The Vikings have won their last three games and five of their last six and will be facing a Rams team looking to pull even with the Vikings with a win at TCF Bank Stadium.
With a win, the Vikings can close out the first half of their season with a 6-2 record and firmly entrench themselves in both the postseason discussion as well as the potential to control their own divisional destiny against Green Bay.
These are the 10 points of emphasis that will go a long way to determining who will win and who will lose on Sunday.
Home, Sweet Home – The Vikings are looking to win their seventh straight game at TCF Bank Stadium. While only a temporary home, the Vikings have found a definite home-field advantage at The Interim Bank. It has been almost a year since the Vikings lost a home game, falling 24-21 on Nov. 23, 2014. St. Louis is 1-2 on the road, so continuing the streak is clearly within the Vikings’ grasp.
Get the Point? – Scoring is likely to be at a premium Sunday. Denver has allowed the least points in the NFL this season (112), but the Vikings are second (122) and the Rams are third (125) in fewest points allowed. Both defenses have been very stingy, so when scoring opportunities come along, both teams are going to have to take full advantage of those chances because they may not come often.
It Always Comes In Threes – The league average of converting third downs is at 38.4 percent. The hallmark of any good defense is getting off the field on third down and few teams have been better than the Vikings and Rams. Minnesota is fifth in the league, allowing third-down conversions on just 28 of 85 opportunities (32.9 percent). St. Louis isn’t far behind at 34 percent (34 of 100). With both offenses are well under the league average of third-down conversions – the Vikings are at 36.7 percent and the Rams are a league-worst 25.9 percent, so keeping drives alive will be at a premium Sunday.
Digg It – Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs has come from nowhere to become a sensation over the last month. He set an NFL record last week with his fourth straight game with more than 85 receiving yards. In just four NFL games, he has been targeted 40 times, catching 25 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns. In a very short period of time, he has already become the team’s leading receiver in terms of yardage – he is 127 yards ahead of Mike Wallace for the team lead and only one reception behind Wallace for the team lead. Teams are going to start putting their best cornerback on Diggs. It will be imperative for him to keep improving his game because his days of flying under the radar are over.
Rolled By a Gurley Man – Just like Diggs has forced the rest of the NFL to pay attention, nobody has garnered more headlines than St. Louis running back Todd Gurley. In his four full games, he has rushed 88 times for 566 yards and three touchdowns and has never rushed for less than 128 yards in that span. Not since Adrian Peterson in 2007 has a rookie running back been so dominant. On Nov. 4, 2007, Peterson set an NFL record with 296 rushing yards against San Diego and LaDainian Tomlinson. At that moment, A.P. supplanted L.T. as the dominant back in the NFL and has held that distinction ever since. Eight years and four days later, Gurley could make the same kind of statement.
Better Dead Than Red – Teams don’t score touchdowns from the red zone with any regularity against either Minnesota or St. Louis. The Vikings are fourth in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on just 9 of 16 opponent opportunities – 45 percent of opportunities. But the Rams are redefining red zone defense. With 22 teams allowing touchdowns on more than half of opponent red zone possessions, the Rams have allowed just five touchdowns on 16 opportunities – an incredible 31.3 percent. How impressive is that number? Cincinnati entered Week 9 at the No. 2 spot, allowing touchdowns at a rate of 43.8 percent – 12.5 percent higher than the Rams.
Keep Austin Stone Cold – When the Rams traded up for Tavon Austin in 2013, they were expecting the kind of versatility Percy Harvin brought to the Vikings in 2009. It’s taken his third year to finally get there, but through seven games Austin has seven touchdowns. He leads the team in receptions with 24 for 285 yards and four touchdowns. He is second on the team in rushing, averaging 8.3 yards on 17 rushes, reverses and jet sweeps. He is the punt returner for the Rams and has a 71-yard touchdown to his credit. Not only will the Vikings defense have to account for Austin at all times, so will the top-rated special teams punt-coverage unit. Austin has the potential to hurt two of the three phases of the Vikings any time he touches the ball.
Let’s Get the Party Started – One of the struggles of the Vikings is to get a lead on an opponent early. Through seven games, the Vikings have scored just 23 first-quarter points while allowing only 20. The Rams have outscored their opponents for the season, but in the first quarter St. Louis has been outscored 40-19. If you’re going to get on St. Louis, you do it early. In their three losses, they’ve been outscored 27-0 in the first quarter. There may be no bigger motivation for the Vikings not to defer the coin toss if they win than that number.
Sugar Foot – Kickers Blair Walsh and Greg Zuerlein were good enough college kickers that both of them were viewed as middle-of-the-final-day draft picks in 2012. Zuerlein was taken in the sixth round with the 171st pick. Four picks later, the Vikings would take Walsh. After finishing last in the league in field goal percentage in 2014, he endured one of the most brutal preseasons in the soccer-style kicking era and had problems early in the season. Yet, Walsh is nearly 90 percent on field goals (17-of-19) and Zuerlein is last in the league among currently employed kickers at 60 percent (9 of 15). Like Walsh when he struggled, Greg the Leg isn’t likely on the hot seat to lose his job. But in a game that may be decided by field goals, put the checkmark to date in the Vikings column, especially for a struggling kicker who has never dealt with the winds at the Interim Bank.
Passing Fancy – Why are Gurley and Peterson the storyline? Because they’re almost guaranteed to be the focal points. With two of the top defenses in the league matching up, having the 30th ranked pass offense (Minnesota) going up against the 32nd pass offense (St. Louis), whatever can be achieved through the air will be a bonus – and could well decide the winner Sunday.