The Vikings all but locked up the NFC North last Thursday by defeating the Lions in Detroit, increasing their division lead to three games with five left to play. They are riding high, looking like one of the true Super Bowl contenders. The league has thrown three straight tough tests at them with road games in Washington and Detroit and a home game against an elite Rams team. The Vikes have parried all of them. Sunday, however, brings perhaps the toughest test yet as they travel to Atlanta to take on a high-flying Falcons team.
At one point this season, the Falcons were 3-3 and a mere two dropped passes and two short feet away from being 1-5. The defending NFC champions were viewed as one of the league’s great disappointments. But they have turned it around as of late and are starting to resemble the fearsome offense that was up 28-3 in last year’s Super Bowl.
Atlanta has back-to-back games with 34 points, one of which came against the vaunted Seattle defense. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones have found that groove again, as evidenced by Jones’ 12-catch, 253-yard performance against Tampa Bay a week ago. Plus, they have the extra motivation of being locked in an exciting race for the two NFC wild cards as they are one of four teams separated by just two games.
Both of these teams are hitting their postseason stride at the same time. They each have a winning streak going, Atlanta three games and Minnnesota seven, and they each have some big games looming down the stretch. But the big story of this game will be the matchups.
Here are the three biggest ones to watch on Sunday:
Case Keenum vs. Falcons Pass Rush
Yes, generally the battle is between the two lines. But Keenum has shown himself to be one of the best in the league when under duress this year. The Falcons pass-rushers have been fairly disappointing in 2017, namely Vic Beasley. But their speed will be an issue for Riley Reiff and the Viking offensive line. We are just a few short weeks removed from Adrian Clayborn’s six-sack performance against Dallas in week 11. If the Falcons can bring Keenum down like that, it will be a rough day for the Viking offense. Otherwise, Keenum can and will pick the secondary apart.
Everson Griffen vs. Jake Matthews
Jake Matthews had some major question marks after his lackluster first two NFL seasons, but the last couple of years, he has turned into a solid tackle. At the time of this writing, he is the 16th-rated offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus. But Sunday he is going against the best of the best. Griffen was tied for the league-lead in sacks through 12 weeks with 12, including two against the Lions last Thursday. Expect a fair amount of chips and double-teams to assist Matthews on a lot of passing downs and a lot of screens to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to give Griffen pause.
Xavier Rhodes (Trae Waynes?) vs. Julio Jones
This is the battle everyone is looking forward to: One of the league’s elite shutdown corners against arguably the most dangerous weapon in the game. Rhodes absolutely shut down Antonio Brown, Mike Evans and Michael Thomas early in the season, but Jones is a physical specimen that even those guys cannot compare to. Matt Ryan sometimes feels no qualm just chucking it up to Jones 15 times. Given the Vikings pass rush, this could be one of those games.
The reason Trae Waynes is in parentheses is twofold: One, the last couple of weeks, Waynes has simply looked better than Rhodes for large stretches, especially as a tackler. Given Jones size, a sure-tackling corner could be in order. The second reason is Waynes was asked to shadow Jordy Nelson the last time the Vikings took on an elite receiver. Mike Zimmer may go the route of switching matchups, now that he fully trusts Waynes.
But the battle everyone wants to see is Rhodes against Jones. Please do not deny fans that duel, coach Zimmer.
Two weeks ago, Minnesota welcomed another explosive offense to town in the Los Angeles Rams. They held them to seven points. This week’s contest in Atlanta looks like another “unstoppable force meets immovable object” type of game. I expect a relatively similar result, given the relative inconsistency the Falcons show as a defense. Few teams in the NFL are as hot as the Vikings. There is no reason to think they stop now.
Prediction: Vikings 26, Falcons 21