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Vikings at Falcons Preview: The Other Shoe

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Vikings fans have been conditioned to expect the worst when they get their hopes up. Will Sunday’s game in Atlanta end those doubts or end the seven-game win streak?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons
I’m glad the Falcons wore these black uniforms last week. Seeing them this week would have given me 1998 PTSD.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

HERE WE GO AGAIN.

It’s a phrase that has been uttered so often throughout the years by Minnesota Vikings fans that it’s almost an unofficial team motto. For 56 seasons and counting, there may be no franchise in sports that has so consistently built up their fans’ hopes only to crush them at the most inopportune moment.

The heartbreak is so ingrained into our psyche that all you have to do is mention a year to a Vikings fan and they’ll know exactly which game you’re talking about. 1976. 1987. 1998. 2000. 2003. 2009. Just to name a few. And those are just the non-Super Bowl losses!

Unfortunately, 2016 was another track from the “here we go again” greatest hits. From 5-0 to 8-8, from dominance to mediocrity, from Matt Kalil to T.J. Clemmings...yada yada yada. I’ll refrain from rehashing the details. We all know the story.

To be honest, I even had one of those moments this season. When Dalvin Cook went down in the Week 4 against the Lions, I slumped down in my seat at US Bank Stadium and put my head in my hands. “That’s it,” I glumly muttered to my wife. “Another season down the drain.” I barely said a word the rest of the game as I watched the Vikings squander an extremely winnable contest.

Sure, we were only a month into the season and the team still had plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. But I had seen this movie before. I was ready to jump ship before things got really painful. A Vikings fan giving up hope is a reflex, defense mechanism, and rite of passage rolled into one.

Of course, smash cut to eight weeks and seven straight wins later, and the Vikings have gone all Godfather III to pull me back in. Suddenly they have a stranglehold on the NFC North and an inside track for a first-round bye. They are a complete team with plenty of playmakers that seems poised for another soul-crushing playoff loss.

Er, I mean, poised for a deep playoff run. Sorry about that. Force of habit.

Something feels a little different this season though. While we have been waiting for the other shoe to drop, the Vikings have been busy overcoming adversity and churning out impressive victories. Previous iterations of this team would have totally crumbled on the road after the late surges we saw in Washington and Detroit. Lesser teams might have never recovered from the painfully slow starts in Chicago and London earlier in the season. The 2017 Vikings are eschewing their previous “grasping defeat from the jaws of victory” modus operandi. And if Case Keenum keeps playing like he has of late, it’s justifiable to believe that this run can continue.

When this winning streak first started, Keenum was an up-and-down QB that made you nervous a few times a game but ended up doing just enough to secure the victory. For 1012 of the 12 quarters the Vikings have played since their bye week, Case Keenum has without a doubt been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Outside of the two awful picks at the end of the Redskins game, Keenum has played the best all-around football of his career over the past few weeks. The Vikings are averaging 30.7 points and 421.7 yards of offense over their last 3 contests.

Despite all the wins and gaudy recent numbers, the case isn’t quite closed on the quarterback position just yet (pun intended). Mike Zimmer keeps stating how much things can change from week to week in his press conferences rather than fully committing to the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Month. Part of it could be due to Zimmer’s fondness of Teddy Bridgewater. Part of it could be due to the fact that he wants to win games regardless of who’s at quarterback, so he remains flexible if needed. Either way, the ongoing discussion isn’t purely fabricated by the media.

Earlier this week, Cian Fahey explained how much Keenum’s supporting cast has helped his cause. The article seems a bit harsh on Keenum at first, but I have used some of the exact same plays in previous posts to illustrate how fortunate Keenum has been at times. Keenum is balling out at least in part because his teammates and some good fortune have been bailing out. That said, none of this really matters at the moment. The job is 100% Case’s for now and he has 100% earned it. There is no debate about who the starter is until further notice. So how will Keenum fare against Atlanta’s defense on Sunday?

If he continues to play like he has in recent weeks, there could be some big opportunities for Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs through the air. A week after waiving the previously suspended Jalen Collins, it appears that Desmond Trufant could miss Sunday’s game due to a concussion suffered last week against the Buccaneers. Brian Poole was limited at practice with a back injury. Atlanta’s secondary could be dangerously thin, even with Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen ably patrolling the back end. But an aerial attack still might not be the best way for the Vikings to do the most damage.

The Falcons are allowing 4.4 yards per rush this season and are ranked dead last in DVOA against the run by a pretty large margin. Dan Quinn is building a fast and aggressive defense in the mold of his previous gig at Seattle, but they can get caught out of position and over-committing fairly often on the ground. There should be plenty of cutback lanes available on Sunday.

If the Vikings can establish Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon early, there are benefits abound. It will set up play action, where Keenum has a 119.7 quarterback rating, good for 4th best in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. It will keep Pat Shurmur’s playbook wide open; the Vikings have been at their best when they have been the most unpredictable. Most importantly, it will keep a very potent Falcons offense, a unit that is really hitting their stride in recent weeks, off the field.

For a five-week stretch where the Falcons went 1-4 after a 3-0 start, it appeared that the Super Bowl hangover was real in Atlanta. The departure of Kyle Shanahan was tangible. The yardage numbers were still decent, but the execution wasn’t nearly as sharp with largely the same personnel. During Atlanta’s current three-game win streak, their offense is finally starting to look a bit more like the lethal assault that took the league by storm a season ago.

This tweet thread from Walter Sharp illustrates how the Falcons have made a conscious decision to target Julio Jones more on first down and give him more deep targets. Throwing it to one of the best receivers in the league early and down the field isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea, but sometimes new coaches can get caught up with showing the prowess of their system and way of thinking. Luckily for the Falcons, it looks like Steve Sarkisian has finally realized that the offense was pretty damn good before he got there. Since their bye in Week 5, Matt Ryan is Pro Football Focus’ highest graded passer. They’re looking more like the 2016 Falcons offense lately because they’re relying a lot more on what made the 2016 Falcons offense so great.

A ton of focus will be on the heavyweight bout between Jones and Xavier Rhodes on Sunday, and rightfully so. Two of the best at their respective crafts going toe-to-toe will always grab headlines. Rhodes has limited Jones in their previous two meetings, which is of course a relative term when it comes to an all-world talent like Jones.

The matchups of Trae Waynes, Terence Newman, and Mackensie Alexander against Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel could prove to be more important than Jones vs. Rhodes Sunday. If the “other” Vikings corners can keep the “other” Falcons receivers relatively quiet, that would be a huge advantage. Conversely, if Atlanta can find as much open space as Detroit enjoyed on several occasions last Thursday, it could be a tough day for the Vikings defense.

While the Atlanta offense as a whole has gone through some ups and downs this season, their offensive line has been very healthy and very consistent. They rank 8th in adjusted line yards and 9th in pass protection according to Football Outsiders. Their starting five has missed a grand total of two games this season. As Vikings fans know all too well for all the wrong reasons, continuity along the line can be a big advantage. The Vikings front seven will have its work cut out for them in getting to Ryan.

Along with the passing threats and solid line play, the Falcons can be dangerous on the ground. Devonta Freeman should be back after missing the last two contests with a concussion. Tevin Coleman ensured that the offense didn’t miss a beat while Freeman was out. Together, they form one of the best backfield combinations in the league. I’d expect a healthy dose of both backs on Sunday both on the ground and out of the backfield in the passing game.

Fortunately for the Vikings, their run defense excels at stopping a lot of what the Falcons like to do. Atlanta utilizes a lot of stretch plays and outside runs. When opponents don’t set the edge, Coleman and Freeman can pick up yards in huge chunks.

But as Charles McDonald (@FourVerts, an excellent Twitter follow regardless of team affiliation) illustrates in this breakdown, the Vikings work incredibly well as a unit to stop this type of run. Attempting to bounce outside feeds directly into the speed and gap discipline that Mike Zimmer has built his defense around.

However, a lot of that confidence in limiting the run game changes greatly if Eric Kendricks can’t go on Sunday. Kendricks missed Wednesday’s practice with a hip injury; if he’s out or limited, it’s scary to think of what the Falcons might be able to do over the middle. Although the Vikings have allowed the fewest explosive plays in the league (runs of 11+ yards, passes of 15+ yards) this season, the Falcons have the fourth most despite their slow start. The Vikings need all hands on deck if they hope to keep the Falcons in check on their home turf.

This has all the makings a close, back-and-forth affair between two very evenly matched teams. I could easily see this game going either way. In fact, I have already switched my prediction a handful of times while writing this article.

Even if the Falcons do get the win on Sunday, don’t assume that it’s the beginning of yet another late-season collapse. The NBA has coined the term “schedule losses” in recent years, referring to when a team has to play stretches like four games in five days. It’s really difficult for a team to play well during toward the end of that grind. This could very well be the week that having one home game in 55 days finally catches up with the Vikings.

But as I said earlier, this season feels different. The Falcons are currently enjoying their best stretch of of play this season, but I like how the Vikings match up against Atlanta’s defense. As long as the offensive line can keep Adrian Clayborn and Vic Beasley at bay, they should be able to control the clock and limit the damage from Ryan and Jones. Hopefully the crusade for the NFC’s top seed rages on right into Carolina next week.

If the other shoe fits, don’t drop it.

Prediction

Vikings 27, Falcons 24


And now for the rest of my Week 13 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Redskins over COWBOYS

Dallas is D-O-N-E. At least they have all the Jerry Jones vs. Roger Goodell stuff to keep them busy down the stretch.

Patriots over BILLS

Tyrod Taylor and the Bills will probably put up a fight since they’re trying to make the playoffs for the first time in almost two decades. Unfortunately, they’re playing against the biggest reason they haven’t made the playoffs in almost two decades.

49ers over BEARS

Jimmy Garoppolo is starting for the Niners, which is why I’m picking them to win. San Francisco might ruin their draft pick, but at least I’m a little more confident that we’ll see more than 17 total points scored in this game.

DOLPHINS over Broncos

Jay Cutler is coming back, just in time to get revenge on his old team!

Just kidding. Jay doesn’t care about this game. In fact, nobody cares about this game. And Jay doesn’t care about anything.

Lions over RAVENS

Sorry, but I think we’re going to get at least one more week of “Don’t count the Lions out just yet!” articles.

PACKERS over Buccaneers

Sorry, but I think we’re going to get a whole bunch of “Aaron Rodgers is coming back and the Packers are 6-6...don’t count them out just yet!” articles.

Also, this matchup still reminds me of Chris Berman on NFL Primetime from the old NFC Central days. “TEEJ—IT’S THE BATTLE OF THE BAYS. EGGGRRRHHHHH.”

TITANS over Texans

Tennessee remains the worst good team in recent memory.

JAGUARS over Colts

Jacksonville could fit in the same bad good team category as Tennessee, but they’re basically just one (very important) position away from actually being really good.

Chiefs over JETS

OK 2017 Chiefs, you have one last try to right the ship before you officially become the 2016 Vikings.

CHARGERS over Browns

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, because it’s Cleveland. Although it would be SO Chargers to lose this game after everyone has started to talk about them being the best team in the AFC West the past couple weeks.

RAIDERS over Giants

It’s sad that the long starting streaks from both Peyton Manning and Eli Manning were cut short by huge pains in the neck. Peyton’s was actual neck pain; Eli’s was Ben McAdoo.

Rams over CARDINALS

Somehow this win over an incredibly mediocre Cardinals team will vault the Rams 30 spots ahead of the Vikings in next week’s ESPN power rankings.

SAINTS over Panthers

Cam Newton looked awful in the win over the Jets last week, which means he’s probably poised to have a great game Sunday. But Carolina is banged up and New Orleans might be getting Marshon Lattimore back. I’ll take the ‘aints at home.

SEAHAWKS over Eagles

I know, I know. How could I pick against the juggernaut Eagles? Because the Seahawks are at home and the game means a lot more to them. Because Philadelphia has been mopping the floor with awful teams for the past month and might have forgotten what it’s like to be in a close game. And because picking home underdogs is usually a great value.

Steelers over BENGALS

They should wheel out Vontaze Burfict to midfield in one of those straight jacket/mask combos from Silence Of The Lambs for the pre-game coin toss.

Last week: 13-3
Season so far: 111-65