Week 13 Game Scout: Vikings at Falcons
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (9-2) AT ATLANTA FALCONS (7-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. TV: FOX, Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis, Pam Oliver (field reporter).
SERIES HISTORY: 28th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 17-10. The Vikings are 7-7 in Atlanta, including last year's 20-10 victory at the Georgia Dome. This will be their first visit to new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Vikings have won the last two meetings, including a 41-28 win in Minnesota in 2014.
KEYS TO THE GAME: It took a while for the Falcons to get going on offense this season. But during its three-game winning streak, Atlanta has resembled last year's Super Bowl team.
The Falcons have averaged better than 31 points per game during the streak, but they have not faced a defense like Minnesota's.
Running back Devonta Freeman, who had missed the previous two weeks, cleared the concussion protocol and returned to practice on Wednesday. The Falcons can now employ their two-back approach, utilizing Freeman's punishing style and the quickness of Tevin Coleman.
As quarterback Matt Ryan told reporters this week, the Falcons will have to be mindful of Vikings safety Harrison Smith in the both running and passing games. "He's very physical, and he does a great job in their pass rush schemes," Ryan said.
On defense, the Falcons may have to contend with Case Keenum and the efficient Minnesota passing game without No. 1 cornerback Desmond Trufant, who suffered a concussion Sunday in a win over Tampa Bay and remains in the concussion protocol.
Keenum, 7-2 as the Vikings' starter after last week's win in Detroit, has completed 66 percent of his passes, with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The running game will be key for the Vikings against a defense that is ninth in the league in sacks. If Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon can continue their one-two punch, they'll make Keenum's life easier.
The Atlanta secondary will have to contend with Kevin Thielen, the Vikings' breakout star at wide receiver, who is second in receiving yards and third with 605 yards after the catch.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes has been shadowing top receivers since 2014, when he became the Vikings' answer to slowing down Calvin Johnson. Since last season, Rhodes has seven interceptions, third-most in the league. He's tall, long and fast and plays with the kind of confidence expected from one of the highest-paid defenders in the league. He shut down Antonio Brown in a Week 2 loss at Pittsburgh. Last week, the Lions tested him with some success. Rhodes was flagged for pass interference and holding, but he came down with the clinching interception late. Jones is just now starting to round into his usual form. The massive receiver had 253 yards and two touchdowns in last week's win over Tampa Bay. He has 66 catches for 1,039 yards and a 15.7-yard average, but only three touchdowns.
--Vikings LT Riley Reiff vs. Falcons DE Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn made a name for himself earlier this season when he had six sacks against the Cowboys. He was the talk of the league. Reiff has made a name for himself in Minnesota by having no one talk about the job he's doing. After watching left tackles struggle in recent years, Vikings fans have nothing to complain about as Reiff has come in and locked down the quarterback's blind side, not allowing a sack. Clayborn has eight sacks.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
--Out: T Mike Remmers (back)
--Questionable: Eric Kendricks (hip)
--Out: CB Desmond Trufant (concussion)
--Questionable: Sean Weatherspoon (illness)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Vikings CB Trae Waynes. The matchup everyone will be watching is Rhodes against Jones. Rhodes will shadow the big wideout. But don't let the eyes stray too far from the other side of the field, where young Waynes will be getting one of his more difficult assignments. Mohamed Sanu has more touchdown catches than Jones (4-3). Sanu also has 45 catches, so he's not just an afterthought in Atlanta's attack. Waynes is having his best season. He has moved past veteran Terence Newman as the starter and kept the job because he's finally listening to his coaching and playing receivers tighter in all coverages.
FAST FACTS: Vikings QB Case Keenum has 866 yards passing (288.7 per game), seven touchdowns and two interceptions in his past three games. ... RB Latavius Murray rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown in Week 12. He aims for a fourth game in a row with a rushing touchdown. ... RB Jerick McKinnon has 185 scrimmage yards in two games vs. Atlanta. ... WR Adam Thielen ranks third in the NFL with 1,005 yards, his first 1,000-yard season. ... DE Everson Griffen is tied for the NFL lead with 12 sacks. He had two sacks and a forced fumble in Week 12. ... DE Danielle Hunter aims for his fourth game in a row with a sack. ... Atlanta QB Matt Ryan completed 26 of 35 for 317 yards and a touchdown last week. ... RB Tevin Coleman rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns in Week 12. ... WR Julio Jones had 12 receptions for 253 yards and two touchdowns last week. He has three career games with 250 receiving yards and is the only player in NFL history with multiple 250-yard games. ... WR Mohamed Sanu threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Jones last week. ... LB Vic Beasley Jr. has seven sacks and three forced fumbles in his past 10 games at home.
PREDICTION: Three weeks ago, the Falcons were 4-4 and stuck in neutral. Now, they've won three straight, and it appears Matt Ryan and first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian are finally on the same page. While the Vikings' defense presents a stiffer challenge, look for Atlanta to make it four straight.
OUR PICK: Falcons, 24-23.