After Green Bay ruled the NFC North division for five of the past six seasons, the Minnesota Vikings are in the midst of staging a hostile takeover.
Under coach Mike Zimmer, the former Falcons defensive coordinator in 2007, the Vikings opened the season 2-2 before ripping off seven straight wins.
The Falcons (7-4) play the Vikings (9-2) in a big NFC game with playoff implications at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Case Keenum, an undrafted player who set NCAA records at Houston, has helped to stabilize the quarterback position after Sam Bradford went down with a knee injury and has started just two games. Teddy Bridgewater, the 2014 first-round pick and one-time starter, has returned from a severe knee injury that cost him all of 2016 and has been active for the past two games but remains behind Keenum.
Keenum, who’s with his third NFL team, has played well and has the Vikings averaging 27.4 points over the seven-game winning streak.
“He’s a good mover,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “He has over 100 yards rushing. He’s able to convert third downs on a scramble or get outside of the pocket and convert plays.”
Keenum, who started his career with the Texans (2013-14) and played for the Rams (2015-16), has completed 218 of 330 passes (66.1 percent) for 2,476 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions this season. He has a passer rating of 96.2.
He has formed a bond with wide receiver Adam Thielen, who has 70 catches for 1,005 yards and three touchdowns.
Keenum’s also using wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who has 40 catches for 598 yards and five touchdowns, and tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has 46 catches for 429 yards and five touchdowns.
Before this 7-2 run as a starter, Keenum had a 9-15 record as a starter with the Texans and the Rams. He was signed as backup insurance to a one-year $2 million deal.
“They are really equipped for throwing it,” Quinn said. “He can get out of the pocket to scramble and convert that way. We do have regard for how they are moving the ball offensively with the tight end, the backs and the receivers.”
Some contend Keenum’s one bad showing away from being yanked for Bridgewater, the team’s franchise quarterback. But he’s set to start against the Falcons.
“He has good feature receivers and he knows how to use them and the tight end,” Quinn said. “I’m not surprised. The guy is really smart and very athletic.
“He can get outside and create plays. He certainly has a fearless mentality as a quarterback. Those are the quarterbacks that are ready to go and are ready to take it on. I respect that a lot about him.”
The Vikings have a nice combination at running back in Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon, the former Sprayberry High and Georgia Southern standout. Murray has rushed 130 times for 496 yards and five touchdowns. McKinnon has rushed 106 times for 390 yards and three touchdowns.
Dalvin Cook, the Vikings’ first-round pick, suffered a season-ending knee injury after just four games.
The Vikings losses were the Pittsburgh 26-9 on Sept. 17 in Week 2 and 14-7 to Detroit in Week 4.
In the last two meetings with the Falcons, Minnesota cornerback Xavier Rhodes has shut down Falcons two-time All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones.
While in coverage against Jones on four targets, Rhodes held him to two catches for 27 yards in the 41-28 loss on Sept. 28, 2014. Jones finished with eight catches for 82 yards overall.
In that game, quarterback Matt Ryan was poorly protected after injuries to left guard Justin Blalock (back), center Joe Hawley (knee) and right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot). Tackle Sam Baker was already gone for the season. The Falcons were left with a starting line of (left to right) Jake Matthews, Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, Jon Asamoah and Levine Toilolo, a tight end playing right tackle.
It was Bridgewater’s first NFL start and he passed for 317 yards against the Falcons’ defense. McKinnon rushed for 135 yards and caught a pass for 17 yards for the Vikings.
In 2015, the Vikings elected to have Rhodes shadow Jones in the Georgia Dome for portions of the game. Jones was targeted seven times and caught five passes for 56 yards in the 20-10 loss on Nov. 29. Adrian Peterson rushed 29 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns for the Vikings.
Jones had just two catches for 18 yards with Rhodes in coverage.
“Julio is Julio,” Rhodes told Minnesota reporters on Monday. “Big, fast, physical, can get the ball once it’s in the air. I don’t think he has a weakness. He’s focused, doesn’t talk much on the field, so it’s hard to get in his head. It’s Julio.”
Rhodes, who played at Florida State and was a first-round pick (25th overall) in 2013, since the meeting with Jones in 2015 has regularly shadowed the opposition’s top receiver. He earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season and is having another stellar season.
“A lot of spots where they are strong, we’re strong,” Quinn said. “It’s a cool matchup because a lot of the strengths are strengths (for both teams).”