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First, a disclaimer: I'm not a pro wrestling expert. I haven't watched wrestling since Hulk Hogan was in the nWo. Our Daily Norseman founder Chris Gates has forgotten exponentially more than I'll ever know about the squared circle. But one match from my childhood came to mind when I sat down to write this preview.
The date was May 7, 1989. Wrestling legend Ric Flair was about to take on Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat in the first-ever WrestleWar '89 for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. (This was a period in professional wrestling where a bunch of WWF stars briefly migrated to WCW.) Flair was already a 5-time champion but he was trying to unseat the upstart title holder Steamboat, who had stormed onto the scene to take Flair's title earlier in the year. Steamboat was the next big thing, but Flair was out to prove that he wasn't done yet. Before the match Flair delivered one of my favorite promo lines ever:
"To be the man, you gotta beat the man! WOOOO!" First, let's appreciate how it was assumed that this was Flair's "last" shot at the title yet he went on to wrestle for about 25 more years. Second, the phrase "I'll kiss your boots if you can do it" is never not funny. Third, let's make a flimsy connection between a wrestling match that happened over a quarter of a century ago and Sunday's football game!
Nobody expected the Vikings to be 8-3 and atop of the NFC North at this point of the season. Likewise, nobody expected the Seahawks to struggle closing out opponents and be effectively 3.5 games back in the NFC West. The Vikings desperately want to be "the man" in the NFC. But in order to realize their lofty goals, they're going to have to beat "the man." Seattle is still the two-time defending conference champions and they aren't going to go down without a fight.
So how can the Vikings fly off the top turnbuckle and escape the figure-four leg lock the Seahawks have had on the conference the past two seasons? The best way would be to body slam Russell Wilson early and often. Seattle's offensive line has allowed that to happen more than all but one team in the league this season. Early in the season the Seahawks line was basically the polar opposite of the early 1990's Cowboys. They allowed defenders through like bouncers let cute girls into a night club. Their blocking around the edge has been dare I say, Clemmings-esque at times.
Seattle's line play has improved in recent weeks, especially in the past two home victories. Putting Patrick Lewis in at center over Drew Nowak has helped but their line certainly isn't invincible. The Steelers were able to get to Wilson with some A-gap pressure last week, something that should make Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks very excited.
Much is made about Wilson's scrambling ability once he's under pressure. We have all seen the highlights. His running can definitely keep drives alive but giving him time to throw usually hurts more. Wilson was absolutely on point when he had a good pocket against the Steelers last week. The whole "keep him between the tackles and he can't hurt you" theory doesn't hold water when Wilson gets a chance to see the field.
What can hurt you is injuries, and Seattle will be missing two significant players on offense when they visit Minnesota. Jimmy Graham is out for the season after tearing his Patellar tendon and Marshawn Lynch is out with a sports hernia injury. To tell you the truth, I don't think Seattle will miss either guy all that much. Graham is a special talent that never really seemed to totally fit with the Seahawks' offensive scheme. It kind of felt like they were force feeding him targets at times. Doug Baldwin is quietly having a great season (he currently ranks 3rd in DVOA among all wide receivers by Football Outsiders) and Jermaine Kearse is always a big play threat. Wilson's options are still better than what Teddy Bridgewater currently has to work with.
The blow of losing Beast Mode has been lessened by the impressive performance of Thomas Rawls. He has more explosiveness than Lynch and can still pick up the tough yards when needed. He's on pace to win thousands of fantasy football championships while miffed Lynch owners curse their awful luck.
So in summary, the Vikings better get after Wilson because Seattle's offense still has plenty of ways to make you pay if you don't. You are welcome for that revolutionary theory.
On the other side of the ball, the #PrayForTeddy hashtag has already been started. The thought of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett breezing past T.J. Clemmings and pulverizing our quarterback has Vikings fans incredibly nervous with good reason. After Sunday's game I might not have to post gifs like this one--it will simply happen over and over in real time.
Of course there are ways to counteract such a gigantic mismatch--a whole lot of tight ends and backs helping to block in max protection and a whole lot of Adrian Peterson. There's a reason why the Vikings are 6-0 when Bridgewater throws for less than 200 yards this season. It means that the Vikings aren't playing from behind and they can take advantage of the league's best running back. After all, it's not like the Vikings wide receivers will be able to do anything against the Legion of Boom, right?
Well, not necessarily. The Legion of Boom is still solid but they aren't what they used to be. They're more like the Legion of Slightly Startling Noise. The Seahawks secondary has suddenly gone from historically great to pretty good. The Vikings are allowing fewer passing yards per game and attempt than Seattle, who just allowed 480 yards through the air against Pittsburgh. Of course the Steelers have Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, who do more in a game than Mike Wallace does in two months. But the Vikings can't afford to get too one-dimensional so they'll have to move the ball in the passing game from time to time. I would suggest going after Deshawn Shead, who is a weaker link in the Seahawks secondary than that Ed Norton Incredible Hulk movie is in the Marvel universe. Ben Roethlisberger constantly picked on Shead last week. Let's hope that either Shead lines up on Stefon Diggs a lot or Wallace finally wakes up from his coma.
It isn't crazy to think that the Vikings could put up a bunch of points on Sunday. When you look at last week's box score against the Falcons, it seems like the Vikings struggled to score. Scoring 20 isn't all that impressive until you realize that the Vikings only had 8 drives in the game excluding kneel downs. That means they scored 2.5 points per drive. If the Vikings did that every game it would be the third best scoring efficiency in the league, behind only the Patriots and Cardinals. So even though they left at least 6 points on the field with the missed field goal and interception, the Vikings once again followed their winning blueprint: control the clock, minimize mistakes, and lean on the defense to make big stops.
Hmm. A young quarterback that can buy time with his legs and make plays but doesn't put up gaudy passing numbers. One of the best running backs in the league carrying the offense. A very good defense that keeps them in every game. An underrated team that surprised a lot of people and made the playoffs while building toward better things in the future. Are the 2015 Vikings a new version of the 2012 Seahawks? It isn't a perfect comparison but there are enough similarities to make Minnesota fans excited about the future.
I'm just not 100% sold on the present. Everyone acts like the Seahawks are so much worse than they were last season. I'm not here to tell you they're playing Super Bowl-caliber football right now, but the Vikings are still facing a very good team on Sunday. If Seattle had held onto just one of their four fourth quarter leads they have squandered so far this season, they would have the exact same record that they did at this point last year.
It turns out that Ric Flair won his title back on that night in 1989. The former champ was still the man and the next big thing would have to wait for another shot to beat the man. I think it plays out that way at TCF on Sunday. I want the Vikings to take the next step and take down the champs, but I don't believe they're ready to do so just yet. I think the Seahawks will continue their late season surge and prove why they're still a force to be reckoned with in a well-played and hard-fought battle. In the end I think the Seahawks do a lot of what the Vikings are trying to do, just a little better. Minnesota is building the framework while Seattle wants to prove that their framework is still intact.
But if I'm wrong and the Vikings are up to the challenge, you better believe that I'll be stylin', profilin', and yelling "WOOOOOO!" louder than anyone.
Seahawks 27, Vikings 20
And now for the rest of my Week 13 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Packers over LIONS
We can dream about a Detroit sweep, but depending on Detroit to win a big football game is like depending on Detroit to be a thriving city.
BUCCANEERS over Falcons
C'mon. We all saw Atlanta last week. They can't be fixed. What we haven't seen is the Bucs cheerleaders as the Gratuitous Picture of the Week. Let's fix that.
"There are five of us to get your kicks / One for each of Ryan's picks!" (image via buccaneers.com)
Texans over BILLS
The AFC South might get two playoff teams this season. The rest of the AFC should be ashamed of themselves.
BEARS over 49ers
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, which is basically a kiss of death this season at only 7-5 on the year. #SorryNotSorry Chicago.
Bengals over BROWNS
Cleveland suffering makes Minnesota suffering look like amateur hour. Not even Matt Schaub could out-Cleveland the Browns on Monday.
TITANS over Jaguars
Of all the empty stats that Blake Bortles puts up, my favorite is his yards per attempt after running past the line of scrimmage.
Cardinals over RAMS
"I feel so bad for Jeff Fisher," said nobody ever.
DOLPHINS over Ravens
Based on the "every time Miami fires a coach they play great for one game" corollary.
Jets over GIANTS
I'm getting a little worried about Week 16, when the 6-8 Giants come to Minnesota needing a win to clinch the NFC East.
Broncos over CHARGERS
You know what I haven't heard anyone talk about yet? If Peyton Manning is healthy, do the Broncos keep starting Brock Osweiler? Oh wait that's the only thing I've heard anyone talk about for the past five days.
Chiefs over RAIDERS
One fact I expect to still hold true after this week: the Minnesota Vikings are the last team to beat both the Chiefs and the Panthers in the regular season.
PATRIOTS over Eagles
Injuries schminjuries. Tom Brady and ten Pop Warner players could still hang 40 on Philly.
Panthers over SAINTS
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STEELERS over Colts
This game will be decided by either Roethlisberger getting decapitated and being listed as probable the following week or Matt Hasselbeck dozing off on the bench in the third quarter because it's way past his bedtime.
REDSKINS over Cowboys
I'm not sure what's dumber--Jerry Johnson refusing to put Tony Romo on the IR "in case they make a deep playoff run" or me drafting Romo and Dez Bryant in both of my fantasy leagues.
Last week: 10-6
Season so far: 109-67