8:20 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Rams -6.5, Over/Under: 49
A matchup that was initially billed as being a potential NFC Championship Preview now looks very different as the struggling Minnesota Vikings travel to Los Angeles to face off against the torrid Rams on a short week from Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Needless to say, this is NOT how the 2018 campaign was supposed to begin for the Vikings (1-1-1, 3rd in NFC North), who after advancing all the way to the NFC Championship Game last season, endeavored to acquire a significant upgrade at the game’s most important position, Quarterback, in the form of Kirk Cousins (68.3%, 321.7 Y/G, 6.20 NY/A, 7 TD, 2 INT, ), whom they made history by granting the league’s first fully-guaranteed contract ($84 Million/3 Years). With a loaded Defense, and a slew of blossoming young pieces to surround him with, the Vikings were favored by many to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIII come February. While there is plenty of time left to get things right, Minnesota has gotten off to a surprisingly slow start; after besting the San Francisco 49ers in the Season Opener (24-16), they were fortunate enough to tie the Green Bay Packers the following week (29-29), before being utterly embarrassed at home against the previously winless Buffalo Bills last Sunday (6-27). This one will be a bitter pill for Mike Zimmer and Co. to swallow, folks, for the Vikings were a staggering 16.5-Point Favorite entering Sunday’s outing, and were effectively their own worst enemy from the kickoff. The hosts quickly found themselves trailing 0-17 in the First Quarter after fumbling the football away on each of their first two possessions, granting the Bills very favorable Field Position on the 15-Yard and 25-Yard Lines respectively. Trailing 0-27 at Halftime, the Defense tightened up and pitched a shutout over the final thirty minutes of play, but Cousins and the Offense were very much a disaster. Apart from a Garbage Time Touchdown in the waning stages of the Fourth Quarter, Minnesota punted on five of their Twelve Drives, turned the football over on four of them, and saw the Half end another two. The final Line certainly didn’t paint a favorable picture either, as Zimmer’s charges posted totals of 292 Yards, including a scant Fourteen Rushing Yards on Six Carries, and Three Turnovers, while going just 5-of-14 on Third Down and possessing the football for only 24:15. Cousins struggled mightily, completing 40-of-55 Attempts for 296 Yards, a Touchdown and an Interception, but was sacked on four occasions, fumbling three times, and losing two of them. So what the hell is going on in Minnesota, you ask? Well, a great deal of their previous success offensively came from the rebuilding of their Offensive Line, which led to a very balanced attack in 2017, in which the Vikings averaged 23.9 Points (10th Overall) on 367.9 Total Yards (11th Overall), including 245.6 Yards through the air (11th Overall) and another 122.3 Yards on the ground (7th Overall). Fast forward to the present term and they’re scoring just 19.7 Points (22nd Overall) on 387.7 Total Yards (14th Overall), though that aforementioned balanced has been thrown out of place with 321.7 Passing Yards (4th Overall) in comparison to a paltry 66.0 Rushing Yards (31st Overall). Granted, in addition to a new Quarterback, Zimmer also hired a new Offensive Coordinator, John DeFilippo, to take over for the departed Pat Shurmur, but the biggest issue has been the health of the Offensive Line. Nick Easton, who started Twelve Games last year at Center and both Guard spots, is languishing on Injured Reserve rehabbing from Offseason Surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck, while his replacement, Pat Elflein, who started Fourteen Games last year as a Rookie Center, has yet to play in any of the first three games dealing with lingering ankle and shoulder injuries. Elflein is labeled as Questionable for Thursday’s contest, while another member of last year’s solid Draft Class, versatile Tailback Dalvin Cook (26 CAR, 78 YDS, 9 REC, 107 YDS), missed the Buffalo debacle with a sore hamstring, and is also questionable for the encounter with the Rams.
Meanwhile, any concerns of last year’s success being simply a flash in the pan can officially be put to rest, for the Rams (3-0, 1st in NFC West) appear to be the class of the NFC, and perhaps the league as well. After returning to the Playoffs for the first time since 2004, Los Angeles erred against standing pat and wisely took advantage of the opportunity to load up their roster with premium talent, while their Quarterback, Jared Goff (70.3%, 313.7 Y/G, 8.73 NY/A, 6 TD, 2 INT), remains on an affordable rookie contract. In a whirlwind Offseason ripe with acquisitions, Sean McVay and Co. welcomed the likes of Pro Bowl Cornerbacks Aqib Talib (9 TKL, 2 PD, 1 FF) and Marcus Peters (4 TKL, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 TD), former All-Pro Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh (8 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 PD, 1 FR), along with Receiver Brandin Cooks (19 REC, 336 YDS), while also managing to maintain the services of Defensive Lineman Aaron Donald (7 TKL), ending a lengthy holdout by making him the highest paid defender in the history of the NFL ($135 Million/6 Years, $86.8 guaranteed). After all, this is an approach that worked spectacularly for the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and most recently the Philadelphia Eagles last season, with both teams hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in triumph. McVay hopes that his charges follow that blueprint, though they’ve certainly made an impression through the first three games of the campaign, dismantling the likes of the Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals, and most recently the Los Angeles Chargers by a combined score of 102-36. Thus far, Los Angeles is averaging 34.0 Points (4th Overall) on 447.4 Total Yards (3rd Overall), including 313.7 Yards through the air (4th Overall) on a stellar 8.7 Net Yards per Attempt (3rd Overall), along with another 133.7 Yards on the ground (6th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (11th Overall), all the while leading the league on Third Down where they’ve converted on 54.1 of their opportunities. Todd Gurley (62 CAR, 255 YDS, 4 TD, 11 REC, 121 YDS, 1 TD), the reigning Offensive Player of the Year, looks like the early frontrunner for MVP, with the Tailback averaging 125.3 Yards from Scrimmage thus far. Defensively, the Rams have had no problem assimilating so many new faces into the fold, with Wade Phillips further cultivating this group into one of the league’s most threatening; the veteran Coordinator has overseen a unit that has yielded the fewest points in the league (12.0 P/G), while allowing just 296.0 Total Yards (6th Overall), including 199.3 Yards against the Pass (6th Overall) on 5.9 Net Yards per Attempt (9th Overall), and another 96.7 Yards versus the Run (9th Overall) on 5.0 Yards per Carry (27th Overall), all the while forcing Six Turnovers (6th Overall). When last we saw them, the Rams were busy staking their claim in the first annual Battle of Los Angeles, as they hosted the Chargers in what became a comfortable 35-23 victory. Technically the home team in this particular affair, they jumped out to an early 21-6 lead and never looked back, racking up a whopping Thirty-Three First Downs, 521 Total Yards of Offense, including 350 through the air and another 171 on the ground, went 8-of-11 on Third Down, and possessed the football for 34:16. It was an efficient day for Goff, who completed 29-of-36 Passes for 354 Yards, with Three Touchdowns and an Interception, while the aforementioned Gurley rushed for 105 Yards and a Touchdown on Twenty-Three Carries in addition to another 51 Receiving Yards on Five Receptions, and the triumvirate of Cooks (7 REC, 90 YDS), Robert Woods (10 REC, 104 YDS, 2 TD), and Cooper Kupp (4 REC, 71 YDS, 1 TD), eviscerating the Chargers’ Secondary. The only negative from that outing was the fact that the win didn’t come at some cost, for the Rams did not leave that affair with a clean bill of health; both aforementioned Cornerbacks Talilb (Ankle) and Peters (Ankle) are labeled as Questionable heading into Thursday Night’s showdown with the Vikings, while Linebacker Mark Barron (Ankle) and Defensive End Dominique Easley (Knee) have earned the same distinction, with Pro Bowl Kicker Greg Zuerlein expected to miss with a groin injury.