EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings (10-3) are returning to U.S. Bank Stadium to host the Indianapolis Colts (4-8-1) at noon (Saturday).
Minnesota will be trying to bounce back from a 34-23 loss in Detroit and capitalize on its next opportunity to clinch the NFC North with a victory.
Indianapolis had its bye in Week 14 after falling 54-19 at Dallas on Sunday Night Football.
The Vikings last defeated the Colts in 1997 and are trying to complete a sweep of the original AFC East (the Colts were with the Bills, Dolphins, Jets and Patriots before moving to the AFC South in 2002) while snapping a six-game losing streak in the series and an 0-4 mark in the team's past four games against a squad coming off a bye (no such games yet this season).
This game will fall on the five-year anniversary of the last time the Vikings clinched the division with a 34-7 victory over the Bengals.
Here is a predicted key matchup, along with five storylines for this week.
Matchup to watch: Quarterbacks vs. zone defenses
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is coming off his most impressive performance of the season. Cousins completed 31 of 41 passes for 425 yards with two touchdowns and a passer rating of 124.5.
He'll face a Colts defense allowing the third-fewest passing yards this season (188.6) and one that has played zone coverage on 72.2 percent of dropbacks by opponents this season, which is the 15th-highest rate, according to Next Gen Stats. Indianapolis has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 72.5 percent of passes and total a passer rating of 99.8 when in zone coverage. Both of those stats rank 29th in the NFL entering Week 3.
How has Cousins fared against zone coverage?
Well, there's a difference in parts of the season, and it's a positive trend.
Next Gen Stats of Cousins vs. zone coverage in Weeks 1-11: 69.7 completion percentage, 6.7 pass yards per attempt, 6.5 air yards per attempt, 3 TD to 7 INT, 80.3 passer rating
Next Gen Stats of Cousins vs. zone coverage in Weeks 12-14: 76.6 completion percentage, 8.1 pass yards per attempt, 8.8 air yards per attempt, 2 TD to 0 INT, 110.7 passer rating
As for Colts quarterback Matt Ryan, he'll face a Vikings unit that has ranked last in total yards (403.7) and passing yards (287.2) allowed while relying on bend-but-don't-break zones and dealing with multiple injuries.
Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, has had some struggles in his first season with the Colts after 14 with the Falcons. His passer rating of 84.0 is on pace to be the second lowest of his career (80.9 in 2009).
Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell was in the same 2008 NFL Draft class as Ryan.
"That's a guy that's played so much football at a really, really high level. … This guy has seen it all, really done it all," O'Connell said Tuesday. "So in regards to the ebbs and flows of an NFL season, he's handled it this year as he has his whole career – with class and the ability to overcome adversity. We've gotta play well defensively against him. He's gonna have a lot of answers to the test just by sheer experience and football intelligence and knowledge. It just ramps up the urgency that much more on some of the things we want to do defensively, knowing he's gonna have a plan of attack every time that ball hits his hand."
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 14, 2023.
1. Clash between Class of 2020 stars
Justin Jefferson's gargantuan day in Detroit (11 catches for 223 yards) put him at an NFL-best 1,500 receiving yards this season. He is the first player in NFL history with 1,400 plus in each of his first three seasons and has already vaulted into the top 10 Vikings all-time receiving leaders.
Jefferson needs 108 to pass Stefon Diggs for ninth in team history and 133 to top Randy Moss' single-season franchise record of 1,632 in 2003.
The 2020 first-round pick has three games with 175-plus receiving yards this season. According to NFL Media Research, only Antonio Brown (four games in 2015) has posted more such performances during the Super Bowl era.
Jefferson is averaging 115.4 this season and would need an average of 116.3 to break Pro Football Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson's NFL single-season record of 1,961 in 2012.
The Colts offense features another star from the same draft class who is the centerpiece of Indianapolis' offense.
Running back Jonathan Taylor has totaled 4,630 scrimmage yards so far in his career, which ranks second since 2020 behind Tennessee's Derrick Henry (4,751). Jefferson is third (4,556), and Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (4,421) ranks fourth in that span.
Taylor's career average of 91.5 rushing yards per game ranks fourth in NFL history (minimum of five games).
According to NFL Media Research, this will be the first meeting between the all-time career receiving yards per game leader (Jefferson with 98.2) and a player ranked in the top five all-time in career rushing yards per game (minimum of 25 games) within both players' first three seasons since Week 17 of 2000 when Moss' Vikings fell to fellow Hall of Famer Edgerrin James' Colts.
View the best photos of Justin Jefferson during his career-high game of 223 yards and 11 receptions vs. the Detroit Lions on Dec. 11, 2022.
2. Run rejuvenation?
The Vikings struggled mightily to run the football against the Lions last week. Minnesota finished with 22 yards on 17 carries for a paltry average of 1.3 yards per carry.
Cook ranks sixth in the NFL with 950 rushing yards this season and needs 50 to record his fourth consecutive campaign with 1,000-plus on the ground, which would tie Cleveland's Nick Chubb for the longest active streak and place him alongside Adrian Peterson and Robert Smith for the most consecutive seasons in Vikings history.
The Vikings run game has taken a hit in recent weeks and is looking to rejuvenate itself over the final four games of the regular season.
Cook in Weeks 1-10: 80.8 rushing yards per game, 5.0 yards per carry, 6 rushing TD, 97.0 scrimmage yards per game
Cook in Weeks 11-14: 55.8 rushing yards per game, 3.3 yards per carry, 2 rushing TD, 61.8 scrimmage yards per game
The expected return of Christian Darrisaw, who was playing as a dominant left tackle before suffering two concussions that have caused him to miss the pass three games and parts of the previous two, should help Minnesota's effort to revive its run game.
The Colts have recommitted to their run game since Jeff Saturday became the interim head coach four games ago. Taylor has averaged 99.8 rushing yards per game in his past four games.
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3. Defensive fixes
In the past five games, Minnesota's defense ranks last in total yards per game allowed (460.6), yards per play (6.6) and passing yards per game (335.6).
Minnesota is also tied for last with 30.4 points allowed per game in that span.
Part of it has been facing powerful offenses like the Bills, Cowboys and Lions, but the Vikings readily admit they want to fix some issues.
There's an opportunity for Minnesota to find some fixes and stop a bit of the bleeding against a Colts offense that is averaging 318.0 yards per game (25th) and 16.1 points per game (31st).
4. If it's close?
Cousins leads the NFL with six fourth-quarter comebacks, but Ryan ranks second with five (he gets credit for the Week 1 tie with Houston in addition to the Colts four other wins).
Ryan, however, leads the NFL with 18 giveaways and 13 interceptions thrown.
The Vikings are 9-0 in one-score games and have won or tied the turnover battle in each of those contests.
The Colts are 4-4-1 in one-score games.