For most of this season I have been pretty harsh on the Vikings in my weekly previews. I have made up songs (yes, songs...plural) saying how I just want the season to be over. I assigned Halloween costumes to players and coaches that poked fun at their ineptitude. I created carnival games based on how poor certain players were performing. I have even berated the team using British slang. When your favorite team is 2-8-1 it's much easier to spew out sarcasm and snark thank search for silver linings.
But it's Thanksgiving today. The one day where we all give pause to spend time with our families and appreciate our blessings. (Until 8:00 PM Thanksgiving night when the Black Friday sales inexplicably start and everyone tramples each other to save a few bucks on stuff they don't need, but I digress.) I'll put the usual Vikings nastiness aside for now and take some time to give thanks to three players that might be playing their third-to-last home game in purple on Sunday.
First and foremost, we begin with The Mulleted One himself, Jared Allen. Since joining the Vikings via trade with the Chiefs in 2008, Allen has been nothing short of spectacular. He has been extremely durable; the Vikings have played 91 games since he joined the team and Allen has started every single one of them. He has been extremely productive; Allen has amassed double-digit sacks in every season with Minnesota. He has been extremely charitable; his contributions to the Wounded Warriors Project and other charities are too numerous to list in this space.
And perhaps best of all, Allen has been extremely awesome. He has been the most quotable player on the team from the moment he walked into Winter Park. Allen's play will likely get him to Canton but his hair has already been inducted in the Awesome Hall of Fame. Because it's not just a haircut, it's a lifestyle.
Allen has become a husband and father since joining the team and has shown a maturity in his personal life that was definitely lacking at times in Kansas City. He has avoided trouble in Minnesota outside of the occasional punch to Ray Edwards' junk. The Vikings took a risk by giving him a 6-year, $73 million contract but Allen has earned every dime. He's one of the few players that was actually able to play out an entire long-term NFL contract.
It's no secret that 2013 will likely be Allen's last season with the team. He's still an elite player but he's in the last year of that lucrative deal. Keeping Allen around next year will probably way too expensive for the Vikings, especially since defensive line is one of the few positions where the team actually has some depth. He has been very open in discussing how he has loved his time in Minnesota but it is probably time to move on. I usually disregard former Vikings players when they move onto other teams; that won't happen with Allen. I'll cheer for him wherever he goes (provided that "wherever" means "outside of the NFC North").
Allen probably won't be the only stalwart on the defensive line to part with the team next year. Kevin Williams was the team's first draft pick in 2003, #9 overall. It should have been higher if you remember the draft day debacle, but either way the Vikings claimed that they got their guy. Did they ever. Williams has missed all of five games in his 11-year career. To put that in perspective, he has as many career interceptions as missed games; not bad for a defensive tackle. He's a six-time Pro Bowler and a five-time All-Pro. He was half of the "Williams Wall" with Pat Williams that made it nearly impossible for teams to run up the middle on the Vikings for years. Williams might not be the player he was a few years ago, but he's still one of the best technical D-tackles you'll ever see. During Training Camp this August I marveled at how there were zero wasted movements with Williams; he's brutally efficient.
Williams said on the record that he wants to keep playing football in 2014. Unfortunately that will likely be with another team. Much like Allen has Brian Robison and Everson Griffen to take over for his snaps, Williams has younger players waiting in the wings. Sharrif Floyd, Fred Evans, and Letroy Guion aren't on Williams' level but they're young and should be able to reasonably fill the void left by Williams. The big guy in the middle has never been flashy or flamboyant but he has become a fan favorite simply by being really, really good at his job.
It's going to be hard not seeing #93 and #69 lining up on defense next year. It's easy to understand why both will almost certainly be on other rosters but it will still be tough to see them go. The final player we're giving thanks to today isn't quite as prominent as the first two but he's still a popular one. Toby Gerhart, better known as TOBY SMASH around these parts, is probably the best backup running back in the NFL. If he wasn't playing behind one of the best running backs of all time, he'd at least be platooning on nearly any other team in the league. Gerhart once again proved his talent last week in Green Bay when he almost hit the century mark on only eight carries.
Lots of guys would complain about the lack of playing time. He has averaged less than six touches per game throughout his career, which is a gross under-utilization of someone with his talent. But have we heard even the slightest bit of dissent from Gerhart throughout his four years in Minnesota? Not a peep. He keeps his head down and makes the most of each opportunity he gets. I got to interview him his rookie year and he couldn't have been more friendly or genuine. He'd never be the type to demand leaving for another team, but it almost feels like he deserves another team since he's a free agent in 2014. Some smart team will pick him up next year; that team is going to get one heck of a player.
So here's to Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Toby Gerhart. We raise our Thanksgiving drumsticks to you. I'm sorry the team couldn't send you out on the high note that all three of you deserve, but know that there are a lot of Vikings fans that truly appreciated all the hard work you did for the team.
Thankfully we don't have to say goodbye to them just yet. There are still five (mostly) meaningless games left this season! The Bears are coming to town fresh off a pounding at the hands of the St. Louis Rams. Chicago is missing starting quarterback Jay Cutler, but Josh McCown has filled in very admirably in his absence. So why are Da Bears still sputtering?
For starters, they can't stop the run--at all. They have allowed 432 yards rushing in the past two weeks. The Bears have the worst rated rush defense in the league according to Pro Football Focus. They're the lowest rated overall defense as well. Do I expect Christian Ponder to throw for over 300 yards against Chicago? Of course not. But AP and Gerhart should be able to match or improve upon their impressive output in Green Bay last week.
Ponder might not have a gigantic day but there's certainly potential for McCown to blow up. The Vikings secondary wasn't anything to write home about before they were depleted by injuries and arrests. With A.J. Jefferson off the team after his domestic abuse arrest, the following statement is now true: I have as many career NFL interceptions as every cornerback on the Vikings roster COMBINED. Um, that's not good. The Bears would still rather have Cutler under center but just about any serviceable quarterback should be able to find Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery open early and often.
Has the NFL ever had a game where all kickoffs were squib kicks? Because both teams would be wise to avoid the other's kick returner at all costs. In Week 2 in Chicago, a football game broke out during the kickoff return contest between Cordarrelle Patterson and Devin Hester. I'll still be deathly afraid every time Hester gets the ball on a return, but I'm thankful that Chicago doesn't have a lopsided advantage in special teams for once.
I'm also thankful that the Vikings are still playing hard every week instead of rolling over like other teams around the league (**coughcoughHOUSTONcoughcough**). I'm thankful that Minnesota should be able to pound the rock, control time of possession, and keep their patchwork defense off the field to prevent them from getting exploited too much. I'm thankful that when McCown drops back to pass to exploit that back seven of Minnesota, he'll still have to worry about the pass rush. Finally, I'm thankful this game is at home. As long as the Vikings don't turn the ball over early and invite the boo birds out, the crowd should be good and noisy as their team tries to play spoiler.
And if I'm wrong about picking the upset on Sunday, then I'm thankful that the Vikings still have a good shot at the top draft pick.
Prediction: Vikings 31, Bears 28
(One final Vikings-related thanks to give this week: everyone in the Daily Norseman community. Enduring another awful season is much easier when I have you guys to vent to and converse with. Thanks for visiting and reading.)
And now for the rest of my Week 13 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
LIONS over Packers: I'm thankful that I'll be able to enjoy either one of these teams losing on Turkey Day.
RAVENS over Steelers: I'm thankful that "when in doubt, pick the home team" is an acceptable reason for a pick when you have no idea who will win.
BROWNS over Jaguars: I'm thankful that I don't live in Cleveland or Jacksonville so I'm not forced to watch what might be the worst matchup of the season thus far. (Until next week...Houston at Jacksonville on a Thursday night!)
Patriots over TEXANS: I'm thankful that we have the technology to mic up players during the games, but I'm sad that we haven't had Tom Brady mic'd up for any of his temper tantrums directed towards the referees this season.
EAGLES over Cardinals: I'm thankful that Arizona is showing us that having a very good defense and a not-terrible offense is still viable in today's NFL...but I'm still not going to pick them this week.
PANTHERS over Buccaneers: I'm thankful that Tampa is on a three-game winning streak with Mike Glennon, which means that they might not draft a quarterback even if they finish with a better pick than the Vikings. I'm also thankful that I'm not afraid to try again after failing--this is my Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 9-3 on the season after the Bucs burned me in Detroit last week.
Falcons over BILLS: I'm thankful this game is in Toronto, where the Bills are 1-4 in the regular season. This gives Atlanta a very good chance at their third win coming off ten days of rest. (Possible Vikings draft pick ramifications!)
49ERS over Rams: I'm thankful that San Francisco has been pretty easy to pick this year. They lose to the really good teams (Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina, New Orleans) and beat everyone else. (Yes, I know Indianapolis might not actually be really good, but they were earlier in the season.)
CHARGERS over Bengals: I'm thankful that the AFC playoff picture is such a clusterf*ck of mediocrity this year. The Broncos and Patriots are going to be double-digit favorites in the Divisional Round against any opponent outside of maybe Kansas City regardless of who emerges from this 5-6 heap.
Broncos over CHIEFS: I'm thankful that I wasn't a fan of either team last week. You really have to screw up to lose a 24-0 halftime lead. You have to screw up even worse to allow the Chargers to score a last-minute go-ahead touchdown. That always happens to San Diego, not for them!
Giants over REDSKINS: I'm thankful that no matter who wins we'll get to make fun of the pouty faces from the losing quarterback.
Last week: 8-5-1
Season so far: 113-62-1