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What to know about the Falcons - Vikings matchup in Week 1

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It’s not going to be an easy one for the Falcons, so let’s get to know the opponent a bit better.

Minnesota Vikings v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The first matchup of the season for Atlanta promises to be one of the most challenging. The Vikings are a team I like, both because Mike Zimmer is a Bobby Petrino-era Falcons survivor and because they have a lot of likeable players, but I’ll be putting that fondness aside this week for a tough battle.

The Vikings, despite the considerable shine on the Matt LaFleur-led Packers and the solid Bears team kicking around near them, should be considered the favorites in the NFC North. They’re at least solid across the board and capable of truly fearsome performances on both sides of the ball, though as you’d expect for a Mike Zimmer-coached team, the defense is nasty. Dirk Koetter would like to hit the ground running with a retooled rushing attack featuring a bunch o’ backs and a new offensive line, and Matt Ryan would love to start burnishing his MVP case early by passing all over a very good secondary. Chances are at least one of those things won’t quite happen, however.

Here’s a closer look at how these two teams stacked up in 2018, the key additions the Vikings made, and what you should expect from this game more broadly.

2018 ranks & records

Falcons - Vikings 2018 Rankings

Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Point Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Allowed
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Point Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Allowed
Falcons 7-9 10 6 4 27 25 28 27 25 20 7
Vikings 8-7-1 19 20 13 30 9 4 3 15 16 16

It’s like looking in a mirror! The Falcons were a borderline great offense—their injury-riddled running back corps and offensive line dragged them down—but horrendous on defense. The Vikings, with an injury to Dalvin Cook causing major problems, were a largely mediocre offense but a borderline elite defense.

Both teams took steps to address those weaknesses—we’ll get to the Vikings in a minute, but the Falcons tried to shore up their offensive line, running back group, and defensive line—but they’re not going to stray that far from their strengths. If anything, the Vikings may run by the ball more often and more effectively with Dalvin Cook looking healthy and electric again, but their defense is still the big calling card, and it’s one the Falcons have had trouble getting past in recent seasons.

How the Vikings have changed

They started the offseason by losing veteran RB Latavius Murray, churning a shaky offensive line by letting guards Mike Remmers and Tom Compton walk, and losing beefy veteran DT Tom Johnson. Holton Hill got popped for an eight game suspension, as well.

They added guards Josh Kline and Dakota Dozier and center Brett Jones to beef up their offensive line depth, with Kline expected to start at right guard. Their draft class brought them several interesting players, including promising TE Irv Smith and RB Alex Mattison, and used their first pick (after missing out on Chris Lindstrom, per some reports) on center Garrett Bradbury to further rebuild the line. That focus on the trenches and added interesting complementary pieces to a good set of playmakers ought to get the Vikings in the top half of the league in yardage, scoring and efficiency, assuming everyone stays healthy. The line still isn’t great, but like the Falcons’ it looks much better than it did a year ago.

The team also made a couple of trades, including an ill-fated one for kicker/punter Kaare Vedvik, who flamed out and ended up on the Jets. The latest, for interesting rookie CB Mark Fields, likely won’t bear immediate fruit but does give them yet another promising defensive back to mold. Mike Zimmer loves those.

Overall, you’d be hard pressed to argue the Vikings got worse.

What should you know about this game?

It’s going to be difficult to win it. The Vikings were not impossible to run against by any stretch of the imagination, but they have an agile, physical front seven and Harrison Smith is a bully in run support. They were one of the best teams in the NFL against the pass for a reason, and if this rebuilt offensive line isn’t up to the task on Sunday, they’re going to make Matt Ryan’s day annoying at the very least. Fortunately, Atlanta has the raw talent to avoid putting up the kind of 9 point dud they managed the last time these two teams met.

The other side of the coin here is that this Vikings team will quietly be a very good test of the new Falcons defense. Kirk Cousins is a guy I tend to think is chronically overrated—he’s certainly good, but he makes a lot of questionable decisions for a guy who has gotten elite buzz over the last couple of years—but Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are extremely difficult matchups. The biggest question of all probably concerns the new defensive front seven, where the Falcons added multiple players known for their run-stopping acumen. They’ll be tested early and often by Dalvin Cook, who looks completely healthy and is one of my favorite backs in the NFL at the moment.

Winning what should be a close slugfest might come down to a kicking battle, and fortunately the Vikings have some sort of ancient Nordic curse on their kicking game and the Falcons have a well-rested Matt Bryant. If it comes to it, we know how this one will end.

Overall, what you really need to know is that the Falcons will only have a small handful of games tougher than this one, if indeed they play any. It’s rough to start your season off on the road against a team that’s tough to beat, but we’ll get a very good sense of this Falcons team and whether all those offseason changes amount to anything in this one matchup.