Pair a scuffling offense with a strong defense against another scuffling offense with a strong defense and what do you get? A game that might be pretty hard to watch, and this Sunday's Falcons-Vikings tilt.
Offensive balance will win the day for these two teams, as well as exceptionally stout performances from the two defenses. I don't expect this to be very high-scoring, but I do anticipate it will be close, and that the game will hinge on whether the Falcons can make fewer mistakes than we're used to seeing from them.
For the Falcons, a win here boils down to one very simple question: Can they pass the ball effectively?
Through woeful receiver performances, Matt Ryan's shaky decision-making and accuracy, Kyle Shanahan's sometimes baffling red zone play calling, and some poor pass protection, the Falcons' passing attack has gone from one of the league's most capable to one that hinges entirely on whether Julio Jones is open or not. Unless Roddy White, Jacob Tamme, Justin Hardy, or someone else can step up, the Falcons will continue to be an offense predicated on the Ryan-to-Julio connection, especially if Devonta Freeman can't go. Against a tough Vikings front seven with an opportunistic secondary, the team can't afford to keep making the same mistakes it has in recent weeks.
Establishing the run would help, and if Freeman's available, that will go a long way. Tevin Coleman's breakaway speed could be a factor against Minnesota, but he wasn't finding a ton of room to run and was a little too indecisive against the Colts, who have an inferior run defense. The Falcons probably can't pass 50 times and win, though, so someone has to tote the rock effectively to give Matt Ryan some breathing room.
Defensively, everything depends on whether the Falcons can be one of the few teams to slow down Adrian Peterson. Their run defense has been nothing short of stellar this year, so I'm not going to bet against them, but Peterson is virtually a lock for at least a couple of nice, bruising runs, even so. Putting Teddy Bridgewater or Shaun Hill in a situation where they must pass plays into the Falcons' hands, given the so-so nature of that passing game and the team's strong secondary, but getting Mike Wallce or Stefon Diggs against Jalen Collins could be an issue. After a couple of down weeks, the rookie needs to rebound here.
Oh, and please don't let Bridgewater or Hill take off for first downs. Getting really tired of that.
Execution remains the theme of the day, though. The Falcons have been repeatedly close with sloppy, error-filled games, so getting the offense in particular and the defense to a lesser extent clicking is key.
Offensively, if Minnesota can get Peterson rolling and stick with the ground game throughout, they're already well on their way to winning. Peterson is such a physical, hard-charging back that he wears defenses out, but he's also a threat to break loose for huge gainers. The Falcons can't afford to take the threat lightly, which has ramifications even if he's spinning his wheels most of the game.
Still, a one-dimensional passing game is not what the Vikings want to trot out, here. Bridgewater is an accurate, effective quarterback who killed the Falcons a year ago, but he's not exactly working with a murderer's row of receiving threats, and he's been sacked 30 times. Atlanta's punchless pass rush is kind of an ideal matchup for this offense, and Bridgewater can certainly dink and dunk his way down the field with a couple of deep shots to Stefon Diggs and Mike Wallace along the way. The Vikings would greatly prefer to let Peterson decide this game for them, and they'll make effort to achieve that outcome.
Defensively, the Vikings need to harry, hurry, and hit Matt Ryan, forcing turnovers and bad, drive-killing throws. Ryan's been in a bad way of late, but it's tough to argue with the notion that the entire Falcons' passing attack is in disarray, which should make life relatively easy for a talented, Mike Zimmer-coached defensive front. The only trouble spot is Julio Jones, and the smart money says the Vikings aren't going to be dumb enough to give Xavier Rhodes up to him all game long on a one-on-one basis.
If Devonta Freeman can't go, the Vikings simply have to make sure Tevin Coleman doesn't break any of the long gainers he's very capable of, and focus most of their energies on the passing game. Because Coleman isn't as good at fighting through and dancing around contact (at least not yet), the Vikings don't have to stack up at the line to keep him in check, and I expect they won't bother.
The Vikings, in other words, just need to run effectively and defend the pass to win this one. Atlanta's got to pass effectively, run the ball semi-effectively, stop Adrian Peterson, and not let Bridgewater beat them short and with his legs. It's a winnable game, yes, but I'm not feeling too optimistic right now.