With three weeks left in the 2014 season, the Minnesota Vikings have already ensured that they will have a better record than they did last year. That's pretty amazing when you consider what they have had to overcome.
Their best player has played all of 45 snaps this year. That aforementioned best player was involved in one of the biggest scandals ever for a franchise that had already mastered the art of big scandals. Their most dynamic athlete has been relegated to an afterthought due to his ineffective play. Their Week 1 starting quarterback played less than five halves of football before going on the IR, forcing an untested rookie into the fray much earlier than the team anticipated. Their offensive line has been battered and beaten all season. And all of this happened while a new guy took over for his first ever head coaching gig.
These circumstances are usually ingredients for a pretty miserable season. And it was at first. The losses piled up while the Vikings struggled to find their identity. The words "rebuilding" and "tanking" were getting thrown around in our comment section well before Halloween rolled around. The last-minute loss in Buffalo seemed to seal the "same old Vikings" narrative that we had sadly become so accustomed to for most of the post-Favre era.
But the past seven weeks have been...dare I say...fun for the most part. The ups are starting to outnumber the downs. The Vikings are blocking punts, getting pick sixes, completing long bombs to wide receivers, and actually winning the close games that they would always find a way to screw up last year. Last week's game against the Jets wasn't a great game by any means, but it was entertaining as all hell. Same with the nail-biter over Washington and the domination of Carolina.
Even the bad stuff has been entertaining to an extent. The offensive line is so bad as it's comical--the Matt Kalil jokes I see on Twitter each week are comedic gold. Plus they're forcing Teddy Bridgewater to get a lot better with his pocket presence and throwing on the run. And you know what? It's working:
(Yes, Teddy got a little lucky on this one, but those mechanics were on point.)
The clunker in Chicago was tough to watch but at least it had a sweet fake punt and a hilariously malfunctioning clock that made the end of the game feel like stoppage time in soccer. The latest loss to Green Bay was even pretty fun to watch--the Vikings fought hard and made the Packers really work for it. (Although I admit the amount of alcohol I consumed before and during that game at TCF may have altered my perception a bit. I was probably going to have fun watching that game no matter what.)
You know what else is fun? Watching a wide receiver come out of nowhere to become your team's go-to option in the passing attack. It's not a coincidence that the Vikings became more fun when Charles Johnson started catching fire. The seventh-round pick from Division II Grand Valley State was taken from Cleveland's practice squad and was met with according fanfare. Chris whipped up a quick post about the signing when it happened, calling Johnson "a project for George Stewart to work on". But what Chris wrote was a novel compared to the 85-word paragraph that the Vikings posted on their site. And remember folks, Charles Johnson isn't on this team if Jerome Simpson could actually lay off smoking weed for more than five minutes. So basically what I'm saying is: thank you, marijuana! You might not be legal in Minnesota yet, but you certainly cured a very big ailment on its professional football team!
You know what's even more fun than that? Watching a young cornerback develop into one of the best in the league at his craft. Xavier Rhodes has been absolutely dominant over the past month. The beginning of his season wasn't much fun at times; now he's making life miserable for opposing receivers, which is extremely fun for any shutdown corner in the making. Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus had an excellent breakdown of just how dominant Rhodes has been over the last four games. One of the highlights:
He has only allowed 54 yards over that time span. Four games, 54 receiving yards. That's pretty good. He has given up just seven catches, and no touchdowns over those games, and the passer rating of quarterbacks targeting Rhodes over the past four Vikings games has been just 22.2, a figure bettered by only Richard Sherman league-wide.
Is that good? I think that's good. So congratulations, Xavier. You have made it to the Megatron Boss Level. If you complete this level, you can enter your initials in the High Score Hall of Fame. Of course that achievement will be incredibly difficult. Calvin Johnson can make huge catches even when you do everything right on defense. Josh Robinson could have another Josh Robinson standing on his shoulders and he'd still have a tough time keeping Megatron from coming down with the ball. But if Rhodes is equal to the task it'll go a long way towards pulling off an improbable upset. And if it happens, watch for this graphic to pop up on your TV screen:
(I may have played too much Madden 15 on my Xbox.)
Sadly I think the fun will end this week for the Vikings. The Lions have been almost boringly efficient this season. These aren't your father's Lions, the lovable losers that could put up points but always find a way to blow it. Now they're grinding games out and getting big victories late.
Detroit had a ten game stretch this season where they didn't score more than 24 points. They still went 6-4 in those games, largely in part to three late comeback victories in a row in the games following their 17-3 snubbing of the Vikings in Week 6. And oh yeah, their defense. That helps too.
Passing on the Lions is going to be pretty tricky. They're 10th in passing yards allowed, tied for 7th in sacks, and tied for 2nd in interceptions. We have already seen how they can terrorize opposing quarterbacks; Bridgewater had the worst game of his young career against Detroit back in October. The Detroit defensive line destroyed the Vikings for eight sacks, forcing Teddy into three interceptions and a career-worst 41.3 passer rating.
Running on the Lions might be damn near impossible. They allow a league best 62.8 yards per game and 3.0 yards per rush. The Vikings actually fared slightly better than those averages the first time around, but not by much: Minnesota ran for 69 yards and 3.8 yards per carry at TCF. But now with left guard Charlie Johnson's status in question (hooray for writing Sunday previews on Wednesday and Thursday), the Vikings could have more backups than starters on the offensive line. (And one of those two starters is the most loathed player on the team.) I'm not really sure how "Sully and the Suckwads" are going to block the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah all day.
One way to try and combat Detroit's tough front seven: bring in more blockers. Tampa Bay tried that last week. The Bucs have 8 blockers in for this run yet couldn't get any push as Doug Martin was stopped for a short gain.
Additional blockers in the passing game was just as ineffective for Tampa last week. Here they had seven stay back in a max protect package, yet Josh McCown was still hurried into throwing wide of a well-covered wide receiver.
I realize that the Buccaneers shouldn't be used as an example of how to beat anything, but Detroit's D makes just about everybody look bad. Now that Detroit's offense is clicking the past couple games to compliment this incredibly tough defense, they're going to be very difficult to beat--especially at home where they're 6-1 this season. The Vikings haven't exactly been beating down powerhouses en route to being an upset win away from .500 either. Only one of their six victories came against a team that had a winning record heading into the game, and that one team is now 5-8 (the Falcons). In fact, Minnesota's six wins have come against teams with a combined record of 22-55-1. Their seven losses have come against teams with a combined record of 46-32. Detroit is a legitimately good team, and Calvin Johnson is a legitimately ridiculous wide receiver, so the fun probably stops this week for the Vikings. (Going 0-5 in the NFC North is especially unpleasant.)
But maybe this win will help propel the Lions into the playoffs, where they will inevitably crush their fans' dreams in the most Detroit way possible. And that will be pretty fun.
Lions 27, Vikings 16
And now for the rest of my Week 15 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
RAMS over Cardinals
Why is a 6-7 team favored by 4 points over the #1 team in the incredibly competitive NFC? I think you'll find out on Thursday night.
Steelers over FALCONS
Pittsburgh is 1-2 against the NFC South this year. If you can't go .500 against one of the worst divisions ever, your team should be disbanded. You know what shouldn't be disbanded? The Gratuitous Picture of the Week.
"Wearing this suit was a great decision / So was playing in this crappy division!" (image via atlantafalcons.com)
Packers over BILLS
Unless Buffalo trades for Julio Jones before this game they won't be able to score enough to keep up with Green Bay. But hey have fun with Dom Capers in the playoffs, cheeseheads!
Bengals over BROWNS
Because Johnny Manziel still probably doesn't know the playbook and Andy Dalton literally cannot play worse than he did the first time against Cleveland.
COLTS over Texans
Can J.J. Watt cover T.Y. Hilton? Because I don't think anyone else on the Houston defense can.
CHIEFS over Raiders
The last time Oakland won they got beat 52-0 the following week. I think KC will get their revenge.
PATRIOTS over Dolphins
Sadly, being the darling of the advanced metrics community doesn't guarantee you a playoff berth. Sorry, Miami.
GIANTS over Redskins
Sadly, this is only the third worst game of the weekend record-wise. And these teams suuuuuck.
Buccaneers over PANTHERS
I told you it gets worse! Can they bill this game "The train wreck vs. The car crash" or is that still too soon? Anyway, I'm taking the Bucs because they can screw up anything, including getting the #1 overall pick.
RAVENS over Jaguars
Baltimore could win this game with the cast of The Wire.
Broncos over CHARGERS
We're totally due for a Philip Rivers "I don't care what happens, I'm keeping our playoff chances alive by myself" game. But we're even more due for a Peyton Manning "Oh you're bitching about my fantasy stats? Here's 35 points" game.
Jets over TITANS
Do you care why I chose New York? Well you shouldn't. Pick whoever you want in this one; just don't watch any of it.
SEAHAWKS over 49ers
I'm gonna go out on a limb here and predict a few things about this game:
- Richard Sherman will be vocally disrespectful to at least one member of the opposing team.
- Jim Harbaugh's future will be discussed roughly 438 times during the broadcast.
- Seattle's defense will force Colin Kaepernick into making at least one poor decision.
Cowboys over EAGLES
I'm not confident about this pick, but since it's these two teams on Sunday Night Football, I'm confident that we'll see about 45 crazy plays.
Saints over BEARS
Last week: 13-3
Season so far: 139-68-1