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Redskins vs. Vikings: Five story lines to follow Thursday night

Alfred Morris leads the NFL with 5.2 yards per carry. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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The Washington Redskins return to action Thursday night, facing the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Kickoff is set for 8:25 p.m. for a game that will air on NFL Network, and in the D.C. area, on NBC-4.

Washington enters the game with a 3-5 record and aiming to avoid opening a second consecutive season with a 3-6 mark. The Redskins have yet to muster consecutive wins this season. Meanwhile, the Vikings own a 1-7 record and have lost four straight.

For now, the Redskins are two-point favorites underdogs. Washington is 3-5 against the spread this season, and 2-2 on the road.

Here are five story lines to follow in this game.

1. Momentum — The Redskins finished off the game against the Chargers on a strong note both on offense and defense. The defense denied San Diego on three plays inside the 1-yard line and forced a game-tying field goal rather than winning touchdown. Then, the offense got the ball first in overtime and marched 78 yards in 10 plays to score and win the game. Washington’s players hope to build on those showings on both fronts. They talked about those final minutes possibly serving as a turning point to their season. However, left tackle Trent Williams said, “That took a lot out of us” when discussing the mental and physical fortitude required to pull off such a victory. But he expressed confidence that his team could again summon the same type of effort and attitude as they try to pick up a second straight victory only four days later. Can they? The Vikings may be 1-7, but the Redskins can’t afford to come out flat and have to play from behind, because then they will have to abandon the much-needed balance on offense.

2. Mental preparation — The Redskins and Vikings didn’t get much practice time in this week. They had to spend Monday healing up from Sunday’s bumps and bruises, and Tuesday they returned to the practice field for a pad-free session. Wednesday’s work basically consisted of a walk-through. Normally, they would have Monday and Tuesday to heal up, and then practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. But the Redskins have been here before. Last season, they beat the Eagles on Sunday in Week 11, and then four days later on Thanksgiving traveled to Dallas and won there as well, which kicked off the turnaround. The key to compensating for a lack of prep time? “It’s a huge mental,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said. It’s paying greater attention to detail in meetings and film study, and carrying out assignments in-game with precision. These Thursday night games tend to be sloppy for both teams with turnovers and penalties plentiful. But the team that can keep those gaffes to a minimum likely will win.

3. Offensive game plan — Diversity proved the key to success versus San Diego. Kyle Shanahan broke out the read option, the triple option, some three-tight end formations, the unbalanced line, and his jumbo package. Washington kept the Chargers off-balance with all of these elements, but the key was establishing the run game (which is led by Alfred Morris, who boasts an NFL-best 5.2 yards per carry for backs with 100 or more carries). Getting the ground attack going opened the door for more variety in the play-calling, which San Diego struggled to get a feel for. The end result: 200 rushing yards and 298 passing yards, three touchdowns within the red zone and 71 percent success rate on third downs. Washington’s offensive players say similar execution will spur them onto more success and another impressive outing, and another win.

4. Defensive front — Washington’s front seven must be at their best as they face Adrian Peterson, who ranks fourth in the NFL with 711 rushing yards and is tied for second with seven rushing touchdowns. Top run-stopper Perry Riley Jr. and fellow inside linebacker London Fletcher both need to have big games. Then, if the Redskins can take away the run game, they will force Christian Ponder to throw the ball, and thus far, the third-year quarterback hasn’t encountered much success, managing just three touchdowns while throwing six interceptions and turning the ball over three more times on fumbles. The Vikings will be without their starting right tackle and starting left guard. That could bode well for the Ryan Kerrigan and the team’s other pass rushers.

5. Kickoff returns — Washington has struggled to get the ball back to the 20-yard line on kickoff returns, and the Vikings have the league’s leading kick return man. Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson averages 36.7 yards per runback and has two touchdowns thus far. Meanwhile, Josh Morgan averages just 19.9 yards per return (69th in the league). Mike Shanahan insisted that the problem isn’t the return man, however. He said many times it’s one missed block that leads to failure on Washington’s returns. The Redskins have to get this ongoing problem resolved. The Redskins orchestrated long scoring drives their last game, but it obviously helps to not have to do that. Meanwhile, the kickoff coverage unit must be at its best. They can’t afford to have any blown assignments, because Patterson only needs a crease. Shanahan said the best way to avoid getting burned by the rookie out of Tennessee is to kick the ball out the back of the end zone. Kai Forbath has nine touchbacks in 25 kickoffs thus far this season. And speaking of Forbath, we’ll see if he can find the solution to the ills that plagued him Sunday when two low field goal attempts got blocked.

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesdays.

What’s ahead:

● A post on unbalanced line formations from The Outsider, Mark Bullock, at 11:30.

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Post Sports Live: Bold Predictions for Thursday night

The Post Sports Live crew offers bold predictions for what will happen when the Redskins face the Vikings on Thursday night in Minnesota. (Video: Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)