The Minnesota Vikings enter this Thursday night’s matchup against the undefeated Los Angeles Rams as heavy underdogs. But they shouldn’t be discouraged; after all, this team knows firsthand how quickly the tables can turn in the NFL.
Just last week, the Vikings, as 17-point favorites, were embarrassed by the Buffalo Bills at home. It was the first time since 1995 (span of 47 games) where a team favored by that large a margin wound up losing an NFL game. The last time it happened, the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Washington Redskins in the same year they wound up winning the Super Bowl. So for Vikings fans still thinking the team can go a few steps further than last year’s NFC Championship Game, there’s hope.
They’ll run up against a Rams team looking every bit like the Super Bowl contender they were envisioned to be at the start of the season. The only undefeated team left in the NFC, the league’s third-best offense is riding high behind the play of their No. 1 draft pick, quarterback Jared Goff. He and running back Todd Gurley have formed the most dynamic young offensive duo at those positions since Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott electrified the Cowboys two years ago.
Can the Rams keep their early-season momentum going? Or will the Vikings' defense deliver after a dreadful performance at home?
Minnesota at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 27 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Rams -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The free agent signee vs. the homegrown young star
Jared Goff has simply continued to improve each week with the Rams. His yards per attempt ranks fourth in the NFL (9.3) while his QB rating (111.1) ranks sixth. While flashy Patrick Mahomes has dominated defenses with the Chiefs, throwing 13 touchdown passes without an interception, Goff has diversified his game. The third-year pro can slide easily between a game plan of deep throws and simple screens; he’s also good at managing the offense when Gurley gets hot. Goff hasn’t had a game with more than one interception since Oct. 8, 2017 against Seattle. He’s not going to cost you the game and doesn’t get enough pub beside fellow 2016 draftee Carson Wentz.
Cousins, meanwhile had an impressive early 2018 with the Vikings wiped out against the Bills. He fumbled on the team’s first two possessions and now has three for the season; that’s tied for fourth in the NFL, which is not what this team paid millions for. By the time he was able to go an entire series without turning the ball over, the Vikings trailed 17-0 and were down for the count. The performance might arguably have been the worst of his career.
Now, Cousins is anxious to put that loss behind him along with the rest of the Vikings. Their quick turnaround may be a good thing; there’s no time to dwell on the litany of mistakes that cost them Sunday. Going throw-for-throw against Goff, if Cousins is at his best, will be a must-watch, top-tier matchup.
2. Can the Vikings' run defense stop Todd Gurley?
It’s been a weird start for one of the NFL’s best defenses. Through three games, the Vikings haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher but are still at 105.3 yards allowed per game, only 14th best in the league. (Last year, they were second.)
Those yards have come against some inferior rushing competition: Matt Breida, Chris Ivory and Jamaal Williams aren’t exactly household names. Now, a group that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since mid-December against Carolina is facing one of the most explosive backs in the league. Gurley’s four touchdowns through three games is tied for the NFL lead and he remains the Rams’ most dangerous threat on offense. What’s more, one could argue he hasn’t even been at his best so far, averaging just 4.1 yards per carry. There’s plenty of room for improvement and if he pierces the Vikings' defense early, watch out. He’s due for a 70-yard explosive run.
3. Nuts and bolts
The Vikings, like many teams this season, have suffered through placekicking problems. After Daniel Carlson blew a game-winning opportunity against Green Bay, he was replaced by longtime Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey. But Bailey has yet to be tested in the clutch; the Bills blowout kept him on the sideline without a field goal attempt.
The Rams aren’t in great shape either. Greg Zuerlein, coming off his first All-Pro season, has been sidelined with a groin injury the last two weeks. Replacement Sam Ficken has just two made field goals in his career and has yet to connect in 2018. A close game could come down to some white-knuckle moments for fans when these two get out on the field.
One area where the Rams have excelled is turnovers. They have just three giveaways this season, producing a plus-three turnover margin compared to the Vikings' minus-one. The Rams just have so many offensive weapons, from deep threats Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp to Goff to Gurley to possession receiver Robert Woods. None of them make many mistakes and they just keeping marching down the field on defenses. Only the Saints and Chiefs have scored more points this season than the Rams (102). Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer tends to call a more conservative game plan and that will be tested if the Rams make this a track meet by scoring 30-plus points.
The Vikings are eager to put Sunday behind them. But a short week against the Rams, who didn’t have to leave LA after an intracity battle against the Chargers, is a tough opponent. The young Rams are eager to knock off a potential playoff rival, earning the head-to-head victory for tiebreaking purposes and establishing themselves as the unquestioned leader of the NFC.
Consider that with a win, the Rams could be three games ahead after four weeks in a NFC West that already has two wounded teams: the 49ers sans Jimmy Garoppolo and a winless, 0-3 Arizona Cardinals team starting rookie Josh Rosen. The division would appear firmly within their grasp with one of the NFL’s easiest schedules looming. It wouldn’t be outrageous to say they’d have a commanding edge on the conference’s top seed after just four games.
The Vikings, meanwhile, need Cousins to step up. But even his A game might not be enough playing against an offense with many more weapons. This time, the Vikings will watch their own glass slipper break.
Prediction: Rams 38, Vikings 27
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.