Raise your hand if, back in August, you thought the St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings would be playing a mid-December game with postseason implications.
Doesn't matter. Whether it makes sense or not, the Vikings (7-6) and Rams (6-6-1) will square-off this weekend in a game that could drastically alter the NFC wild-card picture.
Both teams faced similar tests last weekend too, and both teams passed impressively. What's more, they both did so as underdogs.
Minnesota defended home turf against the division-rival Bears, withering down the vaunted Midway defense with a steady diet of Adrian Peterson. The Rams, meanwhile, took their show on the road—winning a nail-biter in Buffalo thanks to a last-minute touchdown catch by Brandon Gibson.
With the Bears and Giants now sitting at 8-5, Minnesota and St. Louis both find themselves well within striking distance of a playoff berth. Whoever wins on Sunday will be one step closer to reaching that quixotic goal. Whoever loses can start booking vacations for the weekend after New Year's.
Let's take a look at what to expect:
When: Sunday, Dec. 16th – 1:00 p.m. ET
Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis, Mo.
Watch: Fox (Check local listings)
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Spread: St. Louis -3 (via VegasInsider.com – LVH)
The Rams got jobbed by the NFL this year, sacrificing a home game to play—and get thoroughly spanked by—the Patriots in London. Which is a shame since they've quietly fashioned one of the best home-field advantages in the league.
Aside from one no-show against the Jets (which
my wallet I still haven't forgiven them for), the Rams have yet to play a bad game in St. Louis this year. They've played the Packers close for 60 minutes, and clawed-out wins over Seattle and San Francisco.
That could portend doom for the Vikings, who are 1-5—both straight-up and against the spread—outside of Minnesota.
Then again. The Vikings have played nine dome games this year, posting an impressive 7-2 record in those contests. One of those losses came on a short week vs. the Bucs; the other was a modest three-point loss at Indy.
Personally, I would pass. But if I had to wager, I would do what I always do with teams this even:
Take the points and pray.
Over/Under: 38.5 (via VegasInsider.com – LVH)
It's a low number, sure, but it's also one that makes a great deal of sense.
Of the four offensive units in the game—MIN pass, MIN run, STL pass, STL run—the only one that ranks in the top half of the league is, predictably, the Vikings' ground attack (h/t Football Outsiders).
That just so happens to conflict with the highest-rated defensive unit in the game: St. Louis' eighth-ranked rush defense.
The Rams' last two games have both stayed under 30, and the Vikings' last three have all stayed under 40.
Expect more of the same in this one. Take the under.
Minnesota Vikings Injury Report (via USA Today – as of 12/13/12)
|LB Jasper Brinkley||Shoulder||Probable|
|DT Letroy Guion||Shin||Probable|
|G Charlie Johnson||Ankle||Questionable|
|CB Antoine Winfield||Knee||Questionable|
|CB Chris Cook||Arm||Questionable|
St. Louis Rams Injury Report (via USA Today – as of 12/13/12)
|RB Steven Jackson||Foot||Probable|
|LB Mario Haggan||Elbow||Probable|
|S Craig Dahl||Head||Questionable|
|CB Cortland Finnegan||Ankle||Questionable|
|LB James Laurinaitis||Back||Questionable|
|C Scott Wells||Knee||Questionable|
|TE Mike McNeill||Thigh||Questionable|
|WR Danny Amendola||Foot||Questionable|
Fantasy Big Plays
Minnesota Vikings: RB Adrian Peterson
As alluded to earlier, Sunday will be a strength vs. strength battle between the Vikings' ground attack and the Rams' rush defense.
So, no: It's not exactly an ideal matchup for the league's leading rusher. But then again...this is Adrian Peterson we're talking about.
The Vikings won't be scared to—wait for it!—ram the ball down St. Louis' throat. Especially coming off a game where they pushed around Football Outsiders' fifth-ranked rush defense, the Bears. Brian Urlacher was missing, sure, but that hardly diminishes the brilliance of Peterson's 100-yard first quarter.
If this game stays close throughout, which all indications seem to say it will, AD should be in store for 30-35 touches.
Play him with confidence, despite the matchup.
St. Louis Rams: WR Chris Givens
Givens came back down to Earth, rather inevitably, against Buffalo. But he remains a viable play in Week 15.
He's put up double-digit fantasy points in three of his last five games, and even in a letdown game against Buffalo, Givens still saw 10 balls come his way.
The Vikings are stout on the ground, but vulnerable through the air; Football Outsiders rates them the seventh-worst pass defense in the league. Perhaps Jeff Fisher dials up a few more passes than he would normally would?
For the rookie out of Wake Forest, huge numbers are anything but a—wait for it!—given. But he's got a favorable matchup and a quarterback who loves throwing him the football.
Those looking for a high-upside play could do much, much worse than that.
Key to Victory: Third Down Passing
Let's call a spade a spade: Both offenses are, on occasion, sights for sore eyes. They like to keep it simple, conservative, banal—which often means sequences of run-run-pass.
When those first two runs result in a first down, it's grand. But when they don't, that third-down pass becomes increasingly important.
Much ado has been made about the Vikings' dominant offensive line, and those plaudits have been well-deserved—on the ground, at least.
In pass protection, they sport an adjusted sack rate of 7.2 percent, placing them around the bottom third of the league (h/t Football Outsiders). That could throw a wrench in their third-down success rate, especially against a Rams front four that ranks sixth in the league rushing the passer (h/t Football Outsiders).
Christian Ponder will need to play much more efficient football than he has in recent weeks.
Whew. This is a tough one.
In basketball, picking games this close is fairly straightforward—go with the best player on the floor. Were that the case, it would be hard not to wager on Adrian Peterson.
But this is football, the consummate team game. And, in my humble opinion, St. Louis is the slightly better team. They rank 2.5 points ahead of the Vikings in Football Outsiders' weighted DVOA—a relatively small margin, but a telling one nonetheless.
Especially when it supplements home-field advantage.
Predicted Score: St. Louis 22, Minnesota 21