Vikings, Steelers wake winless woes to Wembley
LONDON (AP) — “Business as usual” has been the motto for the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers ahead of their game in London on Sunday.
It hardly feels that way.
Both teams have been handed the extra burden of an overseas trip with their seasons on the line. Both are 0-3 going into the game at Wembley Stadium, both aware that a fourth straight loss will all but end their playoff chances.
“This is not a vacation,” Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said. “It’s great to be here in London but 0-3 right now, it’s time for us to get a W. It’s very critical, especially going into the bye week.”
Since the National Football League adopted a 16-game regular-season schedule 35 years ago, only five teams that lost their first three games went on to reach the playoffs.
The Vikings are the designated home team, which means spending nearly a full week in England and taking part in off-field activities with the local fan base. Keeping his team focused has been one of Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier’s biggest tasks.
“It’s a fine line, and we talked about what our purpose is here, that this is a regular-season game, an important game,” said Frazier, whose team is coming off a 31-27 loss to the Cleveland Browns. “We have to be mature about how we go about this and spend our free time. Our players understand that.
“You don’t want to be scrooge. This is a great place to be and our players would love to get out, but we have a game to prepare for.”
The Steelers, who fell 40-23 to the Chicago Bears last Sunday, arrived in London on Friday.
A near sellout of more than 84,000 is expected at Wembley — the home of English football — for the seventh NFL International Series game. The Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers will also play at Wembley on Oct. 27.
Here are five things to look for as Pittsburgh and Minnesota try to keep their seasons alive:
BELL TOLLS: Pittsburgh’s struggling running game should get a boost from the season debut of rookie Le’Veon Bell. The second-round draft pick missed the first three games with a sprained right foot and a trio of replacements failed to distinguish themselves. The Steelers are ranked 31st — next to last — in the league in yards rushing and need to generate some momentum to take the pressure off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a defense that has spent too much time on the field.
BIG BEN: Roethlisberger insists he isn’t pressing but knows he needs to take better care of the ball. He threw two interceptions and fumbled twice in last week’s loss to Chicago and has spent most of the season under significant duress behind an offensive line still trying to find itself after losing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the season with a knee injury. The Steelers have taken to rotating tackles in and out of the game, hoping to keep their legs fresh. Roethlisberger says he’s not focusing on who’s standing next to him in the huddle and more on the defense. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and not try to overcorrect anything, be even better and eliminate all these things because I think it takes you out of your own element, your own game plan,” Roethlisberger said.
CASSEL’S SHOT: Minnesota backup quarterback Matt Cassel gets a chance to turn the Vikings’ poor start around with starter Christian Ponder out because of a fractured rib sustained against Cleveland. Frazier opted for Cassel to give Ponder extra rest with the Vikings heading into a bye week after the game. Talk had been about Cassel, the former New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, possibly stepping in with Ponder struggling. Cassel joined Minnesota in the offseason after four seasons in Kansas City.
FELTON RETURNS: Vikings fullback Jerome Felton returns from a three-game suspension to provide Peterson and the offensive line with a much-needed boost. The All-Pro fullback was suspended after picking up a DUI charge, and his absence has been noted. Peterson has rushed for 281 yards but has only averaged 2.99 yards per carry since a 78-yard touchdown run on the Vikings opening play of the season. Felton helped Peterson run for 2,097 yards last season as he chased Eric Dickerson’s single-season NFL record. “I just want to make his job easier,” Felton said. “I was able to do that last year. I think we play well off each other.”
PLAYOFFS OR BUST: A victory will provide one of these two teams with a dose of momentum and hope that a playoff run is still possible. The loser, however, will almost certainly need to start looking toward next season since no team has recovered from an 0-4 start to make the playoffs since the San Diego Chargers in 1992. Pittsburgh is off to its worst start since 2000 and risks starting a season 0-4 for the first time since 1968. Minnesota started 0-4 two seasons ago. The Buffalo Bills were the last 0-3 team to reach the playoffs, in 1998.
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh and Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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