While the NFC's playoff picture remains a muddled mess, there could be a bit of clarity on Sunday afternoon when the Rams and Vikings meet in Minneapolis.
Los Angeles and Minnesota are the No. 4 and 7 seeds, respectively, in the NFC as it currently stands, although the Vikings are in a three-way tie for the final wild card, with Washington and Atlanta just a game back. The Rams can clinch a playoff spot of their own with a fourth straight win, which would tie their best winning streak of 2021.
Both teams will be coming off short weeks, albeit for different reasons. The Vikings knocked off their division rival Bears on "Monday Night Football" despite getting out-gained 193-370 thanks to three forced turnovers. The Rams, meanwhile, had their Sunday game postponed until Tuesday due to a COVID-19 outbreak and dispatched of Seattle 20-10.
News changes by the minute, but the Rams could get a boost from the return of several players from the Reserve/COVID-19 list, including tight end Tyler Higbee, safety Jordan Fuller, and rookie cornerback Robert Rochell.
Either way, this sets up to be one of the best games on Sunday's slate, as no matchup boasts more combined wins than their 17.
Los Angeles (10-4) at Minnesota (7-7)
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 26 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Vikings slow down the Rams' passing attack?
Mike Zimmer-coached teams have long been known for their tough defense, but that has been far from the case this season. The Vikings rank 23rd in scoring defense and 30th in total defense. That is alarming to think about as they go up against one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
After a midseason lull, Matthew Stafford is back to playing like one of the league's best passers. He's tops in the NFL in touchdown rate (7.0 percent), fourth in yards per attempt (8.3), eighth in completion rate (67.6 percent), and 12th in interception rate (2.0 percent). And those numbers (8.1, 8.4, 67.4, 1.5) are as good or better than his season averages since the team's Week 11 bye. That's all the more considering he's lost Robert Woods and Higbee and had to integrate Odell Beckham Jr. during that span.
Of course, much of that is possible because Cooper Kupp has been head-and-shoulders better than any other receiver this season. The gap between his league-leading 122 catches and second-place Tyreek Hill's 102 is the same as the gap between Hill and 12th-place Stefon Diggs. And the gap between his 1,625 receiving yards and second-place Justin Jefferson's 1,335 is larger than the gap between Jefferson and eighth-place Mark Andrews.
The Vikings and their 29th-ranked pass defense should have their hands quite full, especially since they're missing their top two pass-rushers, Danielle Hunter (pectoral) and Everson Griffen (personal). Pass rush is usually one of the team's strengths — they lead the league with 44 sacks — but Hunter and Griffen's absences will put even more pressure on D.J. Wonnum, Eric Kendricks, and Co.
2. Can the Vikings run without Dalvin Cook?
Kirk Cousins is a capable passer with a deep array of receivers, but the Vikings' real offensive strength lies on the ground with Dalvin Cook, who broke the 1,000-yard mark for the season on Monday. However, Cook will not be available after testing positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. And since he's reportedly unvaccinated, he'll have to miss a minimum of 10 days.
It also just so happens that stopping the run is one of the Rams' great strengths. The Rams rank sixth per game (99.1 ypg) and third per attemp (3.9 ypa) in rush defense and even rank seventh in adjusted line yards (3.86). The Cardinals (103) are the only opponent since LA's bye to reach triple-digit rushing yardage, and most of that yardage came from quarterback runs, which won't be a threat with Cousins.
In Cook's stead, the Vikings will turn to Alexander Mattison, who is averaging a career-low 3.7 yards per carry this season. Oddly enough, though, he's been more effective in a starting role, surpassing four yards per carry all three of his starts, which totaled 315 yards on 73 carries.
Losing, who just earned a third straight Pro Bowl nod, is a major blow. Not insurmountable — the Vikings are 2-1 without him this season — but running against the Rams will be an uphill battle. And if the Vikings can't get things going on the ground, it's going to be hard to beat the Rams' talented secondary with Adam Thielen battling an ankle injury.
There are plenty of reasons why the Vikings rank better in total offense (eighth) than scoring defense (12th) and why the reverse is true for LA (fifth in points, sixth in yardage). However, one major factor has been penalties.
Minnesota is the third-most penalized team in the league with 102 penalties for 953 yards. Los Angeles, meanwhile, has the fourth-fewest penalties (68) for for the third-fewest yards (582). That's a difference of 26.5 yards per game off needless mistakes.
The Vikings, in particular have struggled with holding, as they have the most offensive holding penalties (25) and are tied for the most on the defensive side (13). If there's any silver lining for Minnesota, it's that the Vikings have had fewer penalties and penalty yardage than their overall season average in four of the last five weeks. But they also were flagged 11 times for 102 yards just two weeks ago.
It's almost certain that Minnesota will be more penalized than Los Angeles on Sunday, but the Vikings can't afford to rack up 10-plus penalties again, given all the Rams' advantages in the other phases of the game.
The Vikings keep exceeding expectations as they make their unlikely run at the playoffs, but finishing the season with the Rams, Packers, and Bears is a tall task. It's going to take abnormally good performances on defense, on the ground, and in avoiding self-inflicted mistakes to beat Los Angeles and get above .500 for the first time this season.