Earlier this week, I was listening to the Bill Simmons Podcast for the return of the “Guess the Lines” weekly segment he does with Cousin Sal of Jimmy Kimmel Live! fame. When they got to guessing the line of Sunday’s matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons—the Vikings are favored by 4 points, by the way—they had a pretty interesting exchange.
Simmons: Do you feel like this is one of those games where we’re gonna know for the season with both teams by the end of this game?
Sal: Is this a “Loser Leaves Town?” Is that what you want to call it?
Simmons: [Laughs] It’s like an honorary, almost, “Loser Leaves Town.” I just feel like we’re gonna have a lot of answers after this game with both teams.
For those unfamiliar, a “Loser Leaves Town” match is a wrestling trope where the loser has to leave their current division. Simmons and Sal often deem late-season matchups with this label to help “write off” a team from contention. Obviously, this analogy can’t be applied to a Week 1 matchup without a dash of facetiousness. But this game is still extremely important when it comes to shaping the 2019 season for both the Vikings and Falcons. I feel like we will know a lot more about both teams by the end of this game.
After impressive 2017 seasons that ended in playoff berths, both Minnesota and Atlanta were considered NFC favorites a year ago. Neither team lived up to the hype in 2018. The Vikings went 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs in the first year of the Kirk Cousins Experiment. Their fifth round rookie kicker got released after two games. One of their star defensive linemen missed five games with an alarming mental health issue. Their new Offensive Coordinator was fired just 13 games into his gig. Cousins couldn’t shed his “puts up big numbers but comes up small when it counts” reputation. The offensive line was atrocious. Even after all that, they still had to lay an egg at home against a team with nothing to play for to miss the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Falcons didn’t have the luxury of throwing away their chances late in the season; they stumbled right out of the gate. A series of early-season injuries ravaged their defense as they faltered to a 1-4 start. After showing signs of life and clawing their way back to .500, the Falcons promptly went on a five-game losing skid that effectively ended their season.
I think Minnesota and Atlanta both had more talent than their 2018 records would indicate. Each team fell victim to some bad bounces throughout the season. In some cases, those bad bounces were quite literal. The Vikings (33.33%) and Falcons (37.78%) had the worst fumble luck in the NFL last season. (So if you see a fumble on Sunday and it just lays there on the turf for 15 seconds like a Madden glitch, now you know why.)
Both teams have high hopes that they can reverse their fortunes and once again make some noise in the NFC playoff picture. As Ted pointed out earlier in the week, the Vikings and Falcons have a lot of similarities. So which team is going to start the 2019 season right with a not-must-win-but-still-really-nice-to-have-if-they’re-going-to-be-taken-seriously-this-year victory?
Before we get started with the regular season matchup, we should probably start with a film breakdown of some of the most important plays from the preseason for each squad.
And that concludes our review all of the important preseason plays.
I promise that we’ll have plenty of film review in this space as the season rolls along. But with play calling getting even more vanilla and key players participating even less, it’s nearly impossible to glean anything of substance from the exhibition games these days. Instead, we’ll preview some of the key matchups between some of those players that had a lighter workload over the past four weeks.
If Sunday’s game was a fight card, Xavier Rhodes vs. Julio Jones would probably be the main event. Rhodes and Jones have already had some good battles over the years, and Xavier has acquitted himself quite nicely. Over three games, Jones has been held to 13 catches on 21 targets for 162 yards and no scores. While Jones is still considered one of the best receivers in the NFL, the jury is out on whether #RhodesClosed is still a thing. Rhodes struggled through nagging injuries and had what was probably the worst season of his otherwise stellar career. Pro Football Focus gave him a career-low 58.2 overall grade. Passes thrown his way were completed at a 65.2% rate in 2018, also a career worst. If Rhodes is truly healthy and “back” this year, we’ll probably know by the end of September. The Vikings’ first three games are a murderer’s row of top-end receivers: after Jones on Sunday, he’ll follow it up with matchups against Davante Adams and Antonio Brown. That’s the cornerback version of warping directly to World 8 in Super Mario Bros.
Even if Rhodes holds his own against Jones again, Matt Ryan still has plenty of viable options in the passing game. Calvin Ridley had a very promising rookie year, leading the team in touchdowns and racking up 821 yards. Mohamed Sanu is always a threat to throw a touchdown on a trick play and he’s still a very good wide receiver. Tight end Austin Hooper made the Pro Bowl and amassed 660 yards on 71 catches, which was better than the production of Kyle Rudolph. Devonta Freeman is always a threat to catch passes out of the backfield as well. Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, and the rest of the back seven will have to be on top of their games as well to stop a very potent Falcons passing attack.
While there will be plenty of familiar names in the passing game, there will be some new faces in the trenches Sunday. As we know, the interior of the Vikings’ line has been completely reshuffled in hopes of not being the abomination it was last year. First round rookie Garrett Bradbury and newcomer Josh Kline have had mostly positive returns in the preseason. The hope is that Pat Elflein will perform better by moving to left guard and being healthier than last year. It looks like second year right tackle Brian O’Neill is good to go for Sunday after missing most of the preseason with an injury, which is a welcome sign.
The Minnesota Moving Company will face plenty of tough tests this season, and Week 1 will be no different. Grady Jarrett is one of the best defensive tackles in the league. Former first round pick Takkarist McKinley has 13 sacks over his first two seasons and is a popular pick among the Atlanta beat writers to have a breakout year. Pass rusher Adrian Clayborn is back in Atlanta after a quick one-year stint with the Patriots. Nobody is expecting this Vikings offensive line to be the mid-90’s Cowboys. If they can just upgrade from “complete liability” to “closer to league average,” it could make a world of difference for the Vikings’ new-look offense.
That new-look “Stefubiak” offense could have some success against Atlanta if the line holds up. Dalvin Cook looks like he’s ready to have a gigantic year with the new zone blocking scheme. (Insert “if healthy” caveat here.) The Falcons secondary should be better by default since they lost both starting safeties before Week 4 last year. But it isn’t like Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal were Legion Of Boom-level before getting hurt either. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs should be able to find some space against Desmond Trufant, Isaiah Oliver, and Damontae Kazee. (Yes, Diggs didn’t practice on Wednesday with a hamstring injury. But I’m just going to plug my ears and yell “LALALALA CAN’T HEAR YOU!” unless he’s actually ruled out later in the week.) Hopefully we’ll see plenty of the play action, multiple tight end sets, and rollout passes that seem to be staples of the revamped offense. I could see Irv Smith Jr. having a solid NFL debut with some mismatches in the middle of the field, especially if the Falcons send extra defenders at Thielen and Diggs.
There are plenty of new pieces in place for the Falcons offense in 2019 as well. Like Atlanta native Ludacris, Dirk Koetter is Back for the First Time in his second stint as Offensive Coordinator. On the ground, he’ll run a zone scheme that should look familiar to years past in Atlanta and that of Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak. Ryan tied for fourth most deep passes in the league last year. If anything, expect that number to go up under Koetter, who is known for his penchant for taking shots deep.
The biggest change on Atlanta’s offense will be along their offensive line, which the team invested in very heavily. They used two first round picks on offensive linemen this year, taking guard Chris Lindstrom (a player that was high on Vikings fans’ wishlists before the draft) and tackle Kaleb McGary. Lindstrom is slated to be the starter at right guard next to Alex Mack, still one of the better centers in the game. (Side note: does anybody else think of that 90’s Nickelodeon show every time they see or hear Alex Mack’s name? No, it’s just me? Fair enough.) Jake Matthews remains a very reliable left tackle, but the other two positions on the offensive line still appear to be up for grabs. McGary is battling Matt Gono for the starting right tackle position. Since Gono was the only Falcons player limited in practice on Wednesday, it would appear that the rookie might have the edge to start on Sunday. Left guard will be either Jamon Brown or James Carpenter. Kelsey Conway shared this amazing stat: if Carpenter and McGary start on Sunday, it will be the first time in the common draft era that a team started five first-round picks on the offensive line.
The Vikings may have caught a break by playing the Falcons right away before they have their offensive line solidified. I like the idea of Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen, and Everson Griffen giving the youngsters a baptism by fire on Sunday. The other six(!) defensive linemen currently on the Vikings roster could rotate in and do some damage too, especially if they can force Atlanta into some obvious passing downs.
This appears to be a pretty evenly matched game between two talented teams, which means it could all come down to—gulp—kicking. After messing around with some less-than-ideal options—including none other than Blair Walsh—the Falcons finally came to their senses and brought back the immortal Matt Bryant for his 18th season. We all know about the ridiculous kicking/holding/snapping carousel the Vikings have been on throughout the preseason. Hopefully, the ride has come to a stop with Dan Bailey kicking and Britton Colquitt taking holding and punting duties. Will I watch every Bailey kick through my fingers like I’m a grade schooler that snuck into a showing of It Chapter Two? Of course I will, especially for any from the right hash mark. However, I’m oddly confident that the team has finally settled on the right combination there.
Falling to 0-1 is never good, but it could be especially daunting in the divisions these teams are in. The NFC North and NFC South are arguably two of the best in football. The NFC itself is stacked compared to the AFC. Every win is going to be hard to come by and incredibly crucial toward clinching a possible playoff berth. Again, there’s no such thing as a must-win game until it literally decides whether you advance or not. But as far as season openers go, it’s hard to get much higher stakes for two teams with similar talent levels and aspirations. We could very well be pointing to this game in tiebreaker scenarios at the end of the season.
I think this one will be a battle throughout, but I like the Vikings in a close one on Sunday. Hopefully the loser of this game leaves town back to Atlanta, and not to their huge divisional game in Green Bay next week.
Vikings 24, Falcons 23
And now for the rest of my Week 1 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Packers over BEARS
I think the NFC North will be a three-team race for most of the season. I also think Chicago will come in third in this thee-team race. And if I’m wrong about this one? Oh shucks, the Packers are 0-1. Whatever will I do?
JETS over Bills
The race for 7-9 and second place in the AFC East starts right away!
BROWNS over Titans
It has been 30 years since the Browns have won a division title. So their 30-year plan is right on schedule!
Chiefs over JAGUARS
It looks like Hurricane Dorian isn’t going to cause nearly as much damage as previously anticipated, but I still can’t make a “Tropical Storm Patrick” joke in good faith.
(Dammit, I still kinda made the joke, didn’t I? To atone, let me encourage you to donate to Buddy Hield’s fundraiser page for Hurricane Dorian relief in his native Bahamas. The NBA player has already donated $100,000 to the cause.)
Rams over PANTHERS
I think Carolina could be frisky this season, and LA will have to fight off that Super Bowl hangover early on. But I’m still too much of a wuss to pick the home underdog.
Ravens over DOLPHINS
Brian Flores swears that the Dolphins aren’t tanking this year because he’s “too competitive.”
Also Brian Flores:
Brian Flores says Julien Davenport, Danny Isidora are among those vying for LT job -- both new acquisitions.— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) September 1, 2019
Yeah, you’re tanking.
EAGLES over Redskins
[Takes deep breath, sighs for dramatic pause]
I really, really, REALLY hate to say it, but I think the Eagles will win the Super Bowl this year. They still have one of the most talented rosters in the league and their front office is second to none. I even made it official in this preseason playoff prediction tweet:
(Now all that’s left to do is wait and let my incredible jinxing powers go to work.)
SEAHAWKS over Bengals
I think Cincinnati is going to be one of the worst teams in the league this season, and I think Seattle is a playoff team, so I’m making the Seahawks my Week 1 Survivor Pool pick. Speaking of jinxes: apologies to Mina Kimes, Cable Thanos, Arif Hasan, and the rest of Seahawks Twitter. I haven’t made it past the first month of the season in survivor pools for years.
CHARGERS over Colts
If you could use the rosters from a couple months ago for both teams, this might be my AFC Championship Game pick. But Andrew Luck retired and the Chargers did their annual thing where half of their key players get hurt or hold out before the season starts.
COWBOYS over Giants
At least they didn’t put this game on Sunday night like they do most years in Week 1.
Lions over CARDINALS
Not exactly a marquee matchup, but there are plenty of intriguing players that I’ll be interested in watching during this game.
The Lions will be there too.
BUCCANEERS over 49ers
Are we sure that the Niners are poised to take a big jump forward just because Jimmy Garoppolo is back? Tampa’s defense is still an absolute mess, but I think their offense is explosive enough to win more games than people think this season.
PATRIOTS over Steelers
One year in the near future, Tom Brady is finally going to fall off and the Patriots won’t coast to another AFC East title. I’m pretty sure it won’t be this year, but still.
SAINTS over Texans
Wait, is this actually...a decent game in the early Week 1 Monday Night Football slot?! I’m picking Houston to win the AFC South (mostly by default) this season, but I’m not picking a team that doesn’t have a GM to win in New Orleans.
Broncos over RAIDERS
Antonio Brown hasn’t even played a game for the Raiders and yet it already appears that he’s heading for disaster. I think the team needs to regain control of the situation and suspend him.
For the Week 3 game. And only the Week 3 game.
Season so far: 0-0
Last season: 162-92-2