After getting swept by the Lions for the second time in three seasons and dropping another spot in the “In The Hunt” playoff list, I expected mostly doom and gloom from Vikings fans this week. As Minnesota prepares to host the team with the best record in the NFL in front of a national audience on Thursday night, I expected the sentiment of an impending blowout loss at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys to be nearly universal. Surprisingly, there is a decent amount of optimism heading into the game.
“Dak Prescott is due for a clunker.”
“Dallas’ defense can’t stop anybody and their pass rush isn’t that great. Kirk Cousins threw for a million yards on them last week; maybe our offense can finally get going against them.”
“The Cowboys offense is great but our defense is still really good. We could slow them down.”
“Home teams usually have the advantage in these Thursday night games. The Vikes have been much better at home too.”
“The Vikings are getting healthier; having Diggs and Newman back will be huge.”
“Zimmer always gets the team playing well when nobody expects them to win.”
“If we can pull this one off, we’re still in good shape to make the playoffs!”
“Those Color Rush uniforms are pretty sharp; I bet they’ll make the Vikings play better.”
All good reasons (well, except maybe the last one) to conjure up one of Vikings fans’ favorite four-letter words: hope. Perhaps all is not lost! Maybe there’s still something left in the tank this season!
Before you get too caught up in the pipe dream, allow me to insert some prudence for those allowing themselves to get their hopes up: just stop. Seriously. Stop.
Have you been watching the Cowboys this season? Have you been watching the Vikings the past six weeks? These two teams couldn’t be heading in opposite directions faster if they were loaded onto trains from those algebra word problems you had to do in junior high. (If Team A leaves the station heading north at 75 mph and Team B leaves the station 30 minutes later heading south at 90 mph...) Dallas is riding a wave of surprising rookie success all the way to the top of the standings while Minnesota is riding a wave of veteran injuries and disappointment all the way out of the playoffs. Simply put, Dallas is an excellent team and the Vikings aren’t very good right now.
The Vikings defense is still very good, but it’s no secret that the run defense hasn’t been that great for a while. They’re middle of the road when it comes to yards per carry and total yards allowed. Football Outsiders has the Vikings defense ranked 16th against the run. There have been stretches this season where opposing running backs have consistently gashed the Vikings for big chunks of yards. And now quarterbacks are getting in on the act. They allowed Matthew Stafford—MATTHEW FREAKING STAFFORD—to do this on Thanksgiving:
Can you imagine what Dak Prescott might be able to do on designed read option runs behind his amazing offensive line? Actually you don’t have to imagine; it will probably look a lot like this:
Of course the Vikings will be more prepared for designed runs from Prescott than they were for scrambles from Stafford. (And maybe the referees might actually call a blatant holding penalty or two.) But preparing for Ezekiel Elliott and that amazing Dallas offensive line is entirely another story.
If the 2016 NFL season has taught us anything, it’s that offensive lines are extremely important. You would be hard pressed to find two better examples of the opposite ends of that spectrum than Minnesota and Dallas. While the Vikings are busy playing the world’s saddest game of musical chairs with their replacements for the starters that weren’t that great to begin with, the Cowboys are literally plowing through the league. I’m sure you have seen Elliott’s game-clinching touchdown in Pittsburgh plenty of times, but just look at the hole the line opened for him:
Moses would be proud of that one.
Zeke is the perfect back to run behind this line too. I know the “well anyone would look good behind that line” narrative seems to follow most mentions Elliott’s rookie year success; I have sort of been in that camp as well. After watching more film, I can assure you that the rookie is definitely covering his part of the bargain much better than he covers his midriff. He has the power to plow through would-be tacklers. He has the vision to make one decisive cut and get to the second level of the defense. On the rare occasion that the line doesn’t open up a gaping hole for him, he has the speed to bounce to the outside.
Elliott would be garnering a lot more MVP and Rookie of the Year buzz if the guy handing him the ball wasn’t also having such a great season. Prescott is basically having the kind of season Vikings fans were dreaming of when Sam Bradford got off to his hot start. Bradford’s effectiveness has drastically tailed off (more on that in a bit) while the rookie QB keeps going strong.
Again, the offensive line plays a huge factor in Prescott’s success. He’s getting sacked just over once per game and often has the luxury to progress through his reads. Having the ageless Jason Witten, the dynamic Dez Bryant, and the [insert adjective that would be used to describe Wes Welker here] Cole Beasley to throw to certainly doesn’t hurt either. But throwing only two interceptions in your first 340 career passes? Having the top Total QBR in the league through your first 11 games? Trailing only Tom Brady and Matt Ryan in adjusted net yards per attempt in your rookie season? Seamlessly taking the reigns of the franchise from Tony Romo while saying and doing everything right off the field? That just isn’t supposed to happen. The success of the Cowboys offense starts with the line but it’s maintained by the two incredible rookies.
Meanwhile, the Vikings will be trotting out their sixth different starting offensive line combination of the season since Joe Berger has been ruled out with a concussion. Nick Easton isn’t half bad from what I have seen of him in camp and limited game reps, but it’s not like he’s getting plopped into an ideal situation. The rest of the team appears to be getting a bit healthier this week, but injuries* continue to plague the offensive line.
Thankfully the Dallas defense is far from the scariest group when it comes to rushing the passer and defending the pass. Dallas ranks toward the bottom of the league in most passing categories, fresh off allowing 449 yards passing to Kirk Cousins. But as we know from recent experience, Washington’s offensive line is much better than Minnesota’s. I’m not sure we can depend on Bradford getting the pristine pockets Cousins had for most of the day:
In case you forgot after watching last week’s game: yes, you are allowed to throw the ball past the first down markers. You know, since the Vikings basically didn’t do it in Detroit. In fact, Bradford completed a pass on third down yet didn’t convert on no less than seven occasions last week. That’s enough to make a guy throw a Thanksgiving drumstick at his TV.
The barrage of checkdowns are a large part of what caused Bradford’s space to show up in the latest spin of the Vikings Wheel of Blame. With each poor performance this season, fans seem to rotate their bitterness toward a different person or unit on the team. The wheel usually lands on the offensive line (their spaces take up 60% of the Blame Wheel) but nearly everyone’s space has come up at least once. From the coaching decisions to the personnel choices to the defense’s inability to close out drives and games, just about everyone has suffered the wheel’s wrath. Right now the peg is hovering over Bradford and the blame is coming at him full force. The same people that were praising the Bradford trade a month ago are now lamenting how far it has set the franchise back.
Bradford does deserve a fair amount of blame for the offense’s literal shortcomings last week. He had a decent pocket on many of those third downs but often didn’t even look past the markers. With plenty of time to throw, Bradford didn’t appear to go through his progressions and just fired a safe pass to Jerick McKinnon well short of the sticks.
Not every short third down completion was on the quarterback though. There were plenty of instances where none of the receivers could get open or none of the routes were actually past the first down marker. The wideouts and play calling have to shoulder the blame there.
If you want to see coaches film GIFs of each completion that didn’t get the first down, check this Twitter thread I posted late Tuesday night. Bradford certainly isn’t doing himself any favors with the low risk/low reward passes but the failure was truly a team effort.
What worries me most about Bradford lately is that he seems to be suffering from DCS—David Carr Syndrome. You might recall Derek Carr’s older brother being the first overall pick of the expansion Houston Texans in 2002. He was a highly heralded player with lots of talent. But in his rookie year, he was sacked an NFL record 76 times. SEVENTY-SIX. Carr played behind such terrible offensive lines in Houston—he was sacked 3.3 times per game during his five seasons there—that his career never really took off. Carr was reduced to an indecisive, gun-shy quarterback that never seemed comfortable in the pocket. (Now his little brother is playing behind a great offensive line and is an MVP front runner, which probably annoys David to no end.)
I’m afraid that Bradford is suffering from a severe case DCS over the past few weeks. When he first arrived in Minnesota, he took some hits but still delivered the ball downfield with amazing accuracy. (Think the touchdown to Diggs against the Packers.) Now Bradford seems to be getting rid of the ball as fast as he can regardless of down and distance. And behind this line, can you blame him? When your running game is basically non-existent and your most reliable way to move the ball is via gadget plays, it’s hard to fault Bradford’s survival instincts kicking in. There will be opportunities to move the ball against the Dallas defense; I’m just not that hopeful the Vikings offense can do it with any regularity at this point.
Although I just finished telling you to basically abandon any hope for Thursday night, I must admit the Vikings do seem to play their best when nobody expects them to. Mike Zimmer gets the most out of his charges when the straw men he conjures up on a weekly basis take the form of real-life naysayers. Last year they took a very good Cardinals team to the brink on the road with several key defensive players out. They went into Lambeau and snatched the division away from the Packers when everyone assumed Green Bay would retain the throne. After all, the heartbreaking losses to the Lions wouldn’t be so crushing if the Vikings didn’t mix in a handful of impressive performances every now and then. Perhaps Thursday night will be one of those instances where they surprise us in a good way. If the Vikings jump ahead right away and win the turnover battle, they could possibly steal one from Dallas.
I’m not falling for it though. The Cowboys are on a tear and the Vikings are in a downward spiral for a reason. Dallas is hands down the better team. I think this one could get ugly in a hurry. If the Cowboys get an early lead they’ll be able to pound the Vikings into submission and keep the Minnesota offense zero-dimensional. The only thing these two teams have in common right now is that they’re both likely to be watching the Wild Card round of the playoffs at home.
But I am making Dallas my Survivor Pool pick of the week. Just in case there’s some hope in there for a reverse jinx.
Cowboys 31, Vikings 13
And now for the rest of my Week 13 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
FALCONS over Chiefs
I really like Kansas City, but it feels like they completely emptied the tank last week in Denver while Atlanta barely had to shift out of second gear to pummel the Cardinals.
49ers over BEARS
San Francisco is horrible but I’m pretty sure every member of the Chicago offense that isn’t already on the IR is incapable of catching a pass.
Eagles over BENGALS
It’s the battle of the ginger quarterbacks that everyone liked a lot more in September!
Broncos over JAGUARS
I could see Jacksonville hanging around for most of this game, but Blake Bortles doesn’t know how to handle non-garbage time fourth quarters yet. Maybe he’ll get the hang of it in five or six years.
SAINTS over Lions
“Wait, you’re allowed to throw the ball that far?” —The Detroit secondary on Sunday, jarred by the extreme change in capabilities of their opponents.
PACKERS over Texans
It’s happening, isn’t it? The Vikings are pretty much done for and the Lions’ schedule is much tougher than Green Bay’s down the stretch. We’re going to be watching the Pack celebrate an improbable division championship in Detroit on New Year’s Day, aren’t we?
In a way, the Packers coming back to win the NFC North would be the perfect ending to 2016, which is already going down as one of the worst years in the history of our country.
PATRIOTS over Rams
L.A. is 4-7 and their next two opponents after this almost certain loss are the Falcons and the Seahawks. They’re going to be extremely fortunate to reach their patented Jeff Fisher 7-9 bullshit.
Dolphins over RAVENS
I’m kind of excited for the “Wait, How the Hell are These Teams Actually Good?” Bowl.
RAIDERS over Bills
Teddy Bridgewater’s knee explodes; he’s out for the year (and maybe more). Derek Carr’s pinky explodes; he’s out for a series and leads a dramatic comeback. Carr even gets injured better than Teddy. :(
STEELERS over Giants
New York is somehow 8-3. So they’re pretty much guaranteed a playoff spot because they never swoon in December, right?
Redskins over CARDINALS
The Cards are cooked. Larry Fitzgerald is proving how Minnesotan he really is by coming painfully close to a championship but never winning one.
CHARGERS over Buccaneers
I’m kind of excited for the “If They Somehow Make it to the Playoffs, Nobody will Want to Play Them!” Bowl.
SEAHAWKS over Panthers
No top-tier team puts up stinkers quite like Seattle does. They usually don’t do it twice in a row though.
Colts over JETS
After a great string of post-election national TV games, it’s good to see things getting back to normal with this abomination.
Last week: 13-3
Season so far: 106-68-2