Going into the game at Atlanta, the Vikings had the 5th best offense, and 5th best defense in the NFL. Offensively they are strong where it matters- on third down and in the red zone. On defense, they are strong in those same situations as well. Offensively they are well balanced, being able to both run and pass effectively. On defense they are also well balanced, being effective in stopping both the run and pass.
All of that was on display in the hard-fought 14-9 win over the Falcons.
But this was not a game about statistics.
VIKINGS PLAYING CHAMPIONSHIP-LEVEL FOOTBALL
As the NFL season enters December, and the post-season a month away, it’s not so much about statistics anymore. It’s about beating quality opponents.
The Falcons are the reigning NFC Champion from last year, and after struggling out of the gate this season, had won five straight and had a seed in this year’s NFC playoffs. Playing a hot, playoff-caliber team on the road, matching up and out-playing them when and where it mattered most- on third down, in the red zone, and late in the game- is what championship-level teams do against quality opponents.
And that is what the Vikings did in Atlanta today.
Not everything went right for the Vikings, and the Falcons and their fans were clearly keyed up for this important game with significant division and playoff implications for them. They came out strong, but could only muster field goals, while the Vikings were able to fight back with a touchdown early in the game.
In the second half, the Falcons came out strong again, but again had to settle for a field goal- but were able to take the lead. And they were able to force a 3-and-out for the Vikings on their next possession. But the Vikings answered back- on the road- forcing the Falcons to punt, and finishing a long, 89-yard drive with a touchdown to start the 4th quarter, and taking a 14-9 lead.
The Vikings then held the high-powered Falcons offense in check the rest of the game, with help from a missed Atlanta field goal, and finished off the game by holding the ball for the final five minutes.
It was an impressive victory and the 8th straight for a Vikings team on top of their game.
OVERCOMING DOUBT AND ADVERSITY
A key change in the Vikings that has built over the course of the season, is the ability to overcome adversity and answer the doubters. In the past, injuries and/or coming out flat to begin a game, overcoming a bad call or a bad play, was not something the Vikings have been able to do often or consistently.
But as this season has wore on, and the victories have piled up- especially since the bye-week- the question has become not what mishap will set the Vikings back or derail their season, but how will they overcome another tough situation and get the win?
In that sense it reminds me of the 1987 Minnesota Twins as their season went on. And we all know how that turned out.
The Vikings have now beat all the current leading contenders for the NFC title that they have played- New Orleans, the LA Rams, and now the Atlanta Falcons- in amassing a 10-2 record, currently tied for 2nd best in the NFL. The last contender they’ll play is the Carolina Panthers on the road next week.
BOTH SIDES NOW
What has also been impressive is how complete this Vikings team has been, particularly since the bye-week. It’s not all about how good the defense is now for the Vikings. The offense is also carrying the load at times, and getting things done. The ability for the Vikings defense to force a quick punt early in the third quarter, then have the Vikings offense complete a long drive for a touchdown to start the 4th quarter, is a case in point. The trust and confidence on both sides of the ball has been building throughout this 8-game win streak, and seems well entrenched at this point.
Defensively, the Vikings have been a top unit since Mike Zimmer came to town, and these days there are no weak links among the 11 starters on defense. Guys like Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo have improved, while the stars like Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen- among others- have continued to play at a high level. Taking out a top offense and forcing them into their worst game of the season is nothing new now for this unit. They done it on multiple occasions this year.
But offensively, it has been the emergence of Case Keenum that has been the difference as the Vikings have gone from being a middle-of-the-pack offense earlier in the season, to a top 5 offense now.
Certainly Adam Thielen has been excellent throughout the season, and the committee at running back has also contributed in both the run and pass game. The offensive line is also much improved over a year ago, but has struggled more in recent weeks. Not so much in allowing sacks, but in allowing pressures on Keenum, and being less effective in opening holes for Murray and McKinnon. The running game has been dependent on backs getting yards after contact, while the passing game has been more dependent on Case Keenum delivering under pressure and avoiding sacks.
Looking at overall PFF grades for the Vikings offensive line, they don’t look much better than last year - about the same as the 2015 offensive line. Riley Reiff and Rashod Hill have only 56.1 overall grades (poor) and both Nick Easton and Pat Elflein are under 50 overall. Only Joe Berger breaks into average territory with a 76.8 overall grade. I put that question to PFF- why the low grades despite giving up few sacks and a better ground game- and got this response from Eric Eager at PFF:
90 of Murray's 84 yards against the Lions were after contact. 30 of McKinnon's 23 were. Keenum is first in the league by quite a bit in avoiding sacks when pressured.— Eric Eager (@PFF_EricEager) November 28, 2017
Keenum is getting rid of it a quarter second slower than Bradford was last year, so you could argue last year's grades were a bit inflated and these year's are ~ the rest of the NFL.— Eric Eager (@PFF_EricEager) November 28, 2017
to which I replied:
Eager credited offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur more than Keenum, which I can agree with - he has certainly done a better job than Norv Turner- but Keenum’s elusiveness and ability to deliver under pressure has made plenty of key plays in the Vikings 8-game winning streak.
Head coach Mike Zimmer was also asked again about Keenum in his post-game press conference. One of the surprises he mentioned was that Keenum has been so successful moving in the pocket.
Statistically, Keenum has been performing at a high level, and generally improving over the course of the season. He has a passer rating over 100 in each of his last four games, including a 120.4 rating today at Atlanta. He also has the highest QBR rating among active QBs in the league right now, with a 75.5 - ahead of both Carson Wentz and Tom Brady. QBR is designed to give more weight to successful and key plays, while discounting garbage time stats, while also assigning value to what the QB actually did, compared to his teammates in making a play successful. Here is an explanation. Statistical purists don’t like it because there is no simple formula, and ESPN doesn’t lay out exactly how it derives this stat. But it is useful in getting a better idea, even if a bit vague, of the value added by a QB, rather than just looking at overall yards and hype.
Bottom line, Keenum has been improving- not collapsing as many have predicted- as the season has progressed.
The Vikings started the key five-game stretch of their season after the bye-week at Washington. After four games, and four wins, they have been very impressive against four tough teams, regardless of their records now. They’ve won on the road, they’ve won at home. They’ve won against top offenses. They’ve won against tough defenses. They’ve won against a tough division opponent. And, if I’m not mistaken, they’ve beaten the spread as well in every one of their wins.
But there is one sobering thing about this 8-game winning streak:
They need to win seven more to (hopefully) get home field advantage throughout the playoffs and get to where we all want them to be in February: Super Bowl champions.