It was five minutes to high noon. On most days this Old West town would be bustling with townsfolk. But on this particular Sunday, all you could hear was the screech of a buzzard in the distance. All the shops had shut down for the day. The old-time piano in the saloon stood silent. Nary a bed spring in the brothel creaked.
The town had been occupied by outlaws for decades. The wild bunch of bandits called themselves "The Raiders." For years The Raiders had been a disorganized mess. Rival gangs would come to town and do as they pleased with little resistance. But lately, The Raiders had started lookin' mighty dangerous. Just over a year ago, they appointed a new leader by the name of D. Dallas Carr. Most folks didn't take him too seriously at first on account of his older brother Davy Carr. Years back, Davy had been the promising leader of a gang called the Houston Texans. But Davy's time was short-lived: he took so many shots that he was bloodletting more than 1800's doctors. He died a horrible death in Houston before he could accomplish much of anything.
Davy's little brother was determined to avenge his brother's failed outlaw career. At the age of 24, he was already twice the gunslinger that his big brother ever was. Maybe it was because D. Dallas Carr surrounded himself with some of the best hired guns in the West. He had a group of massive men that always led the way--Penn, Jackson, Hudson, and Howard could bust heads and clear a room in no time. He ran with a fella named Murray that was shiftier than he looked. Carr had another guy that went by "Crabby" that had just joined The Raiders after a failed gold rush in San Francisco. He wasn't much of a prospector until he joined forces with D. Dallas. And last but not least, there was "Coop". He was young and inexperienced--but just tell that to all the folks he had already gunned down in cold blood before his 22nd birthday. When D. Dallas Carr and Coop got together in a shootout, they were nearly impossible to bring down.
But The Raiders were in for a fight on this particular Sunday. There was another rough and tumble bunch coming to town, and they were more than ready to do battle at the O.co Corraliseum. This gang called themselves "The Vikings" on account that they came from up north. The Vikings were led by a quiet fella by the name of Theodore Edmond Bridgewater, a.k.a. "Teddy." Teddy and his gang may not have had the flash or showmanship of The Raiders; what they did have was results. The Vikings had had some close calls in their day but always seemed to come out on top at the end of a skirmish. When the goin' got tough, these northerners showed their true grit time after time.
Teddy had himself quite a squad of sharpshooters as well. His right hand man was called "All Day." He earned the nickname because he did two things all day: chew tobacco and kick ass. "Hitman Harry" was the perfect assassin--by the time you got wind of him, it was already too late. The Vikings had a youngin' of their own called "Diggs" because any man that tested him "digs" his own grave. Plus Teddy had the law on his side. After being left for dead weeks ago, the
Sharrif Sheriff was coming back to town. And along with is trusty sidekick "Big Goon," an absolute beast of a human being, he was determined to give D. Dallas Carr and his gang a taste of justice.
There were now only precious seconds before the Sunday showdown. The two sides took their places on the hundred yard stretch of dirt in front of the O.co Corraliseum. For some reason, the theme music from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly started playing even though nobody had instruments. Finally the thud of the old clock tower's minute hand signaled high noon. And before the first chime could be heard, both groups drew their weapons and disappeared behind a cloud of gun smoke.
So who will be left standing after the Vikings and Raiders draw on Sunday? If the game was strictly between the two "young gun" quarterbacks from the 2014 draft class, you'd have to give the edge to Oakland so far this season. Derek Carr has outperformed Teddy Bridgewater by nearly every metric. The traditional numbers aren't even close: Carr has 479 more yards, 13 more touchdowns, and 2 fewer interceptions than Bridgewater. Teddy has 0.5% advantage in completion percentage but trails Carr by 20.9 in quarterback rating. The advanced metrics put Carr way ahead as well. Carr's adjusted yards per attempt is 1.8 better than Bridgewater's. Carr is ranked 4th in DVOA by Football Outsiders while Teddy is ranked 27th. Pro Football Focus' newfangled rating system puts Carr at 85.4 (out of 100) while rating Teddy at 75.0. As the old saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. But these stats don't lie: Derek Carr is outplaying Teddy Bridgewater this season. The numbers probably need to be less lopsided if Minnesota hopes to win on Sunday.
One of the more glaring differences between Carr and Bridgewater has been the deep ball. I'll spare you another gif of Bridgewater badly missing an open receiver downfield; instead I'll show you the touch that Carr has shown on deep passes time and again this season:
Of course as we discovered last week, billing a game as a showdown between two offensive players doesn't always pan out that way. Todd Gurley might be nearly as talented as Adrian Peterson, but AP had a better day and his team won because of the other 21 players on the field. Minnesota's defense bottled up Gurley for the most part and the offensive line performed well enough to give Peterson some room to run. AP had a better supporting cast.
Similarly with Carr and the Raiders, the offense surrounding him has outperformed the offense around Bridgewater. The Raiders offensive line has been impressive this season. Carr has only been sacked 8 times and the O-line is ranked in the top 10 of nearly every Football Outsiders metric. The Vikings offensive line has improved in recent weeks but they're still a middle of the road unit in a league filled with horrendous lines.
Carr's skill position players have performed better as well (outside of running back of course). Michael Crabtree is having the kind of season we all hoped that Mike Wallace would be having right now. And while we have been drooling over the performance of Stefon Diggs, Amari Cooper has been making his case for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He's big, he's fast, he has great hands, and he can do things like this:
When you have receivers that can make things happen after the catch, your passing numbers are going to look a lot better. Cooper has 653 receiving yards this season; 309 of them are after the catch. That's 47.3% of his total yardage. As a team, over half of the Raiders' receiving yardage (about 51.1%) is after the catch. So Cooper hasn't been the only one making something out of nothing.
As the Jets illustrated in all the wrong ways, tackling will be incredibly important against Oakland. Thankfully the Vikings might be the best tackling team in the NFL. The Rams tried to turn all sorts of short passes into big plays last week with minimal success thanks to Minnesota's open field tackling.
Even if the Vikings can keep the YAC to a minimum they must keep the ball moving themselves. They're currently 23rd in third down conversion percentage. It's crazy to say but the Raiders might have the best offense the Vikings have faced so far this season. (Yes, I am fully aware that offense is led by none other than our old pal Bill Musgrave. I had to sit down after coming to that realization.) The Vikings need to keep drives going in order to keep their defense rested and Oakland's offense off the field. So they can't have drives falter on third down plays that could be easily converted like last week:
Depending on who you ask, this was either Bridgewater's fault for throwing a bit of a duck or it was Wallace's fault for not running a crisp route. To be honest it doesn't matter--the drive stalled because the quarterback and his supposed #1 receiver weren't in sync. The Vikings cannot afford to leave points on the field against the Raiders. You may have heard that the Vikings are the only team in the NFL to hold their opponents to 23 points or less in every game this season--it might just take more than 24 points to win this week.
The Minnesota offense is currently 26th in the league in Drive Success Rate, a metric from Football Outsiders that measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or a touchdown. Oakland ranks 9th. In other words, the Vikings drives are stalling out more often than the Raiders drives. It's only a 4% difference, but the difference between getting in the end zone and settling for 3 might be the difference in the outcome of this game.
There is definitely drive success to be had against the Oakland defense. Aldon Smith and Khalil Mack can get after the quarterback but the Raiders secondary has been pretty porous against the pass. They're fresh off allowing 284 yards to Antonio Brown, a yardage number the entire Vikings team has topped only once this season. However, their secondary just added a key piece back. The return of Nate Allen will help the Raiders in multiple areas. Not only will Oakland get a starting safety back in the mix to pair with Old Man Charles Woodson, but TJ Carrie will be able to move back to his natural cornerback position. Their secondary still won't be confused with the 2013 Legion of Boom anytime soon but they will be better than recent weeks have shown.
As of this posting, the Vikings might not have two of their best gunslingers in the fight at full strength. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, a.k.a. The Bru's Brothers, are both banged up and being held out of practice. Regardless of how Linval Joesph and the defensive line play in front, replacing those two is impossible. With all the quick-hit passing that Oakland does, missing the execution of an open field tackler like Barr (who has been wearing a soft cast on his arm this week) could prove disastrous.
I could be totally wrong--and I hope I am--but it feels like the Vikings are Leonardo DiCaprio's character in The Quick and the Dead. They're young, talented, and they keep surprising everyone by winning, but they might get caught looking ahead to the next matchup in the tournament. (I'm sure you're aware a certain divisional opponent from that state to the east of us comes to town next Sunday.) Unless Bridgewater and the offense can make a huge step forward and finish drives with much more efficiency than they have shown in the first half of the season, I'm not sure that the Vikings can keep up with the Raiders' firepower in this Wild West shootout.
Raiders 27, Vikings 23
And now for the rest of my Week 10 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Bills over JETS
The Bills are going to come into New York and punch the Jets right in the jaw tonight.
RAMS over Bears
It's kind of fun making new rivals. I was completely ambivalent about the Rams until Gregg (the extra G stands for Garbage human being) Williams came into town last week. The more teams to hate, the better!
STEELERS over Browns
No Big Ben? No problem. I'm still taking the team that has a 26-4 advantage over the last 30 games they have played against each other.
BUCCANEERS over Cowboys
I'm not sure who will win this game, but I'm sure the team that loses it will throw the game away in horrific fashion.
PACKERS over Lions
Congratulations Detroit! You get to return from your 1-7 bye week to face a pissed off team in a place where you have lost every single year since 1991! Have fun with that!
Panthers over TITANS
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 6-3 on the season after Cincinnati came through against Cleveland last week. Even though every single thing about this game screams T-R-A-P. You know what isn't a trap? The Gratuitous Picture of the Week!
"Mermaids, Waldo, and home wins / They're all hard to find for the Titans!" (image via titansonline.com)
EAGLES over Dolphins
If there was a Super Bowl for the most mediocre team that looked a hell of a lot better on paper before the season, this would be it.
REDSKINS over Saints
Hey Kirk Cousins, what do you think about facing Rob Ryan's atrocious defense?
RAVENS over Jaguars
[This space left intentionally blank to reflect how little anyone cares about this game]
Chiefs over BRONCOS
Although I can't wait to see how Andy Reid might screw up his chance at the upset this time!
Patriots over GIANTS
At least Pats fans will have to endure 7,423 references to the Helmet Catch while they cruise to 9-0.
SEAHAWKS over Cardinals
Make sure to watch this game, Vikings fans. Next month we get to face both of these NFC contenders in a five day stretch! Yay!
BENGALS over Texans
The irony is that Houston might be better off with ol' Davy Carr today.
Last week: 9-4
Season so far: 84-48