EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings (7-7) and Rams (10-4) are set to meet at noon (CT) Sunday for the first time since 2018 and second time at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Los Angeles topped Minnesota 38-31 last time on Thursday Night Football as the two teams combined for 1,002 net yards.
Roughly 10 months earlier, the Vikings prevailed 24-7 and outgained the Rams 451 to 254 on a day when both teams entered with a 7-2 record.
Minnesota can control its own destiny, but this is the first of three tough remaining regular-season games.
Entering Week 16, the Rams are in the No. 5 spot in the NFC Playoffs, but they still have a shot at winning the NFC West. The Vikings can't win the NFC North (it's the only division clinched so far), but they are currently the No. 7 (final) seed.
According to analytics site fivethirtyeight.com, the Vikings have a 29-percent chance of making the playoffs, which increases to 50 percent with a victory, regardless of what else happens. The Rams have a 99-percent chance to make the playoffs and need just one more victory in the final three weeks to clinch a postseason berth.
Vikings uniform combo: Purple jerseys and white pants
Matchup to watch: Vikings defense vs. Matthew Stafford with a robust cast
The Vikings have faced the former Lions quarterback 21 times (and have sacked him 68) since his 2009 rookie season as the No. 1 pick of that year's draft.
But they've never seen Stafford with a supporting cast so broad and balanced. Sure, Stafford had Calvin Johnson for 10 of those contests in which the Hall of Famer averaged 79.2 yards per game and totaled six touchdown catches. Detroit also had Marvin Jones, Jr., doing his best Megatron impression against the Vikings with 74.0 yards per game and nine scores in eight games together.
As for now?
Cooper Kupp deserves considerable credit for leading the NFL with 122 receptions, 1,625 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The quick connection that has developed Nos. 9 and 10 is just one challenge the Vikings will have to solve Sunday. The Rams have scored on 47.7 percent of their offensive possessions, which ranks first in the NFL, and has helped Los Angeles total 386 points, which ranks fifth.
Minnesota has allowed 29 touchdown passes (26th in NFL).
Stafford ranks second in the NFL with 35 on the year (14 to Kupp, six to Van Jefferson, four to Robert Woods, three to Tyler Higbee, three to Odell Beckham, Jr., three to Darrell Henderson, Jr., and one to Sony Michel). Woods is on Injured Reserve.
"He's obviously got more weapons," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said. "He had Calvin Johnson for a long time and [Eric] Ebron and some of those guys. But I think the things they're doing with him, moving in and out of the pocket. They get him in a lot of spreads where he can get the ball out quick when he needs to. I've seen him make great throws. He's got such a strong arm. I mean, he looks very similar to how I remember him. Maybe he isn't running as much as he did a couple of years when he started running all over the place. But I don't think he's had to."
Here are five storylines of interest this week:
1. J.J. Chasing OBJ
Speaking of Beckham, who totaled two catches for 27 yards against the Vikings as a Brown in Week 4, the 2014 first-round pick of the Giants has 16 catches for 211 yards in five games with L.A.
The former LSU star is being chased by another, Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, who has a strong relationship with Beckham.
Jefferson needs 21 yards to top Beckham's NFL record of 2,755 receiving yards in his first two pro seasons.
2. Eyes on an ankle
Vikings receiver Adam Thielen has had big showings in his past two games against the Rams.
He busted the 2017 game wide open with a catch-and-run after a short throw that went for a 65-yard touchdown to break the game open (21-7) with 10:14 remaining.
Thielen followed that six-catch, 123-yard performance with eight catches and 135 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown in 2018, his fourth game with Kirk Cousins at QB.
Will Thielen be able to make it three in a row? It depends on how his ankle injury, suffered early at Detroit in Week 13, progresses.
"It felt good [Monday before the game]," Thielen said Wednesday. "I just wouldn't have been able to perform and help this team win. At the end of the day, it's not about me playing and it's not about me at all. It's about what is it going to take to help this team win, and I wouldn't have been able to do that on Monday night. So just going back to the drawing board. Luckily, I've got a lot of people around me that are helping me get to that point, and I'm thankful for that. Got a lot of people working hard to try to get me out there, and I'm doing whatever it takes to get out there and try to help this team win."
Look back on images from past games between the Vikings and the Rams.
3. What kind of game will it be?
Likely less chippy than Minnesota's trip to Chicago.
Despite the past two weeks, the Vikings have generally participated in lower-scoring affairs at home and in shootouts on the road. Here's a quick comparison:
6 Vikings home games: 142 points for (23.7 per game) and 127 points against (21.2)
8 Vikings road games: 219 points for (27.4) and 215 points against (26.9)
As for the Rams? They have scored more and allowed more during road games this season.
7 Rams home games: 189 points for (27.0) and 139 points against (19.9)
7 Rams road games: 197 points for (28.1) and 164 points against (23.4)
Either way, it could be a close one, based on the Vikings involvement in 13 one-score games this season (Minnesota is 6-7). But the Rams have only had three games determined by one score (Los Angeles is 2-1).
4. Vikings defense taking shape?
The Vikings are going to play the entire 2021 season without all 11 of their defensive starters taking the field for a single play.
Minnesota has shown signs of improving on defense, shutting out the Steelers for the entire first half before Pittsburgh caught fire in the second half and keeping the Bears out of the end zone until the final play of the game.
Were those byproducts of a slow-starting Steelers squad and a mistake-prone Bears offense or a sign of the group the Vikings have taking shape?
The threats posed by the Los Angeles offense should provide a good assessment.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.
5. A D that starts and ends with Donald
Since the Rams selected Aaron Donald with the 13th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, no player has more sacks (96.5) or tackles for loss (145) than the former Pitt Panther.
Donald this week was selected to his eighth Pro Bowl in as many seasons.
Vikings Team Reporter Eric Smith covered Donald's excellence, which drew an interesting comparison Wednesday by Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson to Hall of Famer John Randle.
The Rams defense, which Zimmer said "features a lot of all-stars," was the first entity mentioned by Minnesota's head coach. It includes edge rushers Leonard Floyd and in-season acquisition Von Miller, but the biggest problem-causer up front is Donald.