The Minnesota Vikings lost their first home game of the season last week and find themselves with chance to regain first place with a win at Atlanta. The Falcons started the season 5-0, but have lost four of their last five and find themselves in a position to fall out of their wild card spot.
The Falcons have been a Jeckyl-Hyde team all season, so you never know what you’re going to get from one week to the next. But, despite their ups and downs, the Falcons are a top-10 team in most of the categories in which teams are ranked.
These are the 10 points of emphasis that will go a long way to determining who will win and who will lose on Sunday.
Reclaim The Eye of the Tiger – All of the Vikings divisional tie-breaker advantages vanished in three hours at The Bank. Heading indoors to the GeorgiaDome, thanks to Green Bay’s divisional home loss to the Bears, the Vikings have the chance to regain all the tie-breaker edges that, if the division comes down to the regular season finale at Lambeau Field, the Vikings have every opportunity to control their own destiny. The NFL is fluid. Four days after losing the division lead, the Vikings have it back. The question now is will they keep it?
Head Case – There was no greater question this week for Sunday’s game than the availability of Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman. Despite not starting the first two games of the season, he entered play this week tied for fifth in rushing and second among running backs in receptions. He has been ruled out by Falcons coach Dan Quinn. It would be the equivalent of the Vikings being without Adrian Peterson. It’s big.
Me and Julio Down By the Ball Yard – Julio Jones is a beast. He entered play this weekend leading the league in receptions with 89 – 10 more than anyone else. He leads the league in receiving yards with 1,189 in 10 games. He demands double coverage because he is that vital to the Falcons passing offense. Jones is going to get his – he’s been targeted 10 or more times in nine of 10 games – but limiting the damage he can do will be a top defensive priority for the Vikings.
Strength vs. Strength – The Vikings defense has showed sustained improvement throughout the season on third down. The Vikings allow conversions on just 32.8 percent of opponent opportunities, which ranks them fifth in the league. The Falcons are converting on 45.5 percent of their third downs on offense, which ranks them fourth in the league. Something will have to give and the team that finishes closest to its typical third-down number will have the best chance to win.
Bridging the Gap – The Vikings have had a problem keeping Teddy Bridgewater clean as they have faced some fierce pass rushes this season. Vikings quarterbacks have been sacked 31 times. However, the Falcons have just 12 sacks through 10 games, tied the bottom of the league with the Giants. If the O-line can provide Bridgewater the protection he requires, he will have the chance to pick apart Atlanta’s defense with timing passes.
Ground and Pound – The Vikings have the third-ranked rushing offense in the league behind Adrian Peterson. A.P. is averaging more than 100 yards a game and leads the NFL in rushing. The Falcons have allowed the fewest rushing yards (874) of any team in the league and have been able to dictate the flow and pace of games by making teams one-dimensional. Peterson will have a tall order ahead of him against the NFL’s best run defense but will need to come up big for the Vikings to pull off the road win.
A Cordarrelle Sighting? – The Falcons don’t have many weaknesses, but they possess the league’s worst kickoff coverage team. Although they have allowed a long return of just 41 yards, they are averaging allowing 29 yards per return, the worst mark in the league. If Cordarrelle Patterson gets a chance to return a kickoff, it has the potential to break big, which could tilt momentum of the game just like it did against Oakland when Patterson broke loose with a game-changing return.
Eating A Turnover – The Falcons offense has been efficient, but they have a propensity for fumbling. Through 10 games, the Falcons have fumbled 15 times, losing eight of them. In contrast, the Vikings have lost just four fumbles. When a team gets a reputation for fumbling, it’s hard to shake. Teams rip at the ball more because they know of their fumbling history. Don’t be stunned to see the Vikings go for the strip instead of just a form tackle from time to time.
Lucky No. 7 – The Falcons have done a much better job of closing out drives than the Vikings. Atlanta has scored 44 times this season, 30 touchdowns and 14 field goals – better than a 2:1 touchdown-to-field goal ratio. The Vikings have allowed 37 scores against them – 18 touchdowns and 19 field goals. The Vikings will need to have the Falcons scoring their points three at a time rather than seven, which is something other teams have found difficult to do.
21 and Under Club – When the Falcons won their five games of the season, they never scored less than 24 points, with weekly totals of 26, 24, 39, 48 and 25 points. In their five-game skid, in which they’ve lost four of them, they haven’t scored more than 21 points – putting up point totals of 21, 10, 20, 16 and 21. If the Vikings can continue that trend, it plays into their wheelhouse. Minnesota has allowed 21 or fewer points in seven of their last nine games – winning all seven of those games. Keep the score low and the Vikings find a way to win.