It should be a good, old-fashioned slobberknocker on Sunday as two physical, defensive-minded teams are set to square off at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday when the Vikings host the AFC North's Baltimore Ravens. Here are five storylines to follow in the buildup to this weeks' game.
1. Hope you like good defense
If you're a fan of good defense, you've liked what you've seen from the Vikings and Ravens so far in 2017. The Vikings have the NFL's top-rated 3rd down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 25% of the time. The Ravens defense is nearly as good on 3rd downs, permitting a 33.3% conversion rate (No. 3). The Vikings are great against the run, permitting 78.7 yards per game (No. 3) and Baltimore is great against the pass, allowing 189.5 yards per game (No. 5); Baltimore is also No. 4 in passer rating allowed (71.1) and the Vikings are No. 10 (81.0). Baltimore is tied for second with 14 takeaways and the Vikings and Ravens are tied for seventh with 16 sacks on the season. Points should be at a premium on Sunday.
2. Zimmer versus Flacco: Episode 13
As defensive coordinator with the Bengals, Mike Zimmer used to see Joe Flacco twice a year. As Vikings head coach, Zimmer has yet to see the Super Bowl MVP. Back in their Bengals-Ravens days, Zimmer and Flacco had some good battles. They faced one another 12 times in the regular season, with Flacco holding a 7-5 advantage. Despite the winning record, Flacco's numbers have taken a bit of a dive when facing a Zimmer defense. In those 12 games, Flacco has thrown more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12), he's been sacked 26 times, he's averaged only 177.8 passing yards per game and his cumulative passer rating is 71.9. Those are modest numbers for a quarterback as accomplished and talented as Flacco, yet the Ravens still found a way to get the job done. So even though Zimmer can claim some success against Flacco, he still gives the quarterback and his team all the respect in the world because he knows how tough they are to beat.
3. Quarterback questions for Vikings
There is a lot going on at quarterback for the Vikings. Sam Bradford's status remains uncertain and Zimmer is wisely coy about disclosing much information on that front. Teddy Bridgewater has been cleared to practice and saw his first action on Wednesday. And through it all, Case Keenum just keeps showing up and doing a good job. As well as Keenum has done to stabilize the position, there is still enough ambiguity and intrigue around Bradford and Bridgewater that questions will keep coming the way of Zimmer and his quarterbacks.
4. Some special special teams groups set to battle
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh is a former special teams coordinator, so you can be sure that phase of the game is not lost on him. His team's performance in this area reflects that, too. Heading into Week 7, Baltimore is the only team with both a kickoff return and a punt return touchdown. The Ravens rank No. 1 in kickoff return average (31.8 yards per return) and No. 3 in punt return average (13.8). Additionally, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said this week that Baltimore's kicker (Justin Tucker) and punter (Sam Koch) are the best his team will see this regular season. Tucker is 10 of 12 on field goal tries this season and he is perfect on 13 point after touchdown tries. Harbaugh likely echoes Zimmer's praise when looking at the Vikings special teams performance this season, particularly with the coverage groups. The Vikings rank No. 4 in punt return average allowed (4.0) and No. 8 in kickoff return average allowed (20.3). In the punting game, the Vikings are one of 10 teams with no touchbacks, they are tied for first with 13 forced fair catches and punter Ryan Quigley has landed 12 of his 26 punts inside the 20.
5. Control of the NFC North within Vikings grasp
The NFL is a week-to-week League, which makes the dangerous habit of putting the cart before the horse even more dangerous. But let's throw caution to the wind, if only for a moment. The Vikings, currently in first place in the division by virtue of a head-to-head tie breaker over Green Bay, are favored to win on Sunday against Baltimore and it's likely they'll be favored to win next week in London against the Cleveland Browns, as well. At the same time, second-place Green Bay plays the red-hot New Orleans Saints this week and the Detroit Lions cannot win this week because they are on bye and then return from the bye to play the Pittsburgh Steelers. The week after that, one of Detroit or Green Bay must lose because they play one another. Again, this is look too far down the road for a League that is as evenly matched as is the NFL, but there's no doubt this is a time of great opportunity for the Vikings as they approach their Week 9 bye.