By Cedric Williams
It might seem odd to say, considering how the schedule looked before the season and adding in the fact that the team has gone 1-4 in its last five games. But the reality is the Atlanta Falcons are done with the easy part of their 2015 schedule and are now staring down a gauntlet of potential tough matchups for the final six games of the season.
Atlanta was 5-0, following an October 11 win over the Washington Redskins, and was looking at a chance for perhaps a special type season with its next five games against teams that were all struggling at the time.
Leaving the locker room that day following the win over the Redskins, the Falcons had the 1-4 New Orleans Saints, the 1-4 Tennessee Titans, the 2-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 1-4 San Francisco 49ers, and the 3-2 Indianapolis Colts coming up. And by the time that matchup when the Colts arrived, Indy had lost three of four and had fallen to 4-5.
That’s five straight games against teams with losing records on the day Atlanta played them, and yet the Falcons only managed to win one of them. And that was the easy part of the schedule.
Now, Atlanta will finish the year with games against 7-3 Minnesota, 5-5 Tampa Bay, 10-0 Carolina, 4-6 Jacksonville, 10-0 Carolina again, and 4-6 archrival New Orleans. The Falcons would be the sixth seed in the NFC playoffs if the postseason began today, but maintaining that spot will not be an easy chore. Especially with phase number one beginning with this Sunday’s visit from the up-and-coming Minnesota Vikings.
As mentioned earlier, Minnesota is 7-3 heading into this weekend’s showdown at the Georgia Dome. And like the Falcons, the Vikings are coming off a truly disappointing home loss this past Sunday (a 30-13 defeat against NFC North rival Green Bay).
The Vikings had won five straight games prior to Sunday’s humbling loss to the Packers, and will almost certainly come to town looking to get back on the winning track as it looks to keep pace with Green Bay in the NFC North divisional race.
Minnesota on Offense
The rankings say the Vikings aren’t very good on offense. Minnesota is 29th overall in total yards per game (330.0), tied for 30th in passing yards per game (188.1), and 23rd in points per game (21.1).
But what the Vikes do very well, which should surprise no one, is run the ball. Six-time Pro Bowler and 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson is still the man carrying the ball on most downs for Minnesota, which means the Vikings are a very dangerous club as long as he’s on the field.
Peterson will hit the Georgia Dome turf this Sunday as the NFL leader in rushing with 1,006 yards on 208 carries and six touchdowns.
When the Vikings throw the ball, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is pretty efficient, with 2,106, eight touchdowns, only six interceptions, a 64.6 completion percentage, and an 86.6 overall passer rating. Minnesota hasn’t yet found a true No. 1 receiver, but they like to spread the ball around to several guys including WR Stefon Diggs, WR Cordarelle Patterson, and TE Kyle Rudolph.
Minnesota on Defense
Despite last week’s poor showing, the Vikings have been one of the best defenses in the league this season.
Overall, Minnesota is ranked ninth in total yards allowed per game (334.9), and they’re even better against the pass, where the Vikings rank sixth in the league with just 224.8 passing yards allowed per game.
Minnesota has also been one of the best teams in the league at not allowing points. The Vikes are second, only behind Denver, at giving up just 18.4 points per game.
Individually, the Vikings are very good right up the middle of the field. Safety Harrison Smith, inside linebacker Anthony Barr, and nose tackle Linval Joseph are numbers 1, 2, and 3 in tackles, which gives Minnesota a combination that makes its defense one of the toughest teams in the league to move the ball against.
Minnesota’s Players to Watch
Peterson is the straw that stirs the drink for Minnesota’s offense. If he’s going well, then so are the Vikings. But when Minnesota has struggled, it has been because the opposing defense has found a way to keep Peterson from breaking a game wide open.
On defense, pass rush specialist Everson Griffen, who leads the Vikings with 6.5 sacks, will be a player who will likely draw a lot of attention from the Falcons. Atlanta’s passing game has struggled recently, especially with opposing teams continuing to find ways to pressure Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan, and Griffen figures to be the player most likely to be in the Falcon backfield the most.
Sunday’s matchup should be an intriguing one. The Falcons and Vikings are both coming off very tough to take losses last week, and with the NFC playoff picture murky at best, both clubs need to get winning again to keep themselves in the hunt.
Cedric Williams, a lifelong St. Louisan and proud UMSL alum, has been a full-time reporter/photographer covering St. Louis area sports for nearly two decades. Most recently, he has been working as a credentialed beat writer covering the NFL, as well as college and high school sports for the St. Louis American, Patch.com, and other outlets from around the area. Please share any comments, questions, or feedback with Cedric at email@example.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.