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Falcons vs. Vikings: Third down will be 'strength vs. strength'; 5 other things to know

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- All week, Falcons coach Dan Quinn has referred to his team's upcoming game against the Minnesota Vikings as "a hell of a fight." On paper, that certainly looks to be the case.


The Vikings (9-2) are projected to be the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, while the Falcons (7-4) have won three straight games and are playing at a high level. This game certainly has the look and feel of playoff-caliber matchup, and both teams are well-rounded and have a true identity to how they want to play.

Let's dive into this week's key matchup.

KEY MATCHUP: Falcons' third-down offense vs. Vikings' third-down defense

Since devoting extra time to third-down situations in practice, the Falcons have noticeably improved in that aspect of their game. During their three-game win streak, Atlanta is converting 65.85 percent of its third downs. That rate of success has improved their overall conversion percentage to 48.09, which is the best mark in the NFL.

Their high level of execution will be tested this weekend, as the Vikings boast the league's best third-down defense in the NFL, allowing opponents to convert just 28.47 percent of the time. Minnesota held each of its last two opponents – the Rams and the Lions – to three third-down conversions, so it has continued its dominance in that area of the game against some capable offenses.

"For years, Mike Zimmer and George [Edwards] have had a good pressure package," Quinn said of the Vikings' third-down defense. "That's one of the calling cards they're known for, and that's certainly true where one look can mean a number of different things. We'll have our work cut out for us. We love our matchups too, and the way we like to go attack and the way we want to play. That's one of the topics we're talking about on strength versus strength."

With these two teams being so evenly matched in many aspects, the ability to win on third down could likely end up being the determining factor.

Five more things to know about Falcons-Vikings 1. Xavier Rhodes won't be intimidated by Julio

Fresh off of a 253-yard, two-touchdown performance – the third 250-yard game of his career – Julio Jones reminded everyone across the country why he is one of the most dominant players in the NFL. Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes will likely see a lot of Jones on Sunday, but that's nothing new for fifth-year defender.

Over the first three games of the season, Rhodes shadowed Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown and Mike Evans – a difficult stretch for any cornerback to handle. Against those premier receivers, Rhodes allowed a combined 11 catches for 113 yards and no touchdowns on 21 passes that were thrown into his coverage. 2. Freeman is good to go

After sitting out the last two games and missing nearly all of the Falcons' win against the Cowboys with a concussion, starting running back Devonta Freeman has been given the “all-clear” to return to action. Given the Vikings' prowess on defense, his return couldn't come at a better time. While Tevin Coleman played very well in his absence, carrying the ball 59 times for 223 yards and four touchdowns, the addition of Freeman to the backfield allows for more creativity with each of them.  

"We know both guys are fresh and ready to go, and that's really what you want," Quinn said of his backs. "As we're starting to hit our stride, both of them have unique things, and we'll feature them in the ways that are best for them, but we're pumped to have Free back. He plays so physical, so downhill. Those are the styles of runs that he's known for. Where Tevin gets outside and can make a guy sometimes beat just the leverage on his speed, sometimes Free can break the guys off in man-to-man. They're both a factor in the pass game, so we know what it's like to have them both there. We're really ready for that." 3. A big test for the Falcons' offensive tackles

The Vikings have depth and talent across the board on defense, but their defensive ends may just be a cut above the rest. Everson Griffen is tied for the NFL lead with 12 sacks this season, and he's been held without a sack just once. On the other side of the defensive line is Danielle Hunter, who has six sacks so far in his third NFL season and is coming off a 12.5-sack year.

Quinn said this week he thought the offensive line's performance against the Buccaneers was one of their best this season, and they will need to again play at a high level with a talented defensive line coming to Atlanta.   4. Minnesota has a star receiver of its own

Atop the NFL's receiving yards list heading into Week 13 are two familiar names: Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. Just behind the Falcons' All-Pro receiver, however, is someone who is far from a household name. Adam Thielen has caught 70 passes for 1,005 yards and three touchdowns this season for the Vikings, making him one of just four players with over 1,000 receiving yards at this point and leaving him just 34 yards shy of Jones' total.

Thielen's story is one of the best in the league. He was passed up by every D-I college program in the country, and his only scholarship offer came from D-II program Minnesota State, which extended the offer just two weeks before camp began. Thielen was not drafted when he came out of college in 2013 and accepted a job selling dental equipment before the Vikings extended an invite to try out for the team.

Now, he's a likely Pro Bowler who is the NFL's third-leading receiver, sandwiched between Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins. 5. Vikings have sizeable lead in all-time series

Minnesota has had success against Atlanta in this series history. The Vikings own an 18-11 record head-to-head against the Falcons, and they won the previous two meetings in 2014 and 2015.

In the biggest games, the two teams are split. The Vikings secured a 30-24 victory in the 1983 NFC wild-card game before losing the next week in the division round. Falcons fans remember the other playoff game against the Vikings. In overtime, Morten Anderson drilled a 38-yard field goal to give Atlanta its first Super Bowl berth in franchise history and stun the league's top team on their home turf.

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