The electricity in the air was palpable on the night of the prize fight. The slender challenger from Minnesota by way of Miami had packed on some muscle leading up to the fight, but nobody thought his skinny knees and limp right jab would stand a chance against his hulking opponent. The daunting, ominous fighter known only as "The Playoffs" was an 800-pound gorilla that hadn't even been touched in almost three years. Most bookmakers had the kid as a 20-1 underdog just for the fight to go the distance. But Teddy Bridgeboa was tougher than 20 grit sandpaper and had the best corner man in the business.
Mickey Zimmer, the grizzled trainer who had been through everything and looked like he had been through even more, shouted no-nonsense instructions to Bridgeboa in his gruff voice. "YOU'RE GONNA EAT BLITZES AND CRAP TOUCHDOWNS!"
To everyone's surprise, Bridgeboa was actually holding his own about halfway through the fight. It wasn't always pretty--Teddy took his fair share of licks and missed some open combinations he should have connected on--but the kid was actually up on rounds 5-2 heading into the 8th. David was holding his own against Goliath.
But the fight was far from over. Knocking down The Playoffs wasn't going to be easy. He stormed back with a "Fairley-Long-Donald-Quinn-Brockers" combo, a technique originated in St. Louis gyms. Teddy's "Fusco" blocking style was reliable from the right side, but for some reason it was useless to stop anything from the left. Bridgeboa got smacked around for what felt like an hour before finally being knocked to the canvas.
Mickey looked away. He couldn't watch his guy take another beating like this. "STAY DOWN! STAY DOWN!" screamed his cut man, nicknamed The Sugar Man because he always made you feel sweeter. "YA CAN'T WIN, TED!"
Bridgeboa didn't listen. He slowly staggered to his feet, squaring up to fight again. Teddy turned around, looked back towards his corner, and bellowed at the top of his lungs:
And then Teddy handed off his gloves to his sparring partner to finish the fight for him.
Most of the time when I start writing my weekly Vikings previews I know who I'm picking to win and I build my narrative around it. But honestly I'm a little stumped this time around. I have already gone back and forth with my pick more times than Aaliyah. The Vikings and Rams have some amazing strengths, glaring weaknesses, and striking similarities. Both teams are also trying to beat formidable odds to fight their way into the playoffs. Minnesota and St. Louis are currently the 6th and 7th seeds in the NFC respectively; the Vikings have made the playoffs in only three of the past ten seasons while the Rams haven't qualified for the postseason since 2004. Beating that 800-pound gorilla is no easy task for these teams but both seem like they could be on the cusp.
As they say in boxing, styles make fights. Since this looks like it could be a good old fashioned slobberknocker, I'm going to the tale of the tape to help decide. I'll break down the major matchups in this bout of up and coming contenders to see who I'll pick. Let's start with the main event.
Adrian Peterson vs. Todd Gurley
It's the classic boxing movie matchup--the veteran champion out to prove he still has it versus the undefeated up-and-comer looking to show the world that he's the new standard. Adrian Peterson has arguably been the best running back in the league since he burst on the scene in 2007. Todd Gurley has only played five professional football games in his career but it already looks like he's gunning for Peterson's title. Exactly two running backs in NFL history have rushed for over 100 yards in four of their first five games; both will be starting at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
If you have read anything about Gurley in the past couple weeks, you'd think that he was Adrian Peterson 3.0--an unstoppable blend of Gale Sayers, LeBron James, Barry Sanders, and Wolverine. This was an actual quote from an SB Nation article. Not Turf Show Times, but from our parent site:
Todd Gurley doesn't really need blockers. He just needs some vague hint of sunshine to ping-pong his way through a sweaty mass of humanity.
Look. I get it. The dude is electrifying. He's fast, he can break tackles, and if you don't cover your gaps, this happens:
But Gurley's season has been more similar to Peterson's than you might think. Just like AP, Gurley has toiled behind some pretty poor blocking and has been stopped near the line of scrimmage on a large portion of his runs. Like Peterson, most of Gurley's gaudy stats are racked up on a handful of "home run" plays while the rest of his touches have minimal success.
Speaking of success, Football Outsiders has a statistic for running backs called Success Rate. You can read all about what goes into it here, but basically it represents a back's consistency. Success Rate is measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays. Gurley has a Success Rate of 45% this season. Peterson: 44%.
Am I still terrified of what Gurley might do? Of course. He will definitely be the #1 priority for the Vikings defense on Sunday. But let's hold off on comparing him to Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson for now.
Advantage: Push. Which is pretty amazing since we're comparing one of the best backs ever to a guy that has played five games.
Stefon Diggs vs. Tavon Austin
This is like one of those flyweight matchups on the undercard that nobody pays attention to until they start throwing haymakers for ten rounds. Both Diggs and Austin were only supposed to make noise in the return game this year; neither was being taken seriously as a viable wide receiver threat this early in their careers.
It's obviously time to take both of them seriously. Austin gives the St. Louis offense another home run threat every time he touches the ball. He quickly turned a simple screen into points last week against the 49ers:
Thankfully the Vikings have a home run threat of their own at wide receiver. We're running out of superlatives to describe the season Diggs is having. His route running, his hands, and his elusiveness saved the Vikings yet again last week:
Austin might be a better big play threat but Diggs is already doing everything you could ask for from a young receiver.
Advantage: Vikings. But just a slight one, and only if Diggs is 100%. (I hate writing these previews to post on Thursday when it comes to injuries.)
The rest of the passing targets
This is the undercard fight that only got booked because one of the promoters owed a favor to one of the fighters' second cousins. Outside of Diggs and Austin both teams have a murderer's row of disappointment when it comes to pass catchers.
Mike Wallace, Jarius Wright, Kyle Rudolph, and Charles Johnson have combined for 719 yards this season. Antonio Brown has 718 and he had to deal with Mike Vick and Landry Jones for a month! It isn't any better for the Rams: Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, and Brian Quick have combined for 693. There are six individual receivers with more yardage this season. Yikes.
Advantage: Nobody. Both fighters threw in the towel here.
Teddy Bridgewater vs. Nick Foles
This should have been the fight right before the main event between two young fighters poised to contend for the belt in the coming years. Instead it looks like two overly cautious fighters throwing listless jabs at each other as they timidly circle the ring.
Bridgeboa--er, Bridgewater--has been solid most of the year. His numbers haven't been great most weeks but they really shouldn't be with how Norv Turner is currently running the offense. Teddy ranks towards the bottom in most cumulative statistics yet lands towards the middle in more qualitative numbers like Pro Football Focus rating and Total QBR. I was a little critical of Bridgewater last week on Twitter and was unsurprisingly chastised by Teddy Truthers for it. I still think the Chicago game was probably his worst overall game of the season even when you include the fourth quarter heroics. He missed some open deep balls, which isn't a new development. What was new last week is the fact that he had more time to pass and the Bears' pass coverage was better than expected. Bridgewater didn't fare well with his new experiences.
It's almost like he was so used to getting chased if his first couple reads were covered that he didn't know what to do with the extra time.
Teddy has been playing "good enough to win" for the past few weeks. He'll need to play significantly better for that to remain true over the next stretch of games.
Meanwhile, there isn't much debate around the fact that Nick Foles has been underwhelming in his first season with the Rams. To be fair, he isn't asked to do as much in his offense and his receivers aren't doing him many favors either. And he's still probably an upgrade over Sam Bradford. But Foles ranks behind Bridgewater on most advanced metrics and his play backs it up. He hasn't been awful, but there have been too many passes and decisions that leave you scratching your head.
Advantage: Vikings. But not as big as it could be.
At first glance this heavyweight bout seems incredibly close. The Vikings are allowing the second fewest points per game; the Rams are allowing the fourth fewest. The Rams allow the sixth fewest yards per game in the league; the Vikings are one spot behind. But the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings tell a different story. Their complex ranking system takes compares a team's performance on every play based on the situation and the strength of opponent.
Since most of the Vikings' wins have come over teams from the bottom of these rankings, the opponent adjustment hasn't been kind to Minnesota. The Rams defense ranks 4th while Minnesota's is all the way down at 24th. Aaron Schatz further explained why the Vikings have such a low DVOA last week:
Every week, the Vikings' Week 1 loss looks worse as the 49ers play like garbage and the opponent adjustments gradually get stronger.
Pretty hard to argue that. Except everyone knows that Week 1 didn't actually count because that stupid really late Monday Night Football game is always screwy and the Vikings thought it was their sixth preseason game so that's why their DVOA isn't as good as it should be! (Right?!)
That said, the Rams still probably have a better overall defense. I have been saying all season that Minnesota's defensive line is their deepest and most talented unit. It might not even be the deepest or most talented defensive line in the game Sunday. Depending on the injury status of Robert Quinn and Chris Long, St. Louis can trot out about a half dozen very formidable weapons to get after the quarterback. Bridgewater won't need to worry about the extra time he had in Chicago this time around.
While Vikings linebackers are a step above what the Rams have to offer (as long as Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are OK to play), the Rams definitely have the advantage in the secondary. Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Rodney McLeod, and T.J McDonald are all having solid seasons. Mixing a good secondary with a great pass rush is a lethal combination for opposing offenses.
And remember, the Rams defense is run by Gregg Williams, whom Vikings fans should be intimately familiar with thanks to the 2009 NFC Championship Game. (Fun fact: the extra G in Gregg stands for GODDAMN CHEATER.) He might be a horrible person but he's still pretty good at calling up defenses.
Advantage: Rams. And it's fairly significant.
This is one those ridiculous "Toughman" fights where two overweight guys slug it out and it lasts two rounds at the most because nobody blocks. We have spent plenty of time griping about the Vikings offensive line this season. Either the run blocking isn't opening enough holes for Peterson or the pass blocking isn't giving Teddy enough time. Just know that it could be worse. Much worse. It feels like a large majority of the league has the same kind of complaints about their offensive lines, and Pro Football focus agrees. The Vikings actually are in the top half of the league in their rankings, coming in at 14th.
The Rams offensive line is decidedly not in the top half at 27th. Gurley is going to have to earn every yard he gets on Sunday.
Advantage: Vikings. No, really!
It's true that the Rams haven't been playing a murderer's row of a schedule either over the past couple weeks. To borrow another boxing term, St. Louis and Minnesota have been beating up on tomato cans. The Browns and 49ers are every bit as bad as the Bears and Lions. But the Rams have something the Vikings don't--a victory over a team with a winning record (Arizona in Week 4). On the road, no less. They also upset the Seahawks in Week 1. That seemed a lot more impressive at the time, but Seattle will likely be favored when they visit Minnesota in a month. The overall DVOA rankings agree: St. Louis is 13th while the Vikings are 27th.
Advantage: Rams. Mostly because of that damn 49ers game.
Turnovers and Special Teams
When everything else seems so closely matched, these are the two factors that can make the difference on the judges' scorecards. Turnover margin for the Rams (+3) and Vikings (+1) is basically a wash. However, the Vikings have had some pretty incredible fumble luck through the first seven games. They have recovered 6 of their 9 fumbles on offense and had recovered every opponent fumble up until Marc Mariani's two muffed punts last week.
I never thought I would say this a month ago, but Minnesota has a distinct advantage in the kicking game. Blair Walsh has been making just about everything while Greg Zuerlein is only 9 of 15 on field goals this season. Scoring should be at a premium and Walsh's leg will likely be called upon to score some very important points.
Advantage: Vikings. You can keep Greg the Leg.
Hopefully the judges scored this one right, because I think the loser of this game has a very good chance to be KO'ed from the playoff picture. The road doesn't get any easier for the Vikings over the next several weeks, so they need to win this prizefight.
Vikings 16, Rams 13
And now for the rest of my Week 9 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
BENGALS over Browns
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, which is turning into more of a curse than a sure thing since I'm only 5-3 on the season. At least it sounds like Johnny Manziel will start for Cleveland, which is one way to make a 34-0 blowout seem interesting.
Dolphins over BILLS
Packers over PANTHERS
At least the Vikings were able to keep it respectable and throw for over 100 yards in Denver. What a bum that Aaron Rodgers is. I don't think it will happen two weeks in a row, but I'd love nothing more than to be proven wrong.
SAINTS over Titans
I have given up on trying to figure out the Saints. Fortunately Tennessee has just plain given up which makes this pick a lot easier. One thing we haven't given up on is the Gratuitous Picture of the Week!
STEELERS over Raiders
Oakland has actually beaten Pittsburgh four of last five times they have played each other. But the Raiders don't suck this time so they won't be able to sneak up on the Steelers.
PATRIOTS over Redskins
YOU LIKE THAT, KIRK COUSINS?! And by "that", I mean getting destroyed by 20+ points on the road.
JETS over Jaguars
I almost went with the upset pick here until I realized that Jacksonville has lost their last 12 road games. To be honest I thought the streak was longer.
Falcons over 49ERS
If Atlanta loses to Blaine Gabbert it should count as three losses.
Giants over BUCCANEERS
If I was a fan of either team there is literally no lead that would make me feel comfortable until the final whistle. The Giants and Bucs are capable of anything. I wouldn't be surprised if Eli Manning somehow threw a pick six directly to Jameis Winston. I'm not sure how that would work but I'm not willing to take it off the table.
COLTS over Broncos
I know, this is such a stupid pick. But let me try to justify it. The Colts just fired their offensive coordinator, who was totally the main problem. It certainly wasn't their banged up star quarterback that has been handing out interceptions like first time mothers dole out hand sanitizer to everyone that wants to hold their baby. I think this is the week they ditch their strategy of falling behind by three scores before Andrew Luck leads a furious comeback that ultimately falls short. Besides, Peyton Manning is still a sucker for his old team. He doesn't want to kick them while they're down.
Bears over CHARGERS
San Diego basically has anti-home field advantage. There were TONS of Steelers and Raiders fans at their last two home games, and I'm guessing there are a hefty amount of Chicago transplants on the west coast that will be making the trip. Plus six more Chargers players were injured in the time it took you to read this pick.
Last week: 10-4
Season so far: 75-44