As Kansas City Royals fans can attest, hope can be a dangerous thing.
(Too soon? Sorry, KC. I was really rooting for you. But it's hard to beat a pitching cyborg.)
Washington had hope coming out the wazoo after they mortgaged a ton of future picks to draft Robert Griffin III in 2012. His amazing play his rookie year led the Redskins to a surprising NFC East title. RGIII racked up over 4,000 yards of total offense, including over 800 yards rushing. The future couldn't have been brighter for Washington and their quarterback entering their playoff game against Seattle. They were harvesting a bumper crop of fresh new hope.
Of course all that new hope was quickly spoiled by the knee injury Griffin suffered in the playoffs. RGIII rushed back to be ready for Week 1 of the 2013 season (urged on by his incredibly questionable "All in for Week 1" Adidas ad campaign) but he clearly wasn't the same player. His numbers were down nearly across the board, especially in the one department that made him so dangerous--rushing. After struggling to a 3-10 record, Washington mercifully shelved RGIII for the remainder of the season with another injury. (Or should I say "injury"? Let's just say if the Redskins were 10-3 he would have been playing.) The bountiful new hope in the nation's capital had quickly rotted into useless old hope.
But a new season always brings a great chance for another crop of new hope. Griffin's chance lasted all of 75 snaps before suffering yet another devastating injury in Week 2. He was replaced by Kirk Cousins, who many wanted to start over RGIII in the first place. Cousins had a couple of good games before falling off a cliff and getting
injured himself benched, giving way to third stringer Colt McCoy. The 2014 crop of new hope turned out to be a lost cause--that is, until McCoy managed to salvage some of it in their OT win over Dallas last week. They still probably aren't going anywhere at 3-5, but at least the second half of the season could be interesting with the return of RGIII and a first-year coach that seems to be hitting his stride.
Meanwhile in Minnesota, we know that hope is a four-letter word. There's need to go into much detail with the ups and downs of the 2014 Vikings. We're very well versed in them by now.
Like Washington, Minnesota is also without a star player that led them to the playoffs with an amazing season in 2012. Unlike Washington, Adrian Peterson isn't coming back this week, or perhaps ever.
Like Washington, the Vikings were temporarily down to their third-string quarterback. Unlike Washington, Christian Ponder led fans to drink instead of leading his team to victory.
Like Washington, the Vikings had a thrilling overtime victory on the road last week. Unlike Washington, the Vikings' opponent had only one win instead of only one loss.
Like Washington, the Vikings probably aren't going anywhere at 3-5, but at least the second half of the season could be interesting with a first-year coach that has the defense playing better than most anticipated. The Vikings even have the reigning NFC Defensive Players of the Week (Anthony Barr) and Month (Everson Griffen). Unlike Washington, Minnesota hasn't thrown out their first batch of new hope yet. Teddy Bridgewater hasn't set the world on fire by any stretch of the imagination but this is still only his fifth career start.
Can the improved Mike Zimmer defense stop RGIII, who torched the Vikings in every way possible two years ago? To be honest, I'm glad the Vikings are getting Griffin in his first game back rather than McCoy. Colt started out pretty shaky against Dallas last Monday but made some huge plays down the stretch, including this incredible throw to DeSean Jackson to set up a go-ahead touchdown in the 4th quarter:
RGIII is capable of making some pretty incredible throws himself, even if his methods are more unorthodox. This play from Week 1 against Houston was ruled an incompletion but it doesn't take away from how well Griffin can wing it while on the run:
I still maintain that Griffin is a better quarterback than McCoy (or Cousins) and has more ways to hurt opponents, but I think it will take some time to get back into it after not playing for nearly two months. If the Vikings secondary can keep Jackson and Pierre Garcon from getting behind them for big plays, the Redskins running attack probably won't be able to do much damage. Alfred Morris hasn't passed 100 yards in a game this season and has looked pretty ordinary most of the year. The Vikings defense could definitely have their fourth consecutive strong game on Sunday.
Most Vikings fans aren't that worried about how the defense will perform though. Can the Minnesota offense finally start to look competent this week? The matchup is remarkably similar to Tampa Bay a week ago. The Redskins have a solid pass rush that will most likely give the Vikings trouble (especially Jason Hatcher and Ryan Kerrigan), but there's plenty to exploit in the secondary. No Washington defensive back with more than 100 snaps has a Pro Footbal Focus rating above -2.3. If Teddy gets a modicum of time to throw, the receivers should be able to help him out (should being the operative word...I'm starting to wonder about the likes of Greg Jennings) and Jerick McKinnon should be able to gash Washington's suspect run defense. If Bridgewater gets some time and still can't find receivers against this defense, his development might be further behind than we'd like to admit. (I would personally welcome Bridgewater at least having the opportunity to be slow and indecisive behind this offensive line. We can hope right? After all, Matt Kalil is only the second worst tackle in PFF's ratings now instead of the worst...)
Even if our wildest dreams come true and Minnesota's O-line performs well, Bridgewater will still have to make a lot of quick throws based on how Washington's defense has been attacking lately. Against the Cowboys last Monday, the Redskins frequently lined up 6 or more defenders right on the line of scrimmage. Sometimes they brought the house and blitzed everyone. Sometimes they only rushed three or four as everyone else dropped into coverage. Other times they zone blitzed and outnumbered blockers on one side of the line. The play below illustrates the effectiveness of this strategy. Washington brings five on the rush, the Dallas line is unsure of their assignments, and Brandon Meriweather comes through unblocked for the sack.
Of course this strategy has a fairly large risk/reward associated with it. This kind of defense can give up big plays just as easily as it can make them. Bridgewater's motto is GUMP, an acronym for Great Under Major Pressure. He'll have a chance to do prove it this week. Bridgewater's numbers haven't been great no matter how you ration up the splits but he has been significantly better against the blitz. All five of his interceptions this season have fallen under the "No pressure" category and his quarterback rating goes up nearly 20 points when he's being blitzed (84.8 vs. 65.4 when not being blitzed). Bridgewater must make the Redskins pay with quick decisions and accurate short throws, although the latter hasn't always been his forte this season.
These teams are about as closely matched as their identical 3-5 records. Washington's offense is a tier or two better while the Vikings defense has looked superior. So in the end it's probably going to come down to taking care of the ball. Washington is 7th in the league in yards per game and 2nd in yards per play, yet 23rd in points per game; this is largely due to their -8 turnover differential. Griffin has 25 fumbles in 30 career games. Getting him to the ground is easier said than done, but when you do the ball might hit the ground too. Meanwhile, the Vikings have zero turnovers in their three wins and 12 in their five losses. Obviously that's not a coincidence--there is very little margin for error with this team.
If RGIII had been back for a few games, I'd like the Vikings' chances much less than I do. I think Griffin will be a little rusty and the Vikings defense will continue to be on point as they have the past three games. I think the offense will take care of the ball and move it up and down the field just enough to come out victorious. Plus the Vikes are on a one-game winning streak with me in attendance--I was in Tampa last week--and I'll be back at TCF this Sunday.
And I'll be hoping to head into the bye week on a winning note. Because nothing beats that New Hope smell.
Vikings 23, Redskins 20
And now for the rest of my Week 9 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Saints over PANTHERS
Both teams are below .500 and the winner of this game is probably going to win the NFC South. Can the Vikings petition to switch divisions? They're already playing against these teams anyway.
BENGALS over Jaguars
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 6-0 on the season in games not involving the Cowboys. (I picked Dallas last week, dropping my actual record to 6-2.) And since I can't say anything about how awful the Jags are because their head coach used to coach at my alma mater, let's just go right to the Gratuitous Picture of the Week.
"Our bikinis are the size of rags / But they still cover more than the Jags!" (image via bengals.com)
BROWNS over Buccaneers
You know you've hit rock bottom when Vegas is giving you a touchdown against the Browns.
COWBOYS over Cardinals
Every week I keep picking against Arizona. They keep winning. Might as well keep the tradition alive. You're welcome, Cardinals fans.
CHIEFS over Jets
That Week 1 win the Jets had over Oakland might be their biggest regret of the season. It probably cost them the #1 overall pick. (OK, I suppose they might regret drafting Geno Smith a little more than that win.)
Chargers over DOLPHINS
Everyone's AFC sleeper pick is slowly slipping into a coma after back-to-back division losses. Time for Philip Rivers to strap on that bolo tie, make some more offspring, and get back to his winning ways.
Eagles over TEXANS
This one could go either way, but I'm picking against Houston just because of what Arian Foster did to my fantasy teams the past two weeks. I feel like I should press charges with how badly my teams were violated.
49ERS over Rams
The Vikings have to play both West divisions next year. At least that means games against St. Louis and Oakland, right?
PATRIOTS over Broncos
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SEAHAWKS over Raiders
Don't worry Oakland, it has to get easier eventually. You'll get that first win soon enough.
[Looks at Raiders' upcoming schedule]
Uhh, never mind.
Ravens over STEELERS
While we were tailgating before last week's game in Tampa, Kyle and I discussed the weird fans that show up for games in a jersey of a team that isn't actually playing in that game. We commented that Steelers fans are the most notorious for this strange phenomenon. We even joked that we'd probably see some guy wandering Raymond James Stadium with a Troy Polamalu jersey. Sure enough, right as the game was letting out after Anthony Barr's game-winning touchdown, we spotted a black and yellow #43 jersey. And sure enough, a drunk Bucs fan shouted at him, "Why are you wearing that jersey?! That's the only team we've beaten this year!"
And that's why I'm choosing Baltimore this week.
Colts over GIANTS
Because there is no greater tradition in football than Manning Face on a nationally televised game.
Last week: 11-4
Season so far: 76-44-1