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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Breaking down the Vikings’ second-half schedule

By Matthew Coller

At 6-2, the Minnesota Vikings have the second best record in the NFC heading into the second half of the season. The final eight games will include a number of matchups with teams fighting for playoff position. Let’s have a look at their opponents and key factors for the Vikings finishing strong:

Week 10: AT Washington (4-4)

Key factor: Washington’s dinged-up offensive line

Blair Walsh saved Washington’s season with three misses for the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, allowing Kirk Cousins to lead a game-winning drive. Cousins went 21-for-31 with 247 yards despite his team starting TJ Clemmings at left tackle. Whether Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams is back in the lineup by the time the Vikings travel to D.C. could make the difference between a win and a loss. Williams is one of the elite players in the NFL, Clemmings hasn’t changed much since he was cut by the Vikings, allowing three sacks, three hurries and a QB hit on Sunday. With Everson Griffen playing the best football of his career, Washington won’t have a chance to protect Cousins without their starter.

When healthy, Cousins’ group will make for the toughest matchup the Vikings’ defense has faced since Week 2 in Pittsburgh, though Washington is beat up in that area too. Neither Jamison Crowder or Jordan Reed played Sunday vs. Seattle.

Washington’s health could be a deciding factor in Week 10.

Week 11: Los Angeles (6-2)

Key factor: A new Jared Goff

Last season, the Rams’ No. 1 overall pick was one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks, with a rating of 63.6, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. This year – with new weapons like Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins and a top-notch left tackle Andrew Whitworth – Goff has taken a huge step forward. He’s got a 97.9 rating, 13 touchdowns, four interceptions and averages 8.3 yards per attempt. Combined with the effectiveness of running back Todd Gurley, the Rams now sport one of the NFL’s most exciting offenses. Over the last two weeks, they’ve dropped 84 points on the Cardinals and Giants.

The Rams will make for the toughest matchup on the Vikings’ schedule as they now have the NFL’s best point differential at plus-108.

Week 12: AT Detroit (3-4)

Key factor: Recent history

Detroit has been a thorn in the side of the Vikings over the last season-and-a-half. In 2016, the Lions won in overtime at US Bank Stadium, then beat the Vikings on Thanksgiving Day on an interception by Sam Bradford on Minnesota’s final drive. This year, Detroit scored the game-winning touchdown following a Dalvin Cook fumble – a play in which he tore his ACL and was lost for the year.

Detroit hasn’t been playing well lately, losing four of five games heading into Monday Night Football against the Packers. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has only been so-so, with an 89.6 rating and only 6.8 yards per attempt. The Lions shouldn’t be written off yet because their defense is improved and they are getting left tackle Taylor Decker back and still sport a good group of weapons with Golden Tate, Theo Riddick and Marvin Jones.

Week 13: AT Atlanta (4-4)

Key factor: Will the Falcons’ offense get it together?

Following an historically good offensive season, the Falcons have struggled to regain their Super Bowl form. That was especially evident against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, when they only posted 17 points. Atlanta hasn’t been effective running the ball or using their running backs in the passing attack. Running back Tevin Coleman caught just one pass and ran five times for five yards against Carolina. Last year he was a major part of the Falcons’ attack.

This game once looked like one of the hardest on the schedule. Now it appears much more winnable with Atlanta ranking 15th in points per game.

The Falcons will still have several weeks before they have to face the Vikings’ highly-ranked defense. We may see a very different offense by then.

Week 14: AT Carolina (6-3)

Key factor: Panthers’ strong defense

Last year, the Vikings defeated a Panthers team that couldn’t protect Cam Newton and struggled on defense. Well, they still can’t protect Newton and haven’t run the ball effectively, but Carolina has a much better defense. They rank fourth in the NFL in points allowed at 17.9 per game. Julius Peppers is still bringing it with 7.5 sacks and Carolina’s secondary has been much better this season.

In a defensive battle, the Vikings might have the edge as Minnesota’s offense has been much more effective than Carolina’s this year. Newton has 10 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 79.1 rating – and the team just traded away his top receiver. The X Factor might be Christian McCaffrey, who ran 15 times and caught five passes against Atlanta.

Week 15: Cincinnati (3-5)

Key factor: Zimmer vs. Lewis

The Bengals are not a very good team. On Sunday they were stomped by the Jaguars, who sat Leonard Fournette for disciplinary reasons. Andy Dalton’s play has sunk over the past two years. He has just an 86.5 rating and has been sacked 24 times this season – which is more than he was sacked in all of 2014. Running back Joe Mixon hasn’t had the impact the Bengals hoped and AJ Green is Dalton’s only remaining weapon.

The Bengals should be the dead-lock-no-doubt win on the schedule, but they do have a solid defense. They’re ninth in points allowed and second in total yards allowed. But will they still be pushing hard to win meaningless games by Week 15?

Week 16: AT Green Bay (4-3)

Key factor: Will Rodgers return?

Aaron Rodgers insinuated that he could be back before the end of the season if the Packers are still in the playoff race. That will determine whether Week 16 is a huge game for the Vikings or not. If the Packers are so far out that Rodgers isn’t coming back, then they’ll likely be in great shape to win the NFC North. But if Rodgers is back under center, that means we’ve got a race on our hands. It’s also possible that Brett Hundley could make progress by then. In his first three games, the former UCLA quarterback has only 244 yards one touchdown and four interceptions. He’d have to make a lot of progress to be a threat to the Vikings’ defense.

Week 17: Chicago (3-5)

Key factor: Has Mitch Trubisky improved?

The Vikings held down Chicago’s first-round quarterback in their first meeting. Will he take steps forward by Week 17 or will the Bears be in draft mode again by the end of the year? If things go right for the Vikings, they’ll have wrapped up the division and won’t be worrying about Trubisky’s progress, but if the Packers or Lions hang around in the division race, the difference between an easy win and a tough final home game could be if the No. 2 overall selection has shown flashes of greatness.

The post Breaking down the Vikings’ second-half schedule appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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