Round 2 of the redemption tour takes place today at the Metrodome against the Falcons. I don’t need to remind people what happened the last time the Vikings squared off against Atlanta in a meaningful game – those memories are seared into our minds forever, and the mere mentions of the words “Falcons” and “NFC Title Game” cause uncontrollable Tourette’s-like spasms and cursing. The stakes are slightly lower this time however: It’s only the division title on the line for the Vikes and not a trip to the Super Bowl. And the Falcons also have plenty to play for – with the Cowboys losing last night, the Falcons can put themselves in the driver’s seat for a Wild Card slot.
Atlanta has been perhaps the most shocking team in the league this year – shocking in a good way, unlike past years when activities both around and within the team have tended to stun us for all the wrong reasons. First-year coach Mike Smith deserves kudos for the rehab job he’s done on this team’s psyche in the wake of Michael Vick‘s incarceration and Bobby Petrino‘s weasel-like betrayal. Prognosticators had this team suffering through one of the worst seasons in NFL history in ’08 – instead, Matt Ryan and Michael Turner have come on-board and led the club to a 9-5 record and the cusp of the playoffs. If Smith doesn’t win Coach of the Year, then there shouldn’t be a Coach of the Year award.
All this means nothing to the Vikings of course. All they and their fans want for Christmas is a playoff berth and if getting it means trouncing Atlanta, they’ll be happy to do it. Unfortunately, they’ll have to undertake said trouncing without Pat Williams, who is out 2-6 weeks with a broken shoulder. This weakens the rush defense at a time when it needs to be strongest: Atlanta has the #2 rush offense in the league, just behind the Giants and ahead of the Vikes, and the aforementioned Michael Turner is currently second in the league behind our own Adrian Peterson with 1421 yards. Turner is probably a more solid MVP candidate than AD given his 15 touchdowns (6 more than Peterson’s 9), but voters may perceive Peterson as having had a lesser quarterback supporting him all season. Either way, today’s game will probably decide which of these two backs has the better chance of hoisting MVP hardware come season’s end.
Speaking of hardware…Tarvaris Jackson finally gets to boast some of his own after winning last week’s NFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his scintillating 4 touchdown performance against Arizona. Jackson has been on his own personal redemption tour since coming back in the second half against Detroit, and hopes to continue his fantastic work against a Falcons defense that ranks just 23rd against the pass. The main issue for Jackson will be evading the pass rush of John Abraham who is believed to be fired up after getting passed over for Pro Bowl selection. The quarterback showdown is intriguing to say the least: The stellar rookie Matt Ryan versus the resurgent Jackson. The Vikes have been hard on quarterbacks in recent weeks – just ask Kurt Warner who is probably still aching in every bone of his body – and with any luck that trend will continue against Ryan, who had his second-worst game of the year last week against Tampa.