The Minnesota Vikings are 3-2 and currently hold the 6 seed in the NFC playoff picture.* It's plenty promising until you realize that the three victories came over teams that currently hold a combined record of 4-14. The defense has shown vast improvement, allowing the second fewest points per game through six weeks. However, the team ranks at the bottom of nearly every passing category and the Vikings are currently 29th in points scored per game. Nearly every power ranking you can find will have the Vikings hovering right around the very middle of the list.
(* = Yeah I know, we still have eleven weeks left in the season. But if you think it's too early to talk about the playoffs, then why can we already vote on the Pro Bowl, which comes AFTER all but one of the playoff games?)
For every positive about the Vikings after five games there's a negative ready to cancel it out. For every concern you might have about the Vikings, there's another positive to build upon. Through five games the Vikings are basically the world's tallest dwarf. Or the prettiest Packers fan. Or the best Republican presidential candidate. (HEY OHHH!!)
More specifically, the Vikings might be the 2015 version of the Bill Simmons Good Bad Team. It's a theory the new HBO employee has used over the years to describe teams that play good enough football to beat the dregs of the NFL but cannot truly contend with the league's best. The Good Bad Team always has some clear strengths that can propel it all the way to playoff contention. The team also has some glaring weaknesses that keep it from ascending into the upper echelon of NFL squads.
Sounds just like our favorite purple-clad football team through the first five games, doesn't it? If the Vikings had actually showed up to play in the opener against the 49ers the Good Bad Team description would fit almost perfectly. Then Minnesota's four victories would have been over teams with a combined record of 5-19.
Thankfully there are two reasons to feel good, not bad, about being the Good Bad Team:
- There is still plenty of time to improve the bad parts of being the Good Bad Team.
- There are still plenty of bad teams to play.
The Vikings might not play a team over .500 until the week of Thanksgiving. The Lions are definitely not over .500 after collecting their first win of the season last week. Minnesota defeated Detroit just five weeks ago; can they simply repeat what they did in the home opener to beat another bad team?
In some ways, yes. For starters they can pummel Matthew Stafford as relentlessly as they did the first time around. The Week 2 game showed how misleading of a statistic sacks can be. The Vikings only registered one, yet there was pressure and contact on many more plays (23 plays under pressure according to Pro Football Focus). Even when the Lions were able to move the ball Stafford took a beating:
Obviously the chances of the defense torturing Stafford are greatly increased if Everson Griffen (who was held out for heart tests against the Chiefs...yeah that's a little bit worrisome) and Sharrif Floyd (knee/ankle) are in the lineup. Neither practiced on Wednesday so it's definitely something to monitor as Sunday nears. The Vikings have a deep defensive line but no team is deep enough to endure absences like that without suffering in performance.
Another way to ensure a season sweep is to stymie the run game again. Detroit ran 16 times for only 38 yards in Week 2. Minnesota's front seven consistently won at the point of attack and were very disciplined in their gaps. Nearly every run the Lions attempted that day ended up looking something like this:
Again, achieving a similar result is much easier with a full compliment of defensive starters. It is also much easier when the offense gives you an early lead and controls the clock. This is where the Vikings need to play differently, at least compared to last week. The run blocking was atrocious against the Chiefs. The team received a +3.4 rating in pass blocking against Kansas City from Pro Football Focus but registered a -10.0 rating for run blocking. Obviously the offensive line is largely to blame, but Norv Turner should shoulder some of the responsibility. I thought that we had already established that running Adrian Peterson out of the shotgun didn't really work. Yet there we were last Sunday watching plays like this:
Peterson got six touches out of the shotgun last Sunday. His net yardage from those plays? Negative 14 yards. That old dog isn't getting taught any new shotgun tricks.
It also helps the running game if everyone in the stadium doesn't know you're running. I know it's important to control the pace of the game and give Teddy Bridgewater manageable yardage and second and third down. The Vikings also had the lead for nearly the entire game against the Chiefs, so running the ball more made sense. But Turner called 18 running plays on 26 first downs. Was he honoring the return of Brad Childress to Minnesota with such predictable calls?
Luckily the Vikings already have a great way to mix things up this week: Stefon Diggs. The rookie wide receiver has exploded onto the scene thanks to some excellent route running. He has played two professional regular season games and is already the anti-Cordarrelle Patterson. He sells his cuts with a savvy beyond his years and explodes out of them to create space. He turned Marcus Peters around on more than one occasion for big gains. The Lions haven't been anything special in pass coverage all season so Diggs should be able to continue his hot start.
If Minnesota can get more than a handful of catches from Mike Wallace, Jarius Wright, Kyle Rudolph, or Charles Johnson (if he plays), perhaps they'll be able to move the ball more consistently and open up a few running lanes.
Have the Lions changed much since Week 2? Their offense certainly got going last week. Detroit racked up 546 yards of offense on a whopping 7.2 yards per play against Chicago. Stafford proved that he can be incredibly effective with time, like on this opening drive touchdown to Lance Moore:
Yet they still needed overtime and have a very curious "nobody knows what the hell a catch is" call finally go in their favor to win because they turned the ball over another three times. The Lions are dead last in the league in turnovers (18), turnover differential (-8), and points allowed off turnovers (59). By contrast, the Vikings have committed only 6 turnovers and are +3 in differential. Another common feature of the Good Bad Team is above average ball control. It's hard to beat anyone, even the lousy teams, if you keep coughing up the ball. So far this season, every team with a +2 or better turnover differential has a .500 or better record.
Detroit has played better in two of the past three games but they're still the Lions. I'm sure Stafford and Calvin Johnson will end up with decent stats again--Stafford had 286 yards passing and 2 touchdowns while Megatron had 10/83/1 last time around--but most of the time they can't get out of their own way. They also aren't doing a very good job of getting in the way of opposing defenses, which is usually a lethal combination.
The Vikings haven't been winning these games against poor teams with a lot of style. It's another common trait associated with being the Good Bad Team. They aren't delivering the decisive knockout blow when they have their opponents on the ropes. But they're still winning the bouts on points, which is a big difference from the Vikings teams we have seen in the past few years. As the old cliché goes, good teams find a way to win when they aren't at their best. I'm not sure that the Vikings are a good team yet, but they're certainly better than the teams they are facing in this stretch of the schedule.
The trend should continue on Sunday. It won't always be pretty, and Detroit will probably hang around most of the day, but the Vikings will do just enough to come away with the first season sweep of the Lions in three years. Peterson will continue his career-long dominance over Detroit, the defense will keep putting Stafford on the ground, and Blair Walsh will keep putting the ball between the uprights enough to get an important divisional road win.
Vikings 23, Lions 20
Because when it comes to breaking bad teams, THE VIKINGS ARE THE ONES WHO KNOCK!
And now for the rest of my Week 7 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Seahawks over 49ERS
Maybe Seattle should try trailing heading into the 4th quarter this week, because having the lead sure hasn't been working out for them very well this year.
JAGUARS over Bills
I wouldn't bet on the winner of this game, but I'll pick the Jags because Buffalo is so beat up. However, I would bet large sums of money on two outcomes: that streaming the game on Yahoo! will go about as well as Hooli did on Silicon Valley, and this game will continue to ensure that American football doesn't catch on in England.
Falcons over TITANS
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Devonta Freeman for reminding us of how dumb luck dictates most fantasy football leagues. When everyone drafted, nobody knew if Freeman was even going to be the starter in Atlanta. And now the guys that own Freeman in my two leagues are 6-0. I'm not 100% sure why I still play fantasy football.
RAMS over Browns
Good news, Cleveland--Mike Pettine has the best winning percentage of any Browns coach since the team returned in 1999! The bad news--he's 9-13. I'm not sure if the Rams are capable of winning games that aren't upsets over division rivals, but I'll side with Todd Gurley running all over Cleveland's awful run defense. Let's show the Gratuitous Picture of the Week before I have to think any more about this game.
COLTS over Saints
New Orleans can't expect former Vikings cult hero Michael Mauti to block a punt every week, and Indianapolis can't expect to run the dumbest fake punt of all time every week.
CHIEFS over Steelers
This pick seems ridiculous until you realize that the alternative is backing Landry Jones in his first career start at Arrowhead.
DOLPHINS over Texans
Turns out that firing the league's worst coach and relying on a solid run game more than Ryan Tannehill might be good for Miami. Who knew? Oh, everybody? OK then.
PATRIOTS over Jets
Sure, New York's defense has looked great and they're off to a surprising start. But they might be the Good Bad Team of the AFC--they haven't played anyone with a winning record yet.
REDSKINS over Buccaneers
I understand that Doug Martin doesn't like to be called "Muscle Hamster". It's a stupid nickname. But calling yourself "Dougernaut" is just as bad.
Raiders over CHARGERS
How could I bet against the best NFL quarterback under 25? [Rolls eyes]
GIANTS over Cowboys
Matt Cassel is starting for Dallas. I think we all remember how his last full start went.
PANTHERS over Eagles
Cam Newton has to be the MVP so far, right? Carolina is 5-0 with Newton, Greg Olsen, and a group of position players that should be playing with Keanu Reeves in The Replacements.
CARDINALS over Ravens
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now a slightly more respectable 4-2 on the season after the Patriots once again took care of the Colts last Sunday. I still think Baltimore is in contention for a title this year--the title of "Most Disappointing Team". That's no small feat with all the bad teams in the NFL this season. So congratulations, guys!
Last week: 8-6
Season so far: 52-39