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What to watch for in Vikings vs. Rams on Thursday

Each year there always seems to be a highly-anticipated, early-season matchup that supposedly will determine the top echelon power struggle between a conference's elite teams.

Thursday's game between the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams is this year's version of Ben Hur meets Rocky vs. Drago with a dash of The Terminator -- it'll be epic, there probably will be a sequel and it takes place in the City of Angels.

Dated cinematic themes aside, this game could very well determine who is the team to beat in the NFC this season. The Rams are the elimination challenge winners of the conference through three weeks, and the Vikings are looking to shatter the stun silence left in the wake of their loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

Here are five things to watch for in the NFC showdown between the Vikings (1-1-1) and Rams (3-0) on Thursday Night Football (airing on FOX, NFL Network and streaming on Amazon Prime Video):

1. How will the Vikings' offense bounce back?

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wasn't the only one shell-shocked by the shellacking Minnesota suffered at the hands of Josh Allen and the Bills last week. The team needs to quickly show that last week's performance was an exception and not a budding trend -- and a win over the Rams would quiet all the Minny naysayers. It has to start with protecting Kirk Cousins.

Mr. Guarantee struggled mightily behind an offensive line that failed to give him adequate protection in the pocket against the Bills, surrendering 29 total pressures and four sacks. The O-line's job should be substantially more challenging against a crack squad of pass rushers who've been instrumental in establishing the Rams as the NFL's sixth-ranked defense heading into Week 4.

To avoid being embarrassed, the Vikings need to limit the turnovers and find success beyond the blah, short passing game that annihilated any chances for a comeback against Buffalo. Cousins needs to show off that $84 million arm and rekindle the long-ball element to his game by testing the Rams' injured-depleted secondary. That means giving Cousins enough time to find Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph in the next level beyond the shaded box.

2. Who will stand up in the Rams' secondary?

It's going to be a while before we see the Rams' dynamic cornerback duo in action. With Aqib Talib out indefinitely after undergoing ankle surgery and Marcus Peters in danger of missing the game (officially questionable) because of a strained calf, the Rams could be vulnerable if Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the pass-rush crew struggle to get to Cousins.

The Rams will lean on Sam Shields and Nickell Robey-Coleman to disrupt Minnesota's passing attack. Lamarcus Joyner should see a busy day patrolling the back end of the defense. With the Vikings struggling to establish their running game through the first three contests, it'll be critical for the Rams to find ways to keep Minnesota's talented wide receivers in check.

Last week, Los Angeles' secondary found a way to keep Philip Rivers and the Chargers' passing game in check even when Talib and Peters left early. While it'll be impossible for the Rams to completely ground the Vikings' passing attack, their overwhelming strength up front could limit the typical damage associated with two starting corners sidelined.

UPDATE: Peters is active for the game.

3. Can Dalvin Cook be a difference-maker?

The running back has yet to burn up the field since his return from a torn ACL that gutted his rookie season. A hamstring injury kept him sidelined against the Bills last week, and there's a chance he could miss Thursday's contest against the Rams -- he's officially questionable.

If he does play, Cook could be the wild card if he's feeling healthy and fast. In his first two games, he was limited to just 78 yards, but the football world got a glimpse of his game-changing abilities last year and he's poised for a breakout game. The Vikings could try to use one since the team's one-dimensional offense played a big role in their struggles against the Green Bay Packers and the Bills.

If Cook can leverage his protectors and find a way to weave through the jaws of the Rams defense and take pressure off the passing game, the Vikings' chances for success would grow substantially.

UPDATE: Cook is active for the game.

4. Are Todd Gurley and Jared Goff unstoppable?

Taming the combination of Todd Gurley and Jared Goff behind one of the best O-lines in football won't be an easy task for the Vikings. L.A. ranks third in total offense (493.3 yards per game), with Gurley and Goff spearheading the potent attack.

Year 2 of the Gurley renaissance has so far yielded 255 yards and four touchdowns in addition to 121 receiving yards. Gurley probably is the undisputed king of offensive utility with Le'Veon Bell in self-imposed exile, and he'll be a handful for a defensive unit that struggled to contain Josh Allen and Chris Ivory last week.

Goff ranks fifth in league passing yards (944) for a team that ranks fifth in passing yards (305.7 yards per game). His talented receiving corps, which includes big-play deep threats in Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp, has the potential to make things very difficult for the Vikings -- especially if the game morphs into a high-octane shootout.

5. Kicker worries?

If we are treated to an early-season classic, will it be determined by a kicker? The Vikings already had to settle for a tie when their kicker blew it against the Packers in Week 2. Their new kicker, ex-Cowboys booter Dan Bailey could endear himself among the Skol-hards if he can reignite the consistency fires that made him a Dallas mainstay for many seasons.

The Rams' kicking situation is murky, too. Greg Zuerlein has been dealing with a groin injury that has kept him out the last two weeks, so it's up to Sam Ficken to lead the special teams charge once again. Ficken has yet to kick a field goal this season -- he missed a 46-yard attempt against the Bolts.

We can only hope that Thursday's titanic NFC struggle will be decided off the toes of a kicker looking either for redemption or seeking a foot in the door to a permanent NFL job.

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