan hasn’t made a deal to improve the team since, well, I can’t remember the last time. Twins fans deserved to see Morneau, who’s provided big hits and great plays for many seasons, play out the year and Morneau deserved to be in a Minnesota uniform when the season closed. Oh boy, the team received another “fourth” outfielder to go along with the dozen or so of those it already has and a player to be named later (translation – he’ll never see Target Field). Morneau and Joe Mauer were the only Twins batting over .260 when the trade was made. The team should’ve tried to renegotiate Morneau’s contract at the end of the season. There was a good chance he would’ve signed elsewhere and the Twins would have received nothing. That’s about what it got Saturday.
-Johnson: If they had continued to hold on to Morneau for the rest of 2013, they would have received nothing and he is a free agent after this season, so something is better than nothing, right? The idea of trading Morneau is difficult because he has been a big part of the franchise for a number of years but I think it was appropriate. I have to question GM Terry Ryan as to why he would trade Morneau for another outfielder. The team has Hicks, Arcia, Parmelee, Mastroianni, Thomas and Buxton – all young and future major leaguers. Maybe he plans on dealing some of these guys?
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