"C'mon. Just one more drink. I'll buy. You can't go home yet!"
It's the siren song that people around my age hear so often from "that friend" when you only intend to go out "for a beer or two." Well all know "that friend." While you have to worry about your job, responsibilities, and/or children the following day, this guy hasn't a care in the world. He's single so he doesn't have to worry about checking in with anyone. He has a job but it isn't regular office hours so he can sleep in if he wants. He doesn't have a family so he can spend all his disposable income however he wants. (It's usually on partying and spur of the moment road trips with his other single buddies.)
You're looking at your watch trying to calculate how much sleep you'll be able to get before your alarm goes off the next morning; he's looking at his watch trying to calculate how many shots he can down before bar close. The older you get, the more amazed you become with this person's ability to give zero f*cks about "real life" problems. You should be proud that you have other people that depend on you. Yet for some reason it feels like you're being penalized for actually having your shit together.
I get a similar feeling when I think about the upcoming game between the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears. Even after dropping consecutive games the Vikings are in the thick of the NFC playoff race; they have important business to attend to. Meanwhile the Bears have quite literally booted their season away in recent weeks and come into town with nearly nothing to lose.
As we saw last Thursday, the "nothing to lose" mentality can be effective. Everyone was bracing for a blowout in Arizona, myself included. The Vikings were decimated by injuries and visiting one of the league's best teams on a short week. Then they proceeded to come within a play or two of actually winning the damn thing. Minnesota seemed to feed off all the doubt and negativity and put together a pretty impressive performance. So in an odd way I'm a little envious of Bears fans this week. Anything outside of another crushing Chicago loss would be gravy for the Ditka worshipers, so all the pressure is on the Vikings.
Of course, much like being "that friend" seems fun every once in a while, I wouldn't actually switch places with Bears fans right now for anything. So let's focus on how the Vikings can feed off that pressure and assure themselves a much-needed victory.
The main concern for many Vikings fans continues to be the play of the offensive line. The last time around the Vikings offensive line was actually OK for the most part. They allowed their requisite handful of hurries but Chicago only sacked Teddy Bridgewater once. That one sack was pretty brutal though:
Pernell McPhee should still be the central focus for all Vikings blockers. Matt Kalil and (especially) T.J. Clemmings should get help nearly every time he lines up on their respective sides. If McPhee is accounted for the rest of the Bears pass rushers aren't much of a threat.
Even if McPhee and other Chicago defenders do get into the backfield with regularity, the Vikings can neutralize the threat with smart play calling. I really like what Norv Turner dialed up in the first half to help the Vikings move the ball. They frequently used misdirection and rolled Bridgewater out of the pocket to counteract Arizona's aggressive defense.
(Note to Norv: this play would have probably been better than what you called with 13 seconds left. You are also allowed to continue to call plays that work for the entire 60 minutes of a football game. You don't have to get more vanilla as the game wears on.)
Mixing it up should allow more room for Adrian Peterson as well. AP is still the main staple of the Vikings offense and he could be in line for another very productive day against Chicago. The Bears are 26th in rushing yards allowed so expect more runs like this:
The Peterson Proportion isn't going away but the Vikings still need to trust that Bridgewater can make the necessary plays. Running into the line on every first down only works if you're playing Tecmo Super Bowl with Bo Jackson or using the unstoppable juke move in NFL Gameday 99. Minnesota can lean on AP but they shouldn't use him as a crutch.
If you haven't read Arif's latest master class of breaking down Teddy, do yourself a favor and read it now. He explains in painstaking detail that the traditional box score isn't the most reliable way to measure Bridgewater's effectiveness. (Arif also successfully pulls off the word "ameliorated" in the article, which might be more impressive than anything Bridgewater has done this season.) Bridgewater played one of the better games of his short career last week; hopefully he can build upon that performance and continue to quiet the vocal minority of Teddy Truthers out there.
As long as the Vikings can protect the ball and avoid being predictable, there should be enough yards and points for the taking. The Vikings might need to control possession in order to help out their beat up defense. As much as we (and the rest of the internet) enjoy ripping on Jay Cutler, he has quietly been putting together a pretty respectable season. Smokin' Jay has fewer interceptions than Bridgewater this season and has put his team in position to succeed more times than they actually have. (Isn't that right, Robbie Gould?) His favorite target, Alshon Jeffery, carved up the Vikings to the tune of 10 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown in their Week 8 meeting.
Jeffery was targeted on 15 of Cutler's 33 passes in the first matchup. With Martellus Bennett and Marquess Wilson on injured reserve that ratio could be even higher on Sunday. Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford are still threats to gain chunks of yards on the ground but neither has the explosive ability of Jeffery. Forte hasn't been the same since this hit from Harrison Smith:
Like McPhee on the other side of the ball, the Vikings should not try to handle Jeffery with one person. If Xavier Rhodes can shadow Jeffery, play more like he did against Julio Jones, and less like his first drive against Arizona last week, they might be able to prevent a repeat performance. Because you know Cutler is going to be looking for Jefferey early and often regardless of how well he's covered. If you thought Cutler DGAF before, imagine how he's going to be winging it now that his team is basically out of it. Beware the team with nothing to lose.
As of this posting the injury status of the Vikings' key defensive players is still in question for Sunday. Thankfully most of the youngsters filling in have performed well. There has been a lot of discussion about how many rookies started last week and how much of an impact they have made this season. (Basically everyone but Trae Waynes is getting some run. Go figure.) At this point of the season they shouldn't even be considered rookies anymore. They have a full college season worth of NFL games under their belt and many of them have played a significant role throughout. Minnesota's young guns need to step up again, especially if Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, or Linval Joseph can't go. Eric Kendricks needs to keep getting better with his tackling, especially against the pass. Stefon Diggs has to prove that last week's quiet performance was a product of being covered by Patrick Peterson and not a sign of hitting a rookie wall. Danielle Hunter needs to keep riding the momentum he has built up over the past few weeks and continue to make big plays. Anthony Harris has to prove that last week wasn't beginner's luck and he deserves more snaps at safety. And Clemmings has to stop making me worry about Bridgewater's long-term health so often.
In the end I think we'll see another closely contested game between the division rivals. The Bears are probably a better team than their record indicates. Nine of Chicago's last ten games have been decided by less than a touchdown and I think that trend continues on Sunday. Thankfully another trend we have seen this season is the Vikings winning the games they "should" win. If it comes down to the kickers, I'm glad Minnesota has Blair Walsh after the December Gould has been having. I see the Vikings doing just enough to pull off the season sweep and put themselves in a very favorable position to make the postseason.
And if I'm wrong, I think I might need to call up "that friend" and go out for more than just a beer or two to dull the pain.
Vikings 24, Bears 20
For more on the Bears
And now for the rest of my Week 15 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Buccaneers over RAMS
The Vikings need the Bucs to lose Thursday in order to have a shot at clinching a playoff berth Sunday. Therefore, I'm making this my Survivor Pool pick of the week. It's the ultimate jinx--I'm only 7-7 on the season and I have lost the last four picks. St. Louis is sure to win now!
Jets over COWBOYS
A Saturday night game! I love these! Of course I'd love it a lot more if I didn't have to watch Matt Cassel and Dez Bryant make Teddy Bridgewater and Mike Wallace look like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.
JAGUARS over Falcons
Want to be entertained for a few hours? Send out a tweet to both a Jaguars blogger and and advanced stats guy asking them what they think about Blake Bortles. Then stand back and watch the fireworks as they argue over his merits.
Bills over REDSKINS
I have officially given up trying to figure out either of these teams. Do they suck? Are they talented but underachieving? Should I even care?
PATRIOTS over Titans
The only intriguing part of this game is whether we'll see the "eff you" Pats that will humiliate the weaker team and win by a billion points or the "show just enough to win" Pats that will keep everything basic and only win by two touchdowns.
Texans over COLTS
T.J. Yates vs. Charlie Whitehurst? Yeah let's just do the Gratuitous Picture of the Week.
"Hasselbeck, Whitehurst, Andrew Luck / no matter what we'll probably suck!" (image via colts.com)
Chiefs over RAVENS
Although I could see Baltimore keeping this one closer than most people think. You know the old saying: it ain't over until Justin Tucker sings.
GIANTS over Panthers
Yep, I'm doing it. Carolina is a little beat up and all Eli Manning does is ruin undefeated seasons.
SEAHAWKS over Browns
There are no scenarios where I see Cleveland pulling the upset. Even if the most Cleveland scenario would be to win this game and ruin their draft pick.
Packers over RAIDERS
Green Bay has to be the most unsatisfying 9-4 team in recent memory. They're in first place but even the most ardent Packer backers are disappointed in their performances. They're like eating lentils--they're nutritious and you'll be full afterward but you won't enjoy any of it.
Bengals over 49ERS
You just know that Katherine Webb was psyched to see Andy Dalton go down last week. "Ooh my husband's playing football again! People are going to start asking me questions that I'm not even close to being qualified to answer just like they did in Alabama!"
STEELERS over Broncos
"TOLD-you-he-was-n't-that-good!" --Peyton Manning
Dolphins over CHARGERS
At least fans of both teams have amazing cities to live in while they cheer on their horrible teams. (Well, at least for now, right San Diego?)
Cardinals over EAGLES
I'm not sure what I want more: Philadelphia missing the playoffs so they get rid of Chip Kelly and make the world's worst fans blow another gasket or Philadelphia making the playoffs and getting throttled by Seattle at home to end their season. Decisions, decisions.
SAINTS over Lions
Does anyone know what the record is for most combined touchdowns and interceptions thrown in a game? I think the ESPN stats guys should have that handy for this game just in case.
Last week: 9-7
Season so far: 130-78