With an unforeseen 7-2 start to the season, the Vikings have put themselves in prime position to secure a playoff berth for the second time in three years. And now, over the next five days, they have a chance to essentially ice away a spot in the NFC playoff field and set their sights on things such as a first-round bye. The first of those two steps come today against the red-hot Los Angeles Rams, with kickoff slated for Noon at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Rams are the feel-good story of the NFL and are in the process of engineering one of the biggest turnaround seasons in league history. Last season, after moving from St. Louis, the team went 4-12, including losing 11 of its final 12 games. Head Coach Jeff Fischer was fired, and the front office made the bold move of hiring 31-year-old Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay.
With the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, QB Jared Goff, struggling during his rookie year, it was imperative that the team get him pointed in the right direction, and McVay has done that and more: the Rams currently have the NFL's top-ranked offense, averaging 32.9 points per game. No doubt Goff has engineered the on-field turnaround, but RB Todd Gurley has played a big role in that as well, as he's returned to the form he showed in his rookie year and will make life tough on the Vikings today both on the ground and through the air; he has 35 catches for 406 yards and three touchdowns receiving this season.
The Rams have a trio of dangerous threats at the wide receiver position as well, including Sammy Watkins, who was acquired during the preseason from Buffalo. Another former Bill, Robert Woods, is leading the way through the air, with 622 yards receiving. Rookie Cooper Kupp is another name to watch.
Up front, just as Riley Reiff has elevated the Vikings offensive line, the same can be said for LT Andrew Whitworth, who came over from Cincinnati and has taken that group to another level. Ex-Viking John Sullivan has gotten healthy and seemingly gotten his career back on track, anchoring the middle of the line in Los Angeles.
So, with all that being said, we know the Rams' offense is really good. Lucky for the Vikings, they have a pretty stacked defense that will possibly get its best player back from injury today in the form of Everson Griffen, who's expected to return after missing last week's game with a foot injury. With Griffen out of the lineup the defense had a relatively poor performance last week. The odds of that happening with this group seem low, so a bounce back today, particularly in front of the home crowd, would be in store.
On the injury front, S Andrew Sendejo (hamstring / groin) was ruled out on Friday, with Anthony Harris expected to fill in for him. DE Brian Robison, who saw extended action in Griffen's absence last weekend, was held out of practice on Friday with a back injury and is questionable.
Much of the early-week conversation around this game centered on who would start at quarterback for the Vikings, but Head Coach Mike Zimmer again will hand things over to Case Keenum, who was nearly perfect against the Redskins … aside from two poor interceptions that drew the ire of Zimmer. Still, his four touchdown passes and body of work so far this season were enough to earn him another start, with Teddy Bridgewater backing him up for the second game in a row.
The Rams' defense is third in the NFL, allowing just 18 points per game. The Vikings have talked this week about the strengths of Wade Phillips' group, which typically plays with five defensive linemen and two linebackers. Offensive Coordinator Pat Shumur in particular talked about how the group has a tendency to force offense into negative plays, such as turnovers and sacks, often resulting in short fields for the offense to work with. Keenum will have to be careful with the ball, as he has been for the vast majority of this season.
There could be money to be made on the ground for the Vikings today, as the Rams are just 24th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game. The Vikings will again be without T Mike Remmers (concussion), so Rashod Hill, who drew praise from Zimmer and Shurmur this week for his play against the Redskins, will make the start at right rackle.
Through the air, the Adam Thielen-Stefon Diggs duo tore apart the Redskins last week, and will look to keep things going this week against a physical Rams secondary.
As if being stacked on both sides of the ball wasn't enough, the Rams also excel on special teams, most notably with K Greg Zuerlein, who has made 28-29 field goals this year and is a perfect 30-30 on extra points.
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