After missing the playoffs last season, both the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons are eager for the chance to bounce back in 2019.
The quest to return to prominence in the NFC begins on Sunday, when the Vikings host the Falcons in Minneapolis.
Two seasons ago, Minnesota went 13-3 and memorably reached the NFC Championship Game. In 2016, Atlanta nearly won the Super Bowl before another postseason appearance in 2017. However, each took a step back in 2018, with the Vikings going 8-7-1 and the Falcons a dismal 7-9.
Meaning, both teams should be amped to better those respective performances from last season.
"It will be a good test," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said at his Wednesday press conference. "I think Atlanta is a good football team and well coached. Hopefully, we are too. I think it's going to be a really good football game."
A successful season for Minnesota could depend on how Year 2 in town for Kirk Cousins and the offense goes. Now, with full-time coordinator Kevin Stefanski's zone-scheme system, with help from adviser Gary Kubiak, in place.
Cousins became the first quarterback in league history last season to throw for at least 4,000 yards (4,298) and complete 70 percent of his passes (70.1) with at least 30 touchdowns and 10 or fewer interceptions (he hit the last two figures exactly). However, Minnesota's offense was inconsistent and held to 10 points or fewer four times.
Cousins still has arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who combined for 215 receptions, 2,394 yards and 18 touchdowns. Diggs, however, did not practice Wednesday due to a hamstring issue and will be monitored.
The overall key for Minnesota, though, could be running back Dalvin Cook, healthy again after playing just 15 games in his first two seasons -- rushing for 969 yards.
Defensively, the Vikings feature essentially the same faces from a unit that ranked fourth in the NFL allowing 309.7 yards per game.
"Every year is a new year," Zimmer said. "I think you go in with everything the same. Hopefully, we approach things with a chip on our shoulder and out to prove something."
Atlanta also has plenty of star power, beginning with quarterback Matt Ryan, who has thrown for at least 4,000 yards in eight straight seasons and had 35 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 2018. As Julio Jones (113 catches, 1,677 yards, eight TDs in 2018) nears a new contract, he's still Ryan's top option, with Calvin Ridley looking to build on a rookie season that featured a team-leading 10 TD catches.
With Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco, the Falcons' backfield belongs to Devonta Freeman. He needs to stay healthy, however, after playing just two games in 2018 because of knee, foot and groin injuries, the last of which ended his season.
Injuries also hindered an Atlanta defense that ranked 25th in average points allowed (26.4) and 28th in yards allowed (384.5) last season. However, coach Dan Quinn is now coordinating that group and has key contributors in linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal healthy after they combined to play seven games last season because of injuries.
"Preseason-wise, we focused on getting better and closer, and I certainly think we made a lot of strides on that," Quinn said this week. "But, you don't rush that process. You keep battling through it, and keep getting better."
Minnesota has won three in a row against the Falcons, most recently, 14-9 at Atlanta in 2017.
--Field Level Media