Minnesota at L.A. Rams (-7, 49), 8:20 pm ET, FOX/NFLN
If these teams meet for the NFC Championship in roughly four months, few will be surprised.
The Vikings are hungry to get back to the point where last year’s dreams got snuffed out in Philadelphia. To get so close and no-show stays with you, especially when it costs you a trip to a Super Bowl set to be played in your own stadium. Minnesota lost to the Eagles despite being favored and marching right down the field to go up 7-0, surrendering the final 38 points.
Ownership ponied up a fully guaranteed $84 million over three seasons for Kirk Cousins to come on board and replace Case Keenum, whose ill-timed pick-six opened the flood gates in Philly. A 22-point fourth quarter to overcome a double-digit deficit at Lambeau to rival Green Bay suggests that was a good idea, especially since Cousins made some incredible throws to push the game to OT and put his team in position to win twice only to be denied by a pair of misses from rookie kicker Daniel Carlson, who was subsequently released.
A talented young kicker who Minnesota utilized a fifth-round pick on found no grace period. The Vikings don’t have the time for people to figure things out. They’ve got places to go and needed to get there yesterday. Head coach Mike Zimmer is all about winning, which is why he’s become the most reliable option to ride every postseason since he got a head gig. If there’s a score, Zimmer is trying to be on the right side of it.
That’s what makes this past Sunday so puzzling. The Vikings are entering a key stretch where they’re visiting two of their top contenders for games they circled on the calendar, visiting each coast in back-to-back weeks. On Oct. 7, they return to the scene of the crime at the Linc, challenging an Eagles team that will be playing their third game with Carson Wentz. This week, they make their first trip to Los Angeles since 1992 to play their first Thursday game since beating Detroit last Thanksgiving. The Rams are unbeaten and have looked dominant.
Is that what happened last week? Were the Vikes counting on a layup of a game before getting serious and buckling down? A 17-point favorite against a Bills team that had been outscored 78-23 by the Ravens and Chargers the first two weeks, you can imagine that human nature set in and minds started wandering, jumping ahead on the schedule. Even against the likes of Buffalo, complacency can kill in the NFL. It’s surprising that Zimmer was powerless to stop it, but once adversity hit, it turned into an avalanche. Buffalo become the largest underdog since 1992 to win a game outright. That’s not the kind of history the Vikes are trying to make.
Rookie Josh Allen started and played so well that he got others to follow his lead and buy in despite the absence of starting RB LeSean McCoy due to a rib injury. He jumped over Minnesota standout linebacker Anthony Barr to get a first down, playing with an infectious reckless abandon that overwhelmed a team that didn’t look like they wanted to be out there. Despite being as as a steak that spends only a handful of seconds on the grill, Allen leaned on his physical gifts, tremendous athleticism and a rocket arm, able to keep everything simple due to the 17-point first-quarter cushion that Minnesota’s no-show provided.
Buffalo’s defense got after Cousins, who despite his 40 completions and 296 yards, produced only a single score with the game already decided. It took 13 plays to go 92 yards on a defense keeping everything in front of them to avoid being shut out. The Vikings have scored a grand total of 17 first-half points through three games, used turnovers to escape a dicey opener against the 49ers and needed that aforementioned 22-point fourth quarter, complete with two-point conversion, to avoid a loss in Green Bay.
They’ve got tremendous personnel but haven’t put it together yet. The Buffalo game was an aberration, sure, but one thing that came through loud and clear is that they’re nowhere near where they need to be to get away with overlooking any opponent, even the league’s worst.
The Rams have taken no prisoners. They spoiled Jon Gruden’s Oakland debut by scoring 23 unanswered second-half points, posted a 34-0 rout of overmatched Arizona and took the opening possession against the Chargers 80 yards to make it 64 straight points before Philip Rivers hit a big pass to Mike Williams, ending the run. Despite their dominance to date, Sean McVay’s unbeaten team is vulnerable. As you’ll read below in the injury report, there are a number of reasons L.A. has to be extremely concerned as it faces its first opponent that made last year’s postseason.
Getting the type of wakeup call the Bills game afforded on a short week makes for an interesting dynamic considering they’ll be visiting one of the two teams that has most effectively hit the round running. Although QB Patrick Mahomes’ emergence has become the talk of the NFL since he’s shiny, new and taking the Chiefs to another level, L.A.’s Jared Goff has picked up right where he left off after last year’s breakthrough and has helped L.A. build the league’s largest point differential by a long shot, currently 102-36 entering this Thursday nighter.
Mahomes has thrown an NFL-record 13 touchdowns, which dwarfs Goff’s six, but the Rams’ former No. 1 overall pick has one in every game this season. Cousins has thrown seven. Both have been intercepted twice.
On paper, this is one of the top matchups the schedule makers have bestowed upon us to date, right up there with the season-opening Atlanta-Philadelphia, the AFC Championship rematch between the Patriots and Jaguars, that Packers-Vikings Week 2 classic and last week’s Saints-Falcons shootout. Hopefully it lives up to billing. Weather won’t be a deterrent since clear conditions and sublime temperatures in the 70s are expected throughout.
After missing last week’s game, Dalvin Cook will return to try and revive a running game that couldn’t get much going with backups Latavius Murray and rookie Mike Boone running behind an offensive line that got dominated. Cook is more of a threat receiving the ball out of the backfield, so Cook’s return from a hamstring injury should make the attack more dynamic if he’s close to 100 percent. Linemen Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein should play, which also certainly helps since Rashod Hill and Brian O’Neill are better suited for backup roles.
Corner Marcus Sherels (ribs) has been ruled out, but with Mackensie Alexander back and rookie Mike Hughes stepping up alongside holdovers Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, there is enough talent to deal with the Rams skill players. DE Everson Griffen (mental health) remains away from the team.
L.A. has placed Aqib Talib on IR due to an ankle injury and are hoping he’ll return to aid a playoff push. The calf injury suffered by fellow standout corner Marcus Peters isn’t as severe but ended up being more than just a scare. He’s unlikely to see action til mid-October at the earliest, which means the Rams secondary could be extremely vulnerable. Linebacker Mark Barron (ankle) is listed as doubtful, while pass rusher Dominique Easley will be a game-time decision. Defensive depth was certainly a major strength early on that L.A. no longer gets to enjoy the next few weeks. Veteran coordinator Wade Phillips will have to get creative and can probably use McVay calling a few more runs for Todd Gurley to chew up clock in order to keep defenders fresher.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein (groin) also remains sidelined, so we’ll see how backup Sam Ficken fares if he’s called upon to knock through a key field goal. Dan Bailey didn’t get to kick in his Vikings debut since they went for two after their only touchdown.
RECENT MEETINGS (Minnesota 6-2 SU, 6-2 ATS last eight; TOTAL 4-4)
11/19/17 Minnesota 24-7 vs. L.A. Rams (MIN -1, 46)
11/8/15 Minnesota 21-18 (OT) vs. St. Louis (MIN -1, 40)
9/7/14 Minnesota 34-6 at St. Louis (MIN +3.5, 43.5)
1216/12 Minnesota 36-22 at St. Louis (MIN +2.5, 39.5)
10/11/09 Minnesota 38-10 at St. Louis (MIN -10.5, 41)
12/31/06 St. Louis 41-21 at Minnesota (STL -2.5, 44)
12/11/05 Minnesota 27-13 vs. St. Louis (MIN -7, 45.5)
11/30/03 St. Louis 48-17 vs. Minnesota (STL -6/51)