The St. Louis Rams will host the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon in a game that, believe it or not, has major postseason implications.
Both teams have had their share of struggles in 2012, but neither is eliminated from playoff contention. In fact, with a loss this week from Chicago, the winner of this game would actually have a very realistic shot of playing in January.
Football is the consummate team game. And with a paucity of superstars on both rosters, it could be argued that these are two of the most exemplary teams in football.
But there are still a number of individual matchups that will help determine Sunday's all-important outcome. Let's examine a few of them:
RT Phil Loadholt vs. DE Chris Long
Precocious rookie Matt Kalil will likely see a lot of Robert Quinn, who rushes from the left side of St. Louis's defense. That leaves mercurial Phil Loadholt with the unenviable task of blocking Chris Long.
Minnesota's offensive line has earned approbation all year long, and much of it has been well-deserved. Adrian Peterson's comeback has been nothing short of miraculous, but he's also been aided by some of the best run blocking in the league.
Against the pass, however, the Vikings have been a little bit more susceptible.
According to Football Outsiders, they rank 22nd in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 7.2 percent. That could be inauspicious against a Rams defensive line that Football Outsiders subsequently ranks sixth in the league rushing the passer.
Chris Long is a big reason for that success. The fifth-year player from Virginia has enjoyed a breakout campaign for St. Louis, ranking as the sixth-best pass rusher in the league among 4-3 defensive ends (h/t ProFootballFocus).
Loadholt has been above average in pass protection, but he's hardly been special. If he's not able to keep Chris Long away from Christian Ponder, it could be a long day for the Vikings' offense.
Vikings Secondary vs. WR Chris Givens
Chris Givens has been a revelation of sorts in recent weeks. After a slow start to the season, he's racked up either 70 yards or a touchdown (or both) five times in the past seven weeks. And even in a letdown game against Buffalo last week, Givens still saw the ball thrown his way 10 times.
With ESPN.com's Chris Mortensen reporting that Danny Amendola will play, Givens will be relegated to the role of No. 2 receiver for the Rams. That, however, could make him even more important.
In general, the Vikings are nothing special defending the pass. But they're particularly weak against opposing No. 2 receivers: According to Football Outsiders, they rank 30th in the NFL.
Givens has proven himself capable of burning opposing defenses the past seven games. If the Vikings eschew the responsibility of covering, he could make them pay.
RB Adrian Peterson vs. LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Chris Long versus Phil Loadholt is close, but this is clearly the most lopsided matchup on the list.
There are few words left to describe the greatness of Adrian Peterson. His week-to-week dominance has reached the death-and-taxes strata of inevitability. There's no way to stop him, but if St. Louis wants to stand a chance, they'll need to contain him.
That's where Dunbar comes in.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dunbar is the only one of the Rams' starting linebackers who's a plus run defender. The unit as a whole is pretty good, ranking eighth against the run in Football Outsiders' rankings, but a lot of that supports has come from linemen like Michael Brockers or safeties like Quintin Mikell.
But Adrian Peterson is too fast for the likes of Brockers, and too strong for the likes of Mikell. If the Rams are gonna successfully contain AD, it's gonna be on the second level. And their best chance on the second level is Dunbar.
If he's not up to the task, Peterson could dictate the tempo of the game.