Written by: Joe Carlino (@joecarlino14) and Rance Gardner (@Rance_NFL)
The Atlanta Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings face off from US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis to kick off their respective 2019 campaigns of the “NFL100” season. Both teams missed the playoffs last year, leaving some people to wonder about if one, both, or neither will make the playoffs and have a shot at representing the NFC in Miami this February. In this article, Blitzalytics’ beat writers Joe Carlino (Falcons) and Rance Gardner (Vikings) take a look at each positional group, determining who has the advantage and who will leave Week One with a critical NFC victory.
RG: Kirk Cousins is on a redemption mission. After signing a fully guaranteed $84-million deal last spring, Cousins looks to improve on what most would consider "let down" year despite throwing for 30 TDs and only 10 interceptions. Kirk is an extremely accurate QB with a big arm; if the protection is sound around him, he will have a career year. With that being said, I would give the edge to the Falcons in this positional group because of Ryan's MVP award and Super Bowl appearance. Advantage: Atlanta
JC: I won’t deny the VIkings have a more competent quarterback now than they did in Case Keenum. However, I still don’t think Cousins is worth the $84-million price tag he signed last year since he really hasn’t proven anything. Atlanta, meanwhile, has an MVP-caliber quarterback in Matt Ryan who has a more extensive history in this league, along with a team that will go to bat for him no matter the occasion. Not only that, but Cousins hasn’t beaten Atlanta before; last time they played, he threw a pick-six in overtime to now former Falcon Robert Alford. Advantage: Atlanta
RG: The Vikings run game struggled last season due to poor line play and injuries. Those woes seem to be a thing of the past. I expect Dalvin Cook to explode onto the scene showing he is one of the top 5 talents at running back in the NFL. The Vikings depth is also a major strength. Rookie Alexander Mattison has looked phenomenal this preseason and can fill in for Cook when needed. I will give the Vikings the edge here due to Cook's game-changing explosiveness. Advantage: Minnesota
JC: Atlanta lost Tevin Coleman to free agency, yet apparently have found his replacement in Pitt back Qadree Ollison, who’s roughly the same size as he was. Meanwhile, the unit also gets Devonta Freeman back from an IR season, so he’s going to be hungry for some real football guaranteed. This is actually a matchup where both starting backs are former products of FSU, and both coincidentally have also been on IR before. Dalvin Cook made headlines with an 85-yard touchdown run against Arizona in the preseason, so if his explosiveness shows up, it’ll be good for the Vikings. Whichever team’s ground attack can successfully open up play-action will be the X-factor in this matchup.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
RG: The Vikings are blessed with 2 of the game's best WRs. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen both caught 100 balls and had over 1000 yards each. Thielen broke several receiving records last year and proved he is a top 5 talent at the position. WR3 remains a question for the Vikings. The Vikings TE group is one of the strongest in the league. Kyle Rudolph is a great receiving threat all over the field and rookie Irv Smith looks like the change of pace tight end the Vikings offense needed. I'm giving the Vikings the edge here because, while the top 2 WRs for both sides are great, the Vikings TE group is better. Advantage: Minnesota
JC: This section might be the hardest because it generates a lot of conversation in the NFL fandom: which group has the best receiving core? It’s no secret that Minnesota has a very good tandem in Thielen and Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph is no slouch either in the passing game. Meanwhile, Atlanta has the best receiver in football in Julio Jones, two very good supporting receivers in Sanu and Ridley, and an up-and-coming tight end in Austin Hooper. Both these squads, to my estimation, can’t definitively claim an advantage here over the other. Advantage: Even
RG: The Vikings Achilles’ heel last season was their awful offensive line. Adding Garrett Bradbury and Josh Kline to the starting unit should help improve the unit. Pat Elflein was moved from center to left guard and has not been impressive from what we've seen so far. Adding a new offensive line coach and Kubiak's zone blocking scheme will help the run game. I still have questions about pass protection. I'm giving the Falcons the edge here until I see the Vikings protecting Cousins consistently. Advantage: Atlanta
JC: Atlanta’s pass protection unit last year made Matt Ryan endure the second-most sacks in his career. Surprisingly, all he did behind that was nearly duplicate his MVP season in almost every single major category. Atlanta decided to focus on the line in the draft, selecting Chris Lindstrom out of Boston College and Kaleb McGary out of Washington. McGary is still in a battle for the RT position, and the LG spot is still open for competition as well. Both sides are even here going into Week One. Advantage: Even
RG: The Vikings have one of the best defensive lines in football. Danielle Hunter is a monster and rising young star, while Linval Joseph is one of the most dominant lane clogging DTs around. Everson Griffen had an off year last season due to some personal issues but looks ready to return to his QB harassing ways. The depth on the defensive line is much better than in recent years as well.
JC: This particular group is where I personally believe the advantage is more cut and dry entering 2019 than any other. While Atlanta did re-sign Grady Jarrett (much deserved), they just haven’t consistently generated enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to really make them feel uncomfortable in the pocket. Conversely, Minnesota has a strong defensive line, led by Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffin, who are both coming off strong seasons in which they registered at least 5.0 sacks off the edge. I also can’t deny Linval Joseph on the inside; he can pressure opposing QBs as well. Advantage: Minnesota
RG: Anthony Barr's decision to return to the Vikings in free agency was a huge victory for this defense. Barr is versatile and has been a huge part of the defense's success. One bad game last season against the LA Rams won't define Barr; he makes plays all over the field every week. Eric Kendricks is the team's leading tackler and his chemistry with Barr makes the duo one of the league's best. Add rotation players like Eric Wilson and Ben Gideon, and you've got a very talented unit.
JC: I won’t deny the talent that Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks possess in the Vikings’ linebacker unit; when they play hard-nosed, they’re some of the best. That said, Atlanta’s unit just seems more cohesive than Minnesota because the IQ between Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and Foyesade Oluokun is very impressive. That said, Atlanta does still have an Achilles’ heel in this unit until I see otherwise, and that’s Duke RIley. However, from what’s coming out of Atlanta, he’s much improved. Let’s see if it transfers over. Advantage: Atlanta
RG: The Vikings continue their defensive dominance in this group as well. Harrison Smith is the most underappreciated player in the NFL and is one of the league's top safeties, while Xavier Rhodes is a top corner, with guys like Anthony Harris, Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes and Mack Alexander rounding out an extremely good secondary. Mike Zimmer's pass defense should be one of the best again this season.
JC: The last time these squads met up, VIkings corner Xavier Rhodes shadowed Julio throughout the contest, effectively neutralizing his ability to take over a game. Also, Harrison Smith is one of the best safeties in football, consistently providing necessary coverage in deep thirds or Cover Five (22 Man). Meanwhile, Atlanta’s secondary was decimated in the back end last year, so I have my reservations about their performance on Sunday. Advantage: Minnesota
RG: There may be no bigger question mark on the Vikings than the special teams units. The Vikings brought back Dan Bailey and will go into the season with him as the starter. The Kaare Vedvik experiment failed and cost the Vikings a draft pick in the process. On a positive note, signing Britton Colquitt should improve the Vikings’ punting game.
JC: The Falcons recently brought back Matt “Money” Bryant following an offseason in which the team cut him to save cap space, tried going young with Giorgio Tavecchio, signed Blair Walsh when he struggled, then finally said enough and brought him back. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s kicking game is still confusing to me, as I can’t make heads or tails of what they’re trying to accomplish here. Advantage: Atlanta
RG: I'll keep this one short and sweet. Mike Zimmer has been a great coach but hasn't gotten the Vikings over the hump yet. Meanwhile, Dan Quinn has led the Falcons to a Super Bowl berth.
JC: As a head coach, Mike Zimmer is undefeated against the Falcons, and it’s possible this might be the most talented squad he’s ever faced. Meanwhile, Dan Quinn is two years removed from that Super Bowl loss and just became the defensive playcaller, so there’s more eyes on him now than ever before. I’m giving Atlanta the edge here just because there’s more pedigree in this unit than Minnesota, but this one might be the closest out of all the categories. Advantage: Atlanta
RG: The Vikings will have an opportunity to put up some points at home in Week One. Kirk Cousins should have a day with all his weapons healthy and a new zone blocking scheme. The Minnesota defense will slow Atlanta enough to keep the pace in the Vikings favor.
Prediction: Minnesota 24, Atlanta 20
JC: A close contest is going down in Minnesota for sure. Whether or not Atlanta can rip the hearts out of Vikings fans again in the frozen tundra is still up for debate. I think Minnesota will contend for their division, but they’re going to be facing a very hungry Falcons team that competes in the best and most competitive division in the NFL. Prediction: Falcons 26, Vikings 22