The Minnesota Vikings, the professional football team I have loved since I was 4 and the team I spend more time talking and writing about than I probably should, are about to play a playoff game less than ten miles from my front door. And when they kick off at TCF Bank Stadium Sunday to take on the Seattle Seahawks, I'm going to be over 900 miles away.
Because I also have a college football team that I love and spend too much time talking about (especially for those of you that follow me on Twitter). You see, I am a proud alumnus of North Dakota State University. My Bison are set to play for their fifth consecutive FCS national championship against Jacksonville State on Saturday. I'm heading to Frisco, Texas for a football game that doubles as a 20,000 person college reunion. The Dallas suburb has morphed into the southern version of Fargo in early January for the past half decade. The prices of flights from Fargo and Minneapolis to Dallas almost triple due to the influx of passengers. Nearly every hotel and restaurant in Frisco is adorned with banners welcoming Bison fans. Bars promote special drink prices strictly for NDSU patrons. It's the only time I can see the streets flooded with green and yellow and not get the overwhelming desire to punch everyone.
So do I have my priorities out of whack? Shouldn't I be braving the cold to attend what is very likely the only outdoor NFL playoff game in Minnesota this century? Probably, but I already booked my tickets three weeks ago and I felt an obligation to pay homage to my old collegiate stomping grounds.
NDSU wasn't the most unique college experience ever but Fargo does offer one fun quirk for a college kid--charitable gambling. Most popular Fargo beverage establishments have a blackjack table, a Pig Wheel, or some other form of low-stakes gambling available where the proceeds go to a local charity. When I was a poor college student/recent graduate, I enjoyed trying to make a night out either really cheap or really expensive from time to time. I tried to limit my betting amount to about $40 so if I lost I could still pay rent. But when I won? Money in my pocket AND I was already out at a bar?! Those were some magical nights.
"Drinks are on me! I'm playing with house money!"
There are few better feelings in the world than starting ahead like that. It's like being up two touchdowns at the opening kickoff. It's like taking out a mortgage and having the first ten years paid for.
It's like knowing you're going to get laid off so you ditch work, go to Vegas, wear a blonde wig, and go by the name "Billy" all weekend.
I have a similar feeling about the Wild Card matchup against Seattle. Nobody expected Minnesota to win the division and be hosting this game in the first place. Throughout the season the Vikings have accomplished feats that haven't been achieved in several years. They won in Chicago. They had a winning record on the road. They won back-to-back prime time games to dethrone their hated rivals in the NFC North. No matter what happens on Sunday, any Vikings fan should be able to take a step back and view this season as a success. Anything more in the postseason is really just icing on the cake.
But after that Week 13 embarrassment, I want nothing more than a huge coating of that icing. With sprinkles and a scoop of ice cream.
The Vikings are playing with house money but I want them to get greedy and double down. So how do they let it ride and end up in the black after the Seahawks cleaned them out just over a month ago?
For starters, having starters back should help. Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, and Linval Joseph played a grand total of 17 snaps in the first matchup. That number should be much higher on Sunday, which means the defensive performance should be much better. Joseph is still a risk to miss both Seattle games but as of this posting it looks like there will be a good chance that he has a say in the outcome this time around.
I could see the Vikings using Barr as a spy on Wilson since he is one of the few players that might actually be able to bottle Wilson up in the open field. Poor Danielle Hunter tried but it didn't go so well.
Keeping Wilson from running is only a small part of defending the Seahawks these days. Over the past three seasons, no quarterback has a better rating throwing from the pocket than Ciara's boyfriend. The Seattle offensive line is still swiss cheese but those receivers are downright scary right now. Before the first game I expressed my concern about Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. Now I'm absolutely petrified of Tyler Lockett. The rookie receiver had 150 total yards in Week 13 including returning the opening kickoff to midfield and finishing with a team-high seven receptions. The Minnesota defense will have to account for him at all times because the Seahawks offense gets him the ball in a variety of ways. They run him on end arounds and constantly put him in motion to create mismatches. Lockett is the West Coast version Tavon Austin. (Until, you know, Tavon Austin's team actually moves to the West Coast next season.)
Of all the weapons Seattle has, the possible return of Marshawn Lynch actually isn't that high on my list of worries. Don't get me wrong, Beast Mode is still an excellent runner when he's healthy, but he's a known quantity. As long as the Vikings wrap up and tackle like they're capable of--something they definitely did not do in the first game--Lynch's performance might mirror what Eddie Lacy did last week. Lynch will get his yards but I'd rather take my chances with Seattle force-feeding him over Wilson winging it all over the field. The Seattle offense is a "pick your poison" operation and I believe Lynch coming back from injury is less lethal.
Of course it would be nice to avoid taking any poison altogether, which is actually possible. The St. Louis Rams provided the blueprint to grounding the Hawks just two weeks ago. Can't the Vikings emulate what the Rams did?
In certain ways, yes. Going +3 in the turnover battle like St. Louis did that day would certainly help, but that's a pretty tough thing to bank on. Thankfully there are schemes that frustrated Seattle as well.
Here's a good example of something the Vikings could pull off with their personnel. The Rams used Akeem Ayers, a dynamic linebacker out of UCLA, to spy Wilson and keep him from running while the excellent St. Louis defensive line created pressure.
Hmm...dynamic linebackers from UCLA...an excellent defensive line that can get to the passer...hey, the Vikings have those things! The Minnesota defense will have to execute at a very high level--as you can see, Wilson still almost completed the pass--but slowing Seattle's offense down isn't impossible.
And if that doesn't work, maybe the Vikings could just borrow the Rams' uniforms for a week. Apparently made-up bird species hate animals from the Bovidae family.
So let's say that the Minnesota defense is able to to force a handful of punts and mistakes from Seattle. Can the Vikings offense do anything with it? Remember, Minnesota scored zero offensive points and had 125 total yards in Week 13, their fifth lowest offensive output in franchise history. (Fun side note: the Vikings actually beat the Packers in their worst offensive game. They won 3-0 with 87 yards!) If they can avoid the big early deficit on Sunday, can't the Vikings pound the rock and grind out a win? Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson are certainly on par with that legendary combo of Case Keenum and Todd Gurley!
Sure, but it's not like the Rams moved the ball all that well in their Week 16 win. St. Louis had 207 yards of offense. The Seahawks ended the season with the third best defensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders for a reason. The loss of Rhett Ellison isn't going to help matters either. Ellison played half the snaps in the first game against Seattle. His run blocking is the most obvious trait that the Vikings will miss, but he was also used to help out T.J. Clemmings on the right side in pass protection several times. Without the extra help Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril will be poised for another big day of terrorizing Teddy.
In short, I don't see how the Vikings will rack up a ton of yards against Seattle with their conventional offense. It's obviously a daunting matchup. But remember, the Vikings are playing with house money! House money means Norv Turner can try all sorts of crazy stuff. Why not? Try a halfback pass with Jerick McKinnon (who threw over 80 passes in college). Run a couple zero blitzes to try and get a big play or turnover on defense. Hell, maybe you could go really wild and throw a pass or two to Charles Johnson! The possibilities are endless. If the Vikings do go down, I hope they at least go down swinging. I don't want to see another performance like Week 13.
There are a handful of signs pointing to a much better performance too. First: baby, it's Skol'd outside. As in one of the coldest games in NFL history. As in cold enough to freeze your nanobubbles off. With a pretty strong wind thrown in for good measure. Bad weather can be an excellent equalizer. It's also an early game for the Seahawks, 10:00 AM on Seattle's body clocks. (Which obviously made a huge difference last time, right?) The Vikings are an NFL-best 13-3 against the spread this season. So if you think the Seahawks are poised for another blowout, bet against the Vikings at your own peril. It hasn't worked very often. Besides, home underdogs in the playoffs are always dangerous--just ask the 2010 Seahawks. Finally, the 2015 Vikings Revenge Tour is already underway--they got it started with their first gig at Lambeau last week. Now it's time for a date in Minneapolis followed by another show in the desert next week. It's only fitting, right?
These "x factors" are nice talking points but in the end it still probably comes down to the performance of Teddy Bridgewater. If he plays as poorly as he did in Green Bay last week, I don't see how the Vikings win. If he doesn't have time to throw again, the upset isn't happening. If he turns the ball over, forget about it. If he's "too hyped up", even for a series or two, that might be all Seattle needs to jump on the lead and never look back. I think Bridgewater will need to go toe to toe with Wilson and put up similar numbers in order for the Vikings to advance. That means the defense bringing Wilson's stats down and Teddy stepping his game up because no reasonable observer thinks the Minnesota offense is built to perform like Seattle's has down the stretch. I think you'll see a much better game from the Vikings and this game will be a lot closer, but I fear that this will be my last game preview of the 2015 season. Seattle has too many ways to hurt you on both sides of the ball. Unless the Vikings play their very best game of the season--which is entirely possible--I think the two-time defending NFC champions will survive and advance.
But if I'm wrong and the Vikings win with their house money? Drinks are on me. (Like, literally. I'll probably be pouring beer on myself somewhere in Texas if it happens.)
Seahawks 28, Vikings 23
(Bonus pick: NDSU 31, Jacksonville State 27. GO BISON!)
And now for the rest of my Wild Card picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Chiefs over TEXANS
When the playoff matchups were set there was a 100% chance that this "thriller" was going in the Saturday afternoon slot (traditionally the lowest-rated game of the weekend). Brian Hoyer! Alex Smith! CATCH THE THRILL! However, there are still a couple of interesting subplots in what appears to be a certain Kansas City win:
- Can J.J. Watt win a playoff game by himself?
- Will Playoff Andy Reid rear his ugly head again and sabotage the Chiefs' chance at a first playoff win in 22 years?
Steelers over BENGALS
REDSKINS over Packers
Last week: 10-6
2015 regular season: 160-98