MINNESOTA VIKINGS (5-2) AT CLEVELAND BROWNS (0-7)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 a.m., Twickenham Stadium (London).
SERIES HISTORY: 15th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 10-4. The teams have never played at a neutral site. The Vikings are 2-4 against the Browns on the road. In their last meeting, Week 3 of the 2013 season, the Vikings were winless but still heavy favorites against the Browns at the Metrodome. The Browns won 31-27, sending the Vikings off to London to play the Steelers in a matchup of 0-3 teams.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Vikings want to keep it simple. Protect Case Keenum’s blind side from rookie phenom Myles Garrett (if he plays), run the ball, stop the run, don’t turn the ball over and head into the bye with a 6-2 record and first place in the NFC North.
The quarterback the Browns throw at the Vikings won’t have a chance as long as the Vikings’ third-ranked run defense plays the way it did in slamming the door on the Baltimore Ravens last week. Once the Browns’ 25th-ranked running game is snuffed out, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer can turn his playmakers loose with his creative third-and-long packages.
For the Browns, the best way to cut down on turnovers is by using a dink-and-dunk passing game. Running back Duke Johnson is a key component to making that strategy work. He can float out of the backfield, catch a short pass over the middle and add another 15 or 20 yards with elusive running.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Vikings RB Jerick McKinnon vs. Browns MLB Joe Schobert. The Vikings split the running back duties between McKinnon and Latavius Murray with Dalvin Cook (knee) on injured reserve. Schobert, second on the Browns with 56 tackles, will have his hands full.
–Browns TE David Njoku vs. Vikings SS Jayron Kearse. Njoku, a rookie first-round draft pick, continues to improve. He has learned to use his big body to screen out defenders. Once he gets his hands on the ball, he usually hauls it in. Vikings starting safety Andrew Sendejo is suspended. Njoku could have an edge on Kearse.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Vikings FS Harrison Smith. Smith has three interceptions in the past four games. Two weeks ago, he had 1 1/2 sacks and an interception in the win over the Green Bay Packers. He had a quieter game against the Ravens last week, but that’s more because of how much pressure the Vikings were able to apply with the front four. Facing a bad team with inexperience at quarterback is a recipe for Smith to do some of his best work when it comes to disguising coverages and blitz packages.
FAST FACTS: Vikings QB Case Keenum has eight TD passes and two interceptions for a 94 passer rating in his past seven games on the road. … RB Latavius Murray rushed for 113 yards and a TD in Week 7. He also had 139 rushing yards and a TD in his last meeting against the Browns on Sept. 27, 2015 with Oakland. … DE Everson Griffen had two sacks and a forced fumble in Week 7. He has a sack in all seven games this season and is the sixth player since 1982 with sacks in each of his team’s first seven games. He also has five sacks and a forced fumble in the past four games on the road. He’s aiming for his third game in a row on the road against an AFC opponent with two-plus sacks. … Browns rookie QB DeShone Kizer is one of five QBs with 125-plus rushing yards (126) and two-plus rushing TDs (2). … RB Isaiah Crowell has 562 scrimmage yards (93.7 per game) and four rushing TDs in his past six games against NFC opponents. … LB Christian Kirksey had a career-high 17 tackles and a forced fumble in Week 7. He has 27 tackles (13.5 per game) in the past two games. He’s tied for fourth in the NFL with 59 tackles.
PREDICTION: The Browns probably should have won last week but made as many mistakes as they had to for the Titans to pull it out in OT. The Vikings’ rush line turns it loose against an opponent missing its best O-lineman in Joe Thomas and leads them to a 6-2 record at midseason.
OUR PICK: Vikings, 23-13.
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