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Lunchbreak: The Athletic Says Kirk Cousins is Key to Sunday's Clash with Cleveland

A big test awaits the Vikings on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Minnesota (1-2) hosts Cleveland (2-1) in a battle of teams that expect to be in the playoff picture at the end of the season.

What's the key to getting a win? The Athletic crew of Chad Graff, Arif Hasan and Jon Krawczynski previewed Sunday's game, with two of those reporters focusing on the Vikings starting quarterback.

Graff and Krawczynski opined that Kirk Cousins will need to keep up his hot start if Minnesota wants to climb back to .500.

Graff wrote:

Kirk Cousins keeps rolling. The Vikings defense has time to figure things out if Cousins continues to play like this. No matter what stat you prefer, he's been a top-five quarterback so far this season. He's had several great three-game stretches, but not many like this over four games. If that changes, the Vikings should leave U.S. Bank Stadium with a win.

Krawczynski added:

Cousins continues to tear it up. He has played exceptionally well but will also have to be consistent through all four quarters against this team. No dry halves like they had in Arizona.

Hasan went with the other side of the ball, writing that Minnesota's defense will need to be on alert against the Browns offense.

They have an answer for bootlegs. The Vikings have shied away from them, but both teams are intimately familiar with the play-action boot and the Vikings should have an answer when the Browns do it. If not, it will be a long day.

As for the game itself, all three writers expect the scoreboard to be close at the end of regulation. But all three projected a close Vikings win.

Graff predicted a 30-27 score. Hasan forecasted a 28-24 Vikings victory, and Krawczynski picked Minnesota in a 28-27 win.

Graff wrote:

Maybe I'm buying into fool's gold, but I'm buying stock in Cousins keeping this going. Klint Kubiak is putting him in positions to succeed, getting the best out of the screen game and scheming open targets underneath. I think he has another big game to help even the Vikings record.

Hasan added:

The Browns have been a bit more efficient than the Vikings, but the Vikings have a better passing game and play this one at home. I waffled back and forth on this and will continue to waffle up until the fourth quarter.

Krawczynski continued:

I was going to pick the Browns, but then I looked a little closer. So far, Cleveland has beaten the Texans and Bears and lost to the Chiefs, who have scuffled out of the gate. I really like their team, but it hasn't been emphatic just yet. A win in Minnesota would be their best one yet, and the way the Vikings defense plays at home, I think they make one more play than Cleveland does. Man, I'm gonna regret this.

The Athletic's full game preview can be found here.

ESPN offers bold prediction for Sunday's game

Cousins was spotlighted above, and was also included in ESPN's bold prediction for Week 4.

Jake Trotter, who covers the Browns for ESPN, wrote that he believes Sunday is going to be a big day for both Cousins and Cleveland's Baker Mayfield.

Trotter opined that both quarterbacks will be efficient on play-action passes at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Mayfield and Cousins will combine for five play-action touchdown passes. On such plays, Cousins leads the NFL in QBR (94.1) and is tied for third in TD passes with three. Those five play-action touchdowns will prove to be the only scores of the game.

Courtney Cronin, ESPN's Vikings reporter, said her big storyline revolves around the pair of head coaches.

Tom Brady's homecoming isn't the only one in Week 4. Reigning Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski returns to Minnesota where he spent the first 14 seasons of his career for a matchup with his former boss, Mike Zimmer. The Vikings have a 1-2 record after losing their first two games by a combined four points, while the Browns barely missed out on a 3-0 start. Both teams boast top-seven offenses, and while the Vikings are more explosive on that end, Cleveland's pass rush and defensive depth might hold the edge.

Both reporters picked a Cleveland win, but both expect the game to be close. Trotter predicted a 21-14 Browns win, while Cronin has the Vikings falling 24-20 at home.