In the summer that I turned 21 I took a trip with three good friends to Chicago for the national convention of the fraternity that we were in. Over 500 members from around the country convened for four days of meetings and events about leadership and brotherhood. We networked, bonded, and learned valuable lessons that we would bring back to our campus.
And we may have partied a little too. When you unleash that many like-minded college kids on Chicago in the summer, it's bound to happen. We took advantage of the bars closing a full three hours later in Chicago than back home every night we were there.
Each night started out tame enough. After a full day at the convention that included an early evening event like a hypnotist or a Chicago Cubs game, our group would wander off the University of Illinois-Chicago campus to check out the local scenery. After a few pints at the local Irish pub or a couple drinks at a club in Greektown that made all of us look extremely under-dressed, we'd eventually decide around 11:00 that it was time to kick things up a notch. So we would do something we called "The Turning Point".
The Turning Point wasn't exactly a revolutionary idea, but it sure as hell was effective. The four of us would simultaneously order a round of different shots, resulting in a tray of 16 shots before us. We proceeded to take four shots each in quick succession. Lo and behold, things usually escalated pretty quickly after The Turning Point.
A couple of the nights ended up as some of the most fun we had ever had in our young lives. We had an absolute blast bar hopping, chatting up beautiful women*, and learning hilarious drinking songs. ("I Used To Work In Chicago" remains one of my all-time favorites.) The next morning we would get together and laugh about our amazing adventures.
* = Evaluation of attractiveness adjusted for beer goggles.
However, as you might imagine, The Turning Point wasn't exactly a foolproof way to ensure instant fun. A couple of the nights were hauntingly similar to the classic "Dudes Night Out" sketch from Chappelle's Show. Bad decisions were made, fights were nearly started, people were missing on the streets of Chicago for long stretches of time, and vomit was prominently involved. Oh man, was vomit involved. Let's just say hitting up the gyro shop at 4:15 AM was a regrettable choice for a couple of us.
Why am I sharing slightly embarrassing tales of
borderline alcoholism college debauchery from over a dozen years ago in a football preview article? Because I'm using it as a shaky simile to describe the 2014 Minnesota Vikings, of course!
If you think about it, the Week 6 game between the Vikings and Detroit Lions is like The Turning Point of the season. Sunday will result in the Vikings emerging from their early-season messes at 3-3 with plenty of reason to believe they can compete in the division, or it'll make us all feel like we just ate late-night gyros.
Even after Thursday night's de-pantsing in Green Bay, the Vikings are still very much alive in the current clusterf*ck that is the NFC North. As Ted pointed out on Monday, the division could be parity's wet dream by the time the sun sets on Sunday. More importantly, as Chris pointed out on Monday, Minnesota could be catching Detroit at the perfect time.
Calvin Johnson will likely be missing the seventh game of his incredible eight year career on Sunday due to an ankle injury that obviously hindered him in the Lions' home loss to the Buffalo Bills last week. In the previous six games that Johnson has been absent from the Lions roster, his team has actually fared better than you'd think, compiling a 3-3 record. However, Detroit has averaged only 272 yards of total offense in those games, well below their normal average of 347 yards per game since drafting Johnson in 2007.
It shouldn't take any kind of metric to realize that Detroit isn't as good with Megatron sidelined. Another unsurprising fact is that not having Johnson on the field really seems to have a drastic negative effect on the performance of Matthew Stafford. Stafford has been the quarterback for three of the six previous games Johnson has missed; if you throw in last week where Johnson was essentially incapable of being his usual self, Stafford has a cumulative Pro Football Focus rating of -7.3 in four games without his best receiver. Stafford has shown that he can consistently put up gaudy stats but it's still questionable whether he's a top-tier quarterback without his best weapon making plays for him.
Hmm. That sounds familiar. A quarterback that can put up ridiculous numbers but seems a little lost without his all-world wide receiver? Is Matthew Stafford the modern day version of...Daunte Culpepper without Randy Moss? I'm not sure I would go that far but there is no question that Megatron has bailed out Stafford from several very questionable throws over the years.
One of the knocks on Stafford throughout his career has been his inconsistent mechanics. The only worse angles than Stafford's arm on some of his passes are the angles that Robert Blanton takes when attempting to make a tackle. Take a look at the play below from last week against Buffalo. After the Bills had tied it up late in the fourth quarter, Detroit had a first down in their own territory with just under three minutes remaining. Since Johnson hobbled his way through a mere 28 snaps last week, Stafford was without his safety valve. With the pocket clean enough to step up and make a good throw, Stafford flicks the ball out from his back foot and misses the back shoulder of Corey Fuller for an easy first down.
Of course on the next Lions drive Stafford threw an absolute laser to Golden Tate that set up what should have been the game-winning field goal...but, you know, the Lions didn't have a kicker until they signed Matt Prater this week.
Even with Megatron out, having both Joique Bell and Reggie Bush in the backfield would be a huge asset to Stafford and the Detroit offense. But both dynamic running backs are questionable for Sunday's game as of this posting. Bell's status after suffering a concussion seems more promising since he practiced on Wendesday; Bush did not, nursing an ankle injury of his own. If both can play, Detroit could create a lot of mismatches and exploit the shaky pass coverage of Minnesota's linebacking corps. If only one can play, Detroit could still probably create a lot of mismatches and exploit the shaky pass coverage of Minnesota's linebacking corps.
Shaky pass coverage, along with pretty much everything else on the defensive side of the ball, used to be the one thing you could always depend on from the Lions. Not this year. Detroit has had the best defense in the NFC North through the first five games and it hasn't been close. They rank in the top 5 in yards allowed per game, yards per play, and third down percentage. Because of that last stat, Detroit is also in the top 5 for time of possession. They actually get off the field when it matters! So even if the Vikings can contain Detroit's Megatron-less (and possibly Bush-less and/or Bell-less) offense, don't assume the return of Teddy Bridgewater means automatic points.
One way to accumulate some points against a tough defense would seem to be actually getting Cordarrelle Patterson the damn ball. He has all of nine offensive touches over the last three games. Some of Patterson's scarcity could be attributed to Norv Turner not force-feeding his dynamic player the ball enough. A larger portion of his scarcity could be attributed to who the Vikings had at quarterback last week.
I believe that Patterson could also help himself by running better routes and getting separation. He has had problems getting open in press coverage this season. Since I refused to look through the film of the Green Bay game that we should never ever discuss again, let's take a look at Bridgewater's touchdown scramble against Atlanta. Keep an eye on Patterson at the top of the picture:
Patterson just kind of goes through the motions and doesn't create any space. This kind of thing happened fairly often when the Falcons bumped him on the line of scrimmage.
Then again, perhaps Patterson hasn't yet built a good rapport with Bridgewater. There were a couple of times that the rookie quarterback just missed the opportunity to get Patterson the ball. On this play in the second quarter, Patterson goes unchecked up the seam and looks to be open for a big gain; but Bridgewater doesn't seem him until it's too late and is forced to check down to Jerick McKinnon.
I'm sure the Vikings covered plays just like this in the film room over their extended time between games this week. Bridgewater seems like a quick study and his comfort level with Patterson should only improve.
This should be a hard-fought, close game throughout between two fairly evenly matched teams. But I gotta take the Vikings this week. They're at home, they're on ten days rest, they'll be light years better at quarterback than they were last week, and the Lions are hobbled (even if they do have a real NFL kicker for the first time this season).
And if I'm wrong, we're all going to need The Turning Point, because we might be in for another l-o-o-o-o-ng season in Minnesota. (But please, whatever you do, lay off the late-night gyros after the game.)
Prediction: Vikings 24, Lions 20
And now for the rest of my Week 6 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Colts over TEXANS
Can we just have ONE decent Thursday night game? It's nice that everyone is trying to sabotage these awful games each week but the NFL is making too much money to get rid of them. The home team is usually the one doing the ass kicking but it's hard to believe that Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to get the best of Andrew Luck on the big (ugly) stage.
Patriots over BILLS
Will Dr. Belichickyl or Mr. Brady Hyde show up for New England this week? I'll take whichever personality is supposed to be the good one.
BENGALS over Panthers
You can't really blame Andy Dalton for wilting in prime time. Those bright lights probably give him a wicked sunburn. (Ginger joke alert!)
BROWNS over Steelers
Who cares if Ben Roethlisberger is 154-1 all-time against Cleveland? Nobody's stopping the Browns after that amazing comeback last week! (OK that's probably wrong, but I'll stay on the bandwagon for at least one more week.)
Broncos over JETS
I'll let Trey Wingo rub salt in the wound here:
Ouch. That stings.
Packers over DOLPHINS
I just have the feeling that this is going to be one of those games that Green Bay could easily lose but Miami will find a way to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory right at the end. Aaron Rodgers will throw an easy late TD after a crucial Dolphins turnover and he'll be lauded as the greatest all over again. Gosh I hate the Packers.
Jaguars over TITANS
Yes, the Jags are an abject disaster. But if they don't win this week, when will they?
Ravens over BUCCANEERS
Tampa's last home game before I come visit the ol' pirate ship in two weeks! I bet they'll make it nice and stinky for me this week.
Chargers over RAIDERS
Did you hear about Raiders interim coach Tony Sparano burying a football in practice this week? It's a nice symbolic gesture and all, but unless he's allowed to do it in a game Philip Rivers & company are still going to light Oakland up. Since I have nothing else to add, let's do our Gratuitous Picture of the Week!
"One and two and three and four / that's more points than the Raiders will score!" (image via raiders.com)
Bears over FALCONS
Chicago has a lot of problems. But lack of talented wide receivers is not one of those problems. As long as Jay Cutler completes it to the guys in the correct uniforms most of the time, Atlanta won't be able to stop them.
SEAHAWKS over Cowboys
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, still going strong at 5-0 even though three of my five picks have been down double digits in the second half (I scraped by with New Orleans last week). Russell Wilson is shiftier than the glitch girl from Wreck-It Ralph. I still don't understand how he pulled off that game-sealing third down conversion in Washington last Monday.
CARDINALS over Redskins
Taking Arizona even if they're on their 9th string quarterback. After all, it worked so well for the Vikings...
EAGLES over Giants
What the hell, Eagles? You're supposed to be an offensive juggernaut yet you're making your defense and special teams do all the scoring for you now? And what the hell, Giants? So, are you good now? Or did you just have nice run of games over a few mediocre opponents? I wish you'd be more like your MetLife Stadium neighbors and just flat out suck so I can feel more confident about picking you to lose.
49ers over RAMS
Only because I can't pick a tie.
Last week: 12-3 (Bounce back week!)
Season so far: 45-31 (Back to mediocrity, that is!)