The Minnesota Vikings are fresh off their bye week and full of cautious optimism as they prepare to tackle the next dozen weeks of football. Sure, there are plenty of issues and some nagging injuries to fight through, but it isn't unreasonable to think that the young 2-2 team is poised to make a nice mid-season run in the next month or so.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs are shuffling into town like extras from The Walking Dead. Losers of four straight, they just saw their biggest offensive threat go down with an ACL tear last Sunday. Chiefs fans are slathered in gloom like sauce covers their city's famous barbecue. The headlines over at Arrowhead Pride read like a semi-eulogy for the young season: "2016 NFL Draft order would have the Kansas City Chiefs in the top 10 today", "Andy Reid facing the worst start of his career", and "Holy shit we just lost to the Bears at home". (OK I made that last one up but I'm sure KC fans are certainly thinking it.) They're one more heartbreaking loss away from putting away their Chiefs jerseys and focusing solely on the Royals for the rest of the year.
I almost feel bad for the Chiefs. Vikings fans certainly know what it's like to miss a star running back for most of the season and lose games in increasingly unbelievable ways. Beating up on the Chiefs at this point of the season feels a little like stuffing every shot your kid brother puts up against you in driveway basketball. It's like seeing a homeless man on the street and "donating" to him like Thurgood Jenkins did in Half Baked. At first glance, a Vikings victory looks very probable.
Of course, we know better. The Vikings need to avoid the dreaded bye week slump. For the past five years the Vikings have pretty much stayed on vacation in the game following their break. The home matchup this week certainly seems favorable to reverse that trend, especially since the Chiefs are without their most dynamic player and on a four-game losing skid. There has been all sorts of talk (even around these parts) that this game against Kansas City is the start of a five-game stretch against "easier" opponents before hosting the Packers the week before Thanksgiving. But c'mon. We're Vikings fans. We know almost nothing comes "easy" with this team. And the Chiefs aren't as "easy" as they look.* The Chiefs may be 1-4 but they could easily be 3-2 if it wasn't for late collapses in both their home games. Kansas City is certainly down--they lost Jamaal Charles for the season while somehow making Jay Cutler look clutch. But they still have enough weapons to prove that they might not be all the way out.
The Chiefs are struggling in a lot of areas but they are still more than capable of exploiting one of Minnesota's biggest weaknesses--blocking for Teddy Bridgewater. T.J. Clemmings probably spent the majority of the bye week washing Von Miller's cleat marks off the front of his jersey. So what does he get as an encore this week? Justin Houston! Guys from fraternities in the South that got kicked off of campus think that's a cruel form of hazing. Even with help from additional blockers (and for the love of God, Norv, give T.J. some help), Houston can still get to the quarterback:
And just like the Denver game, the guy on the other side of the defensive line is pretty darn good. Tamba Hali will give Matt Kalil everything he can handle. The middle of Kansas City's front line is pretty formidable as well. Even if Dontari Poe misses the game with his high ankle sprain, Jaye Howard (96) and Allen Bailey (97) gave Chicago fits last week.
It goes without saying that the Vikings will need to block better than they did in Denver to consistently move the ball against Kansas City. In order to block better, they'll need to be better at diagnosing and reacting to pre-snap coverage changes by the defense. Far too often this season, the Vikings offense has been destined to fail before a play even starts because nobody is making the proper adjustments after the defense changes its original look.
This sack from the Denver game is a perfect example. The safety comes down late and the outside linebackers flood toward the A gap. There were still six seconds on the play clock before the snap, but Bridgewater and Joe Berger don't call out any changes, Matt Asiata runs right past the unblocked safety to run what will be a meaningless route, Brandon Fusco falls down because he's off balance and not blocking the immediate threat up the middle, Kyle Rudolph completely whiffs on his block, and Teddy goes down before making a single progression. But other than that, it went just how they drew it up.
Let's assume that the Vikings worked on correcting this during the bye week (I sure hope so) and Bridgewater ends up with more than a few nanoseconds to find his receivers on Sunday. Then they'll be able to get to the fun part of the Chiefs defense.
As I write this late Wednesday night, the status of Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson, and Jarius Wright are all in various degrees of uncertainty. But no matter who is and isn't ready to go in the Vikings receiving corps, the players that do end up on the field certainly have the potential for a big day. The Chiefs are currently allowing 228.6 yards on 17.2 catches per game to wide receivers. Both marks are worst in the league. If Minnesota's anemic passing attack can't get going this Sunday, they may never get going.
Speaking of passing games, I'm sure the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Kansas City Chiefs' offense is the deep passing attack led by gunslinger Alex Smith.
Obviously I'm kidding. Alex Smith avoids risk more than an insurance salesman on his last day before retirement. Dads play catch with their five year old sons farther apart than Smith and his receivers are on most completions. But just because over two thirds of Smith's passes are within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage doesn't mean the Vikings defense will have an easy day.
If you have been following the Vikings for the past few decades, I shouldn't need to tell you that Minnesota has fallen prey to the big screen pass roughly eleventy kajillion times. We have seen a pass completed behind the line of scrimmage end across the goal line more frequently than we care to remember. The Vikings defense will need to play disciplined and tackle well to prevent little plays from turning into big plays like this one did last week against the Bears.
Preventing plays like this is basically the main reason the Vikings drafted Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. The "Bru's Brothers" will likely be called upon early and often to get Kansas City's offense off the field. The Vikings pass rush should be able to make life miserable for Smith too. It seems like there are only a handful of good offensive lines in the NFL this season; none of them will be at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday. We're well aware of the Vikings' blocking woes this season; the Chiefs aren't any better. Kansas City actually has a couple of targets in the passing game that aren't running backs this year--Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce are both having solid seasons. But after Charles went down early in the third quarter last week, the Kansas City offense did a whole bunch of nothing against a porous Chicago secondary.
So who will attempt to shoulder the load in Charles' absence? Knile Davis is a home run threat but lacks the vision and ball control to be an every down back. Instead it sounds like Charcandrick West will get the larger share of the backfield workload. West is definitely a step down from Charles from a talent standpoint--because who isn't--but he's a solid one-cut runner that can pick up good chunks of yardage.
That said, better running backs have struggled to find space against the Vikings run defense (Week 1 notwithstanding). If the Vikings can prevent the big plays, big sacks, and big turnovers from happening, they should be able to control the game and keep Chiefs fans pondering the 2016 draft and Andy Reid's future. This an extremely pivotal game for the Vikes. If they truly want to take the next step forward, they need to keep winning the games they "should" win, and it starts on Sunday.
And besides, my second daughter deserves to see her first Vikings win. Quinn Thompson arrived on the day of the Broncos game--26 days early--just to make sure her dad wouldn't miss anything over the bye week. Her big sister arrived several hours before the 2013 NFL Draft so her dad could watch his favorite team draft Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, and Cordarrelle Patterson while holding her. My girls are so considerate! (And incredibly cute in my completely biased opinion.)
So c'mon Vikes--whaddaya say? Show us that you aren't the same old Vikings that flop after the bye week and lose winnable games like this. Let the new generation of fans know that these literally aren't their fathers' Vikings. #WinForQuinn
Vikings 31, Chiefs 20
And now for the rest of my Week 6 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Falcons over SAINTS
The 'Aints suck as a team, but I feel like not enough is being made of Drew Brees' play falling off a cliff. At this rate I'd probably prefer one of the guys from the pickup games in his Wrangler commercials.
Bengals over BILLS
Cincy is legit. They have a very good offensive line, which is rarer than tantalum in today's NFL, and enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to win every week. I'm officially a believer. (So, congratulations to Buffalo on their inevitable 20 point victory Sunday.)
LIONS over Bears
Because if Detroit doesn't win this one, there's gonna be a whooooole bunch of 2008 talk coming.
Broncos over BROWNS
Go ahead. Convince yourself that Cleveland has been playing some pretty decent football. Rattle off Josh McCown's impressive stats over the past couple weeks. Talk yourself into the Browns pulling the upset. Just don't act surprised when McCown throws four interceptions against the Denver defense.
TITANS over Dolphins
Although I could totally see Miami finally getting their shit together just to prove what a damp squib of a head coach Joe Philbin was.
JETS over Redskins
I'm kind of bummed that I won't be able to make fun of either of these teams as much as I anticipated before the season. Neither team sucks nearly as much as I thought they would.
Cardinals over STEELERS
Just like Cincinnati, I'm on board with this Cardinals team. So again, congratulations to Michael Vick on his inevitable career renaissance on Sunday.
JAGUARS over Texans
The Colts are a complete joke so far and they're STILL running away with the AFC South. This entire division should be relegated. Let's just do the Gratuitous Picture of the Week and move on.
SEAHAWKS over Panthers
Seattle has lost to two undefeated teams and on the road against a division rival that always plays them tough. Carolina's four wins have come over teams with a grand total of five wins. Let's pump the brakes on reading too much into these early season records.
PACKERS over Chargers
Green Bay is currently -4000 to win the NFC North, which means you'd have to bet $40 to win $1. Maybe they'll be resting their starters by the time the Vikings play them in November?
49ERS over Ravens
The saddest Super Bowl rematch ever!
Patriots over COLTS
My Survival Pool pick of the week, which has already lost twice since I had the Chiefs last week. I think the Pats' motivation will be slightly...
...over-inflated this week. (YYYYYYYYEEEEEEEAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH)
Giants over EAGLES
I'm making this pick out of spite because we have to see the mediocrity of Chip Kelly's "genius" in prime time three weeks in a row starting Monday. Really, NFL?
Last week: 8-6 (I didn't post them while I was out last week, but like I'd lie about such mediocrity)
Season so far: 44-33
* = Unlike your mom. Boom! Long scroll punchline!