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Can the Vikings Lock Up the North Today?

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ATLANTA FALCONS (9-5) GAME #15 MINNESOTA VIKINGS (9-5)

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Date: December 21, 2008 Location: Minneapolis, MN
Time: 3:15 P.M. CST Stadium: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome
TV: FOX
DirecTV Ch. 714
Know Thy Enemy: The Falcoholic
Gonzo's Prediction: Vikings 27, Falcons 20
Final Score: Falcons 24, Vikings 17

Well, folks, after waiting what seems like forever, we're just a few hours away from game time at the Metrodome.

The keys to this game are fairly obvious. These two teams have two of the better rushing attacks in the National Football League, as the Falcons are tied with the Giants for most rushing yards per game, and the Vikings are only a yard behind those two teams in the #3 spot. Both of these teams also feature dynamic 1-2 running back combos, with the best running back in the National Football League and Chester Taylor toting the rock for the Beloved Purple, and Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood doing the running for Atlanta.

The difference between the two is that the Vikings are also one of the best in the NFL at stopping the run. After their performance against Arizona last week, they're back to being #1 in the NFL against the run. Yes, the Vikings will be without big Pat Williams this week and next, but I wouldn't expect them to automatically turn to crap against the run due to the absence of one player. The Falcons, on the other hand, currently rank 21st in rushing yards allowed, and are tied for the worst yards/carry allowed in the NFL. Atlanta, on average, gives up 4.9 yards every time their opponents run the football. As Ted Sundquist puts it in his Vikings/Falcons preview at ProFootball Talk:

Despite the Falcons ability to run the ball themselves, they have yet to figure out how to stop their opponents from doing the same. Atlanta gives up a 120 yards per game and is dead last in run defense efficiency (47% of 4+). The Falcons are also suspect to the “big play” scampers of 10+ (48 & ranked 26th) & 20+ (13 & ranked tied 24th). Opposing teams are finding almost 5 yards per carry on first downs and keeping 3rd downs relatively manageable. Peterson loves the open field and thrives on the perimeter where Atlanta has struggled defensively to bottle up their opponents.

So, in short, the Falcons aren't very good at stopping the run, and they give up a lot of big runs. This should add up to a big game for the Peterson/Taylor combination for the Vikings. The Falcons also give up a lot of big plays in the passing game, as they've allowed 41 passes of 20 or more yards this season. Hopefully the Vikings will see a lot of the former from the running game, so that Tarvaris Jackson, Bernard Berrian, Visanthe Shiancoe and the boys can get some of the latter off of play-action passes.

The other key is going to be the Vikings' ability to handle Atlanta super rookie Matt Ryan. Ryan, who has had Offensive Rookie of the Year honors locked up this season almost as long as Adrian Peterson had them locked up in 2007, has had an outstanding season, posting a QB rating of 90 through his first 14 games. However, he has been a significantly better QB at home in the Georgia Dome than he's been on the road. His QB rating in Atlanta is a robust 100.3, he completes 66.5% of his passes, and he has a 5/3 TD/INT ratio. On the road, he's posted a slightly more pedestrian 82.2 QB rating, his completion percentage drops to 59%, and his TD/INT ratio is 9/6. If the Pat Williams-less Vikings' defense can step up and stuff the run the way they have all year thus far, it could turn into a long afternoon for the young signal caller, as he'll be running for his life from Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and the rest of the Vikings' pass rush.

This is a big game, folks. . .if the Vikings get this one, they will lock up their first playoff berth since 2004, and their first division title since they played in something called the NFC Central in 2000. But the Vikings have been playing nothing but big games for the last 7-8 weeks, they're a better team at home than they are on the road (5-1 at the Metrodome to this point, with that one loss being in the home opener over three months ago). . .and I think today they get the job done and put themselves in position to play for a first-round bye in Week 17.

Strap yourselves in, ladies and gentlemen. . .we're in for a good one this afternoon.

SKOLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL VIKINGS!!!!