Last week, my daughter brought home her first book order pamphlet from preschool. As soon as I saw the colorful, flimsy brochure (seriously, do they print those things on cheesecloth?), the childhood memories came flooding back.
I was raised in the heyday of the Book It! book orders. There are two major facets of the Book It! program that I remember most from my youth:
- Ordering at least one Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes book each time to pad my quota of “real” books; and
- Always making sure I ordered enough books and read enough minutes* to qualify for a free Pizza Hut personal pan pizza.
(* = I always totally lied about the minutes I spent reading. And if you say you didn’t, you’re lying too.)
Those of you that aren’t in that sweet spot age range of being an 80’s/early 90’s kid might be scratching your head here. But I bet those of you that went through it are fondly recalling all your favorite books from that era. The Ramona Quimby series. The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High. Superfudge. R.L. Stine scaring the crap out of us with his famous Goosebumps thrillers. Basically everything that Roald Dahl ever wrote. It was truly a golden age for children’s literature. (Or maybe I only think it was because it was my era. Probably a little of both.)
One of the most popular book franchises of that time was Choose Your Own Adventure. Started in 1976 by Edward Packard, the books were written in the second person so the reader became the protagonist. Throughout each book, you were presented choices on what to do. The book would then direct you to turn to specific pages based on the decisions you made, and the story would unwind differently depending on what you chose. There could be as many as 40 or more distinct story branches in a single book. It made the books incredibly interactive and re-readable, which is why the series sold over 250 million copies. (This was well before the time of video games that had multiple endings and story arcs. When you beat a video game back in the day, you beat it the same damn way everyone else did.)
We’re only two weeks in, but it already feels like the Vikings’ 2017 season could branch off into as many as 40 different conclusions. Sam Bradford might be able to play on Sunday. Or he might miss two to six weeks. Or he might never be the same the rest of his career. Or it doesn’t matter because Teddy Bridgewater will be back Week 7 and he’ll save our season. Or maybe we’ll have a worst Case scenario and Keenum will have to start the rest of the year. Or...
Those are just some of the different ways it could go at one position. Although the Pittsburgh game felt very 2016-ish, we still don’t know how good or bad the offensive line will be this year. There are some big questions that need to be answered for all cornerbacks not named Xavier Rhodes. The kicker can’t seem to miss a field goal but can’t seem to make an extra point.
With all the various factors at play this early in the season, I could be talked into the Vikings finishing anywhere between 4-12 and 12-4 at this point. Likewise, Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could go a lot of different ways. So many, in fact, that I think that this week’s preview deserves the Choose Your Own Adventure treatment.
That’s right—YOU get to pick how Sunday’s game goes. In this story, you’ll be taking the reigns of the Vikings as Head Coach Mike Zimmer. Each time you’re presented with a choice, scroll up or down to the appropriate “page” header and continue your story from there. Ultimately you’ll end up with a final outcome of the game.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: I have no idea if this is actually going to work. It might very well be a giant pain in the ass to read. But it was kinda fun to write, so just humor me and play along.)
It is game day, about three hours before kickoff. Sam Bradford says his knee is still bothering him a bit, but it feels a lot better than it did last week in Pittsburgh. His passing looks solid in warm-ups. However, he’s still walking with a bit of a limp.
- Choice #1: You realize that although it’s early in the season, the Bucs could be a team you’re fighting for an NFC playoff spot with in December. If Bradford says he can go, then he can go. Turn to page 8.
- Choice #2: You understand that Bradford wants to play, but you also know that the very earliest you can get Teddy Bridgewater back is over a month away. That limp is nothing to mess around with. You’ll take one more week of Case Keenum in order to hopefully avoid four or more weeks of...Case Keenum. Turn to page 7.
With Keenum at the helm, you get a familiar sight—the Bucs stack the box and dare Keenum to beat them with his arm. You decide to:
- Choice #1: Try to keep the offense as balanced as possible. You brought Keenum in because you thought he could be a solid NFL quarterback. You can’t play right into their game plan. Turn to page 14.
- Choice #2: You pound the rock anyway because you have Dalvin Cook in the backfield. Feed him early and often, with just a dash of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon mixed in for good measure. Turn to page 33.
Bradford is holding his own out there to start the game but he still looks a little gimpy at times. How do you alter your game plan?
- Choice #1: You don’t. If Bradford’s in there, you use him like you normally would. Turn to page 19.
- Choice #2: You lean on Dalvin Cook early and often to protect Sam and open up the passing game. Turn to page 33.
That Tampa Bay front seven is no joke. They’re making it very tough on the offensive line. But the quarterback isn’t getting killed yet and you realize that Tampa’s secondary isn’t a huge strength of theirs. You’re calling a lot of quick, easy passes to Stefon Diggs on slants and screens to Cook out of the backfield. You aren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard, but you’re holding your own and keeping the Buccaneers’ potent offense off the field. But can your defense hold up? Turn to page 29.
Bradford is finding a lot of holes in Tampa’s relatively passive coverage scheme. When luminaries like Kendall Wright and Deonte Thompson were getting open consistently last week, you knew that Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs were going to be able to get theirs against Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves. Heck, even Laquon Treadwell is catching a few passes. You’re mixing up the play calling enough to keep Lavonte David and Kendell Beckwith guessing at linebacker. Things are going well—as long as you’re taking care of the ball, not committing stupid penalties, and Bradford’s knee isn’t exploding. But you still have to slow down that high-powered Bucs offense. Turn to page 29.
You quickly realize that you probably put a little too much faith in the wrong areas of your team. The Buccaneers get a couple of big plays early because you were either too conservative or too stubborn to adapt. Trae Waynes gets torched a couple more times and now you are legitimately concerned about the future of your third-year corner. You’re trying to catch up all day, the offense becomes way too predictable, and the O-line keeps making Week 1 look like a mirage. With a one-dimensional offense, the quarterback is a sitting duck. The Bucs defense forces more turnovers like this:
You realize this Vikings team is completely different when they’re up by 10 compared to down by 10. Winston keeps finding open pass catchers, especially on slants and crossing routes against a tired Vikings defense.
GAME OVER. THE END. BUCS WIN. CRAB LEGS FOR EVERYONE. YOU ARE NOW 1-2 AND STARING DOWN THE BARREL OF THREE STRAIGHT DIVISION GAMES WITH NO IDEA WHO MIGHT BE AT QUARTERBACK FROM WEEK TO WEEK. HAVE FUN WITH THAT.
The Buccaneers offense is loaded. Jameis Winston has an incredible amount of weapons at his disposal. Mike Evans is one of the best receivers in the game. DeSean Jackson is still a big play waiting to happen and a great second option at wide receiver. Adam Humphries is an effective slot receiver. O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate can both create mismatches at tight end. Doug Martin is still suspended, but Jacquizz Rodgers is shifty enough to keep you honest in the ground game. You have to be extremely careful about how you defend them. How do you game plan?
- Choice #1: Have Xavier Rhodes shadow Evans the entire day. Even though Rhodes is somehow the 81st ranked corner in the league by Pro Football Focus, you know that he’ll keep Evans in check. Turn to page 97.
- Choice #2: Don’t let one player dictate your defensive game plan. Put your faith in Trae Waynes playing better and Mackensie Alexander continuing his quietly solid start to the season. Just try to keep everything in front of you. Turn to page 26.
- Choice #3: You put Rhodes on Evans most of the game, but you also mix in some different looks to keep the Buccaneers guessing. #RhodesClosed can’t do it all by himself when the Bucs have so many options. Turn to page 98.
Dalvin Cook is an amazing runner, but even the best need some space to run. You struggle to get any yardage on the ground the first couple drives, mostly because your offensive line is still doing things like this:
Which allows Gerald McCoy, Noah Spence, and Robert Ayers Jr. to make it look like they called your play in Tecmo Bowl, like they did against the Bears last week.
Should you stick with the run?
- Choice #1: Yes. You can’t let a hobbled Bradford or a normal Keenum be a sitting duck back there. Just control the ball as much as you can and lean on your defense. Turn to page 26.
- Choice #2: Nope. If you want to consistently move the ball, you’ll have to do it at least partially through the air. Turn to page 14.
Nice! You have made some great coaching decisions today. You stayed unpredictable on both sides of the ball and avoided the big mistakes that plagued you last week in Pittsburgh. The offense moved the ball effectively through the air while keeping Tampa’s defense off balance with Cook. The defense was disciplined and harassed Winston all day. It wasn’t easy, but you called all the right shots today.
GAME OVER. VIKINGS WIN! YOU GET A CRUCIAL HOME WIN AND A TIEBREAKER OVER ANOTHER POSSIBLE NFC WILD CARD. YOU START PREPARING TO HOST DETROIT NEXT WEEK IN A GAME THAT WILL DECIDE FIRST PLACE IN THE NFC NORTH AT THE QUARTER MARK OF THE SEASON. HOORAY!
Evans is kept relatively quiet by Rhodes but the Buccaneers are still consistently moving the ball with Jackson and their tight ends. You are limiting the huge plays for now, but Tampa Bay is starting to dominate time of possession. Do you:
- Choice #1: Keep with the game plan. You lost in Pittsburgh because of the big plays; just try to hang around as long as you can and make some plays later. Turn to page 26.
- Choice #2: Get more aggressive. You can’t let Tampa Bay pick you apart and simply hope to keep pace with so many question marks on offense. Turn to page 98.
Your aggressive approach and varied blitz packages are keeping the Bucs guessing. Jameis Winston didn’t exactly look the sharpest last week against the Bears. You’re getting plenty of pressure on Winston, especially against the very suspect left side of Donovan Smith and Kevin Pamphile.
Winston is obviously dangerous, but he did throw 33 interceptions in his first two seasons. Your deep and talented defensive line forces a couple mistakes and gives your offense some great field position to work with. The Buccaneers still seem to have trouble finishing off drives, which means they didn’t find the end zone on the few occasions they were able to threaten. Turn to page 69.
Well, that was certainly an adventure! I hope you were able to follow along and choose wisely. If you didn’t, I hope you kept trying until you did. Unfortunately, the adventure choosing isn’t over yet. I have to do it with my prediction this week too.
I really believe the outcome on Sunday hinges on who’s under center for the Vikings. It sounds like we won’t know who is starting until Sunday morning. Since I’ll be busy tailgating and attending the game, I’ll have to give my two different predictions now.
Prediction #1: You find the right balance of rest and pain management for Sam Bradford and he can play effectively. Your well-balanced offense controls the time of possession and your defense makes just enough crucial stops to pull out a close win.
Vikings 23, Buccaneers 20
Prediction #2: Bradford’s knee flares up and you must go with Case Keenum. You are forced to relive the last 11 games of the 2016 season for three and a half hours.
Buccaneers 27, Vikings 17
And now for the rest of my Week 3 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Rams over 49ERS
Well if this isn’t the Thursdayest Thursday night game that ever Thursdayed. I guess I’ll take LA since they have actually found the end zone this season.
Ravens over JAGUARS (in London)
Our first NFL trip across the pond in 2017! Between the always-iffy Wembley turf and these two defenses, I’d expect the score to stay in the soccer range. But hey, Sunday morning football!
Falcons over LIONS
The only Week 3 matchup between two undefeated teams, just like we all predicted it would be when the season started. The Lions have looked very good the first two games, but I don’t think they can hang with a team that has an actual offense.
Broncos over BILLS
Through two weeks, Trevor Siemian has easily been a top-10 quarterback. Which probably says more about the dearth of good quarterbacks in today’s NFL than it does about Siemian. Either way, it feels like Brady Anderson’s 50 home run season in 1996—nobody saw it coming. (And it might not ever happen again.)
Steelers over BEARS
“TRU-BIS-KY! TRU-BIS-KY! TRU-BIS-KY!”
Browns over COLTS
This game makes that Rams/Niners game look like the Greatest Game Ever Played. At least we finally have an answer to the age-old question “How bad do you have to be to make the 0-2 Cleveland Browns favored on the road?”
Dolphins over JETS
For starters, the Jets suck more than...well, a jet engine. And I want Pats fans to not have their team in first place for at least one more week.
PATRIOTS over Texans
This game was 27-0 last year with Jacoby Brissett under center for New England. You know, the guy I’m picking to lose to the Browns at home this week. So, yeah.
PANTHERS over Saints
Cam Newton and the Carolina offense has S-T-R-U-G-G-L-E-D despite starting 2-0. (I’m sure it has nothing to do with how Matt Kalil has nearly gotten Newton killed a handful of times already.) But I’m pretty sure you can accidentally get 400 yards against this putrid Saints defense.
EAGLES over Giants
I think an actual bouquet of flowers might be able to block better than Ereck Flowers at this point. Especially roses. The thorns might actually slow down defensive ends a bit.
TITANS over Seahawks
I’m going to spend at least one more week on the Tennessee bandwagon, just because Seattle still has five Ereck Flowerses on their offensive line.
PACKERS over Bengals
The “No seriously, what do I have to do to get fired?” season from Marvin Lewis continues. Making this my Survivor Pool pick of the Week, now back to 1-1 on the year after I wised up and just went against the Jets last week.
CHARGERS over Chiefs
I just feel like this is one of those games where the home team is super desperate to save their season against a divisional opponent. Of course, it’s the Chargers, so they’ll probably grasp defeat from the jaws of victory in a new and even more excruciating manner. But hey, at least I’ll look smart for picking the upset during the first 59 minutes.
Raiders over REDSKINS
Kirk Cousins is my starting quarterback in one of my fantasy leagues. I am slightly concerned that “stealing” him in the 9th round may have turned out to be a poor decision.
Cowboys over CARDINALS
I picked the Cardinals to be a Wild Card team before the season. I am slightly concerned that I was concussed when I made that decision.
Last week: 13-3
Season so far: 21-10