Vikings and Falcons square off in Minneapolis in a pivotal Week 1 matchup
The Minnesota Vikings will play host to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon inside U.S. Bank Stadium. It will mark the 31st meeting all-time between the two teams. The Vikings hold a 19-11 edge over the Falcons in the series. And Minnesota has won each of the last three matchups, the most recent being a 14-9 victory in 2017. Both the Vikings and the Falcons look to return to playoff form in 2019 after taking big steps in the wrong direction last season.
The Vikings came into the 2018 season with high hopes following a 13-3 campaign, which earned them a division title and a trip to the NFC Championship Game. Newly acquired quarterback Kirk Cousins was supposed to be the missing piece that would carry them to the next level, but that didn't come to fruition in a disappointing 8-7-1 season that culminated in a missed opportunity to earn a spot in the playoffs.
Thanks to several offseason move, Mike Zimmer's Vikings appear poised to return to front-runner status in 2019. The additions of new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and assistant head coach Gary Kubiak should go a long way in fixing an offense that ranked just 20th in the league last season. The Vikings return 10 starters on a defense that perennially ranks among the best in the NFL.
The Falcons also entered the 2018 season with high hopes following back-to-back playoff appearances that included a trip to the Super Bowl in '16. Unfortunately, a rash of early-season injuries would take a serious toll, resulting in a lackluster 7-9 campaign that left the Falcons sitting at home during the postseason for the first time since 2015.
Like the Vikings, the Falcons have plenty of reasons to believe that they will bounce back and return to the forefront of the NFL in 2019. First and foremost, they enter Week 1 with a clean bill of health. That alone should pay huge dividends, provided they can remain relatively healthy. The Falcons are also optimistic about their chances to keep their star-studded offense humming along under the direction of new (and former) offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Meanwhile, the defense expects to take a step forward with head coach and defensive guru Dan Quinn now calling the shots on that side of the football.
Atlanta at Minnesota
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Minnesota -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Atlanta passing game vs. Minnesota pass defense
The Falcons' high-powered passing attack has long ranked among the best and most feared in the NFL. However, the same can be said for the Vikings' vaunted pass defense. And if recent history is any indication, Matt Ryan and company could have a tough row to hoe on Sunday.
Ryan has compiled just 403 passing yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in his last two games combined against Minnesota (2015 and '17), both of which resulted in Falcon losses. The Vikings may also be the only NFL team with a successful track record against elite wide receiver Julio Jones. That's thanks in large part to star cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who has limited Jones to just 13 catches for 162 yards and zero touchdowns over three combined games.
Rhodes vs. Jones will once again be the marquee matchup on Sunday. And there is reason to believe that Jones will finally be able to get over the hump against his arch-nemesis. Rhodes seemed to lose a step last season in a down year that ended prematurely with a torn hamstring. If Rhodes doesn't return to elite form, Jones could have a field day against him. Jones will also benefit from Calvin Ridley's presence this time around. Ridley led the Falcons in touchdown receptions (10) last season and should help take some of the heat off.
The biggest concern for Atlanta's passing attack on Sunday may lie in the trenches. A retooled offensive line, that is expected two feature two rookies, will be paired against one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. Atlanta will certainly have its hands full trying to keep the dynamic trio of Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, and Linval Joseph out of the backfield. Hunter, who racked up 14.5 sacks last season, provides the biggest threat to Ryan's well-being.
2. Vikings’ new-look offense
Minnesota's offensive woes were well-documented and largely to blame for the team's five-game slide in the win column last season. It also cost offensive coordinator John DeFilippo his job after just 13 games.
In an effort to fix the problem, head coach Mike Zimmer brought in Gary Kubiak as an offensive advisor to help new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski overhaul the offense, along with new offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison.
Sunday's matchup against Atlanta will provide our first real chance to see the new offense in action (in a game that actually counts). The new-look offense employs a zone-blocking scheme that emphasizes the run game to help set up the play-action passing game. It's almost identical to the offense that Kirk Cousins ran during his time in Washington.
That familiarity should help Cousins, which in turn bodes well for top targets Adam Theilen, Stefon Diggs (who has been limited in practice this week due to a hamstring injury) and Kyle Rudolph to continue producing at a high level. But a Minnesota run game that was sorely lacking last season, ranking just 30th in the NFL, stands to benefit the most. The new scheme is tailor-made for a speedy slasher like Dalvin Cook, who should flourish in this system.
Of course, the new zone-scheme will only go as far as the offensive line can take it, and that will be the big test against the Falcons on Sunday. The Vikings' revamped offensive line, bolstered by first-round draft pick Garrett Bradbury at center, still has question marks, despite showing plenty of promise in the preseason.
3. Look who’s back!
As previously referenced, the Falcons were riddled with injuries in 2018, landing some of the team's top players on IR, and significantly impacting their season. The good news is that most of those players will be back on the field this Sunday. Chief among them is running back Devonta Freeman, who played in just two games in 2018. Freeman will be needed more than ever with the departure of Tevin Coleman. And the Falcons can only hope that Freeman returns to Pro Bowl form in short order.
Look for Atlanta to lean heavily on Freeman this Sunday, as success in the run game in this matchup will be crucial to helping Ryan and company get things going in the passing game. That said, success will not come easy against a very stingy Minnesota front seven.
The Falcons defense will get a big shot in the arm with the healthy return of several star players as well. Middle linebacker Deion Jones was sorely missed last season. Jones is a tackling machine that will provide a much-needed stabilizing force in the middle for the Falcons against the Vikings on Sunday. He’s also one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL.
The Atlanta secondary also gets a big boost with the return of safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. Their absence last season left a huge void in the Falcons secondary. And their return should prove invaluable against a dangerous Minnesota receiving corps.
Week 1 of the NFL season offers plenty of intriguing matchups, and this one ranks right near the top. The big question is – will the Vikings' new-look offense magically cure their biggest source of frustration from last season?
There will likely be some kinks to work out in week 1. And Minnesota will be put to the test by an Atlanta defense that should be much improved with the healthy return of Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen and Dan Quinn calling the plays. But it seems likely that the Vikings will find some semblance of success on Sunday, particularly in the run game with Dalvin Cook.
The Falcons' chances hinge on their ability to establish the ground game with Devonta Freeman. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones do not have the best track record against the Vikings. And the Atlanta passing game will have a hard time taking flight without plenty of help from Freeman. In the end, the Vikings' defense will prove to be too much for the Falcons. Minnesota wins a hard-fought battle in front of the home crowd.
Prediction: Vikings 24, Falcons 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.