Kirk Cousins and Josh Doctson saved the Washington Redskins‘ season with their heroics against Seattle last Sunday, getting the team to 4-4 before a huge home showdown against the 6-2 Minnesota Vikings.
Considering the Redskins’ schedule still has matchups against New Orleans and Dallas, it’s important to get to 5-4 in the tight NFC. With the Packers reeling and Bears all but finished, the Vikings don’t have the same pressure, but they have the Rams, Lions, Falcons and Panthers the next four weeks, so things aren’t getting easier anytime soon. Here’s five bold predictions for Sunday’s 1 p.m. Eastern kickoff between the Vikings and Redskins.
1. Vikings’ rushing attack will sustain the offense
Without Dalvin Cook? Yes, you read that correctly. Shockingly, the Vikings rank ninth in the NFL in rushing. Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have done just enough behind an improved offensive line to give the Vikings balance on offense. Washington is league average against the run, but could be playing without Matt Ioannidis and newly-signed Arthur Jones after losing stud rookie John Allen for the season a few weeks ago.
Ioannidis and Jones did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday, and the Redskins can’t afford to lose many more bodies in what was already one of their thinnest position groups on the roster. The Vikings could be without Mike Remmers, who hasn’t practiced this week with a concussion, but McKinnon’s ability to create as a runner this year has helped offset the occasional concern up front. I think he’ll do enough to keep the Vikings’ offense balanced against a Washington defense that has played better football than expected this season.
2. Ryan Kerrigan will get the first sack of his career against Minnesota
In five career matchups against the Vikings, Kerrigan has never recorded a sack despite being one of the more consistent pass rushers in the NFL. That will change Sunday, when the Redskins top pass rusher faces a beat-up right tackle for the Vikings. With Remmers already not practicing, one of the backups — Jeremiah Sirles — also failed to participate on Wednesday or Thursday, which could throw an interesting conundrum at head coach Mike Zimmer.
Rashod Hill would likely start his first NFL game if Remmers can’t go, not the matchup Minnesota wants for a right tackle’s first big shot. Kerrigan is a big-game player and knows the importance of a victory in this contest for Washington, which must get to 5-4 in a competitive NFC wild-card race.
3. Washington’s corners will win the battle vs. Viking receivers
The tape may tell another story, but in the box score, I can’t see either Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs taking over this game. Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland have played well this season, and while both are beatable, I’m not sure Case Keenum can take advantage of the few miscues they may make.
Diggs’ production has stalled after a hot start, with five catches for 31 yards in the past four weeks, a timespan that includes two games the receiver missed with injury. Thielen has been steady, and he’ll probably get his catches, but I would expect Washington to get home with pressure frequently, which could make life tough on the Minnesota passing attack.
4. Strong secondaries will take away the splash plays
Washington has 32 passing plays of 20 yards or more this season, good for sixth in the NFL, while Minnesota has managed the same feat 28 times, tied for 10th. Both teams rely on big plays despite not having traditionally strong-armed quarterbacks, which is a credit to their offensive coordinators taking advantage of certain defensive looks. Those schematic advantages won’t be as plentiful in this game, especially for Washington.
Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes are among the top three players at their positions in the league. Minnesota has been outstanding at taking away splash plays in the passing game all season, giving up only 16 20-plus-yard completions and two 40-plus-yard completions, the first and third-best marks in the league, respectively.
Washington has been leakier defensively, giving up 30 plays of 20 yards or more and five of 40 or more. The return of DeAngelo Hall at safety made a big difference last week, and Montae Nicholson is coming into his own as a rookie. With Josh Norman back healthy, you’ll see a group headed in the right direction over the coming weeks, giving up far fewer big plays down the field.
5. Take the under
I like the defenses in this game, particularly with both offensive lines beaten up and each team’s defense getting healthy at the right time (except for Washington’s defensive line of course). Half of Washington’s pass catchers were limited in practice on Wednesday, and even if they do play, Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder and even Brian Quick won’t be fully healthy.
These are two of the most physical, nasty defenses in the NFL. Both teams have the pass rushers to make life miserable for opposing offensive tackles, of which there could be three or even four in this game. It’ll be a very tight contest, but low-scoring and very defense-oriented.