“I don’t believe in curses in sports, but I swear this team is f***ing cursed.”
I muttered that sentence a mere 96 days ago. I had just slumped into my seat at US Bank Stadium, head in my hands, immediately after Dalvin Cook fumbled and went down in a heap after making a cut in the Week 4 game against Detroit.
“That’s his ACL. I guarantee it. He’ll be out for the season.”
The next day, I was proven correct. But I didn’t need to wait 24 hours to make my next baleful declaration. There were still 101⁄2 minutes left in the third quarter of the fourth game of the season, yet I was all but certain of one thing:
“The season’s over. You can’t be on your third-string quarterback, then lose your stud running back, and expect to compete.”
All my poor wife could do is pat me on the back and quietly offer “I’m sorry honey” a couple times. For the remainder of the game, I sat dejected in my seat while the Lions won an ugly 14-7 game marred by three Vikings turnovers. I shuffled out of Minnesota’s newest architectural marvel that day a defeated man, resigned to another fruitless march to mediocrity for my favorite team.
Of course, in the 96 days since I declared the 2017 season a wash, the Vikings have lost exactly...once.
Oh me of little faith.
In a turn of events that even the most diehard Purple Kool-Aid drinkers couldn’t have anticipated in their wildest dreams, the Vikings are suddenly 13-3 and enjoying a bye week before hosting a Divisional Round game at the very stadium I walked out of dejectedly just under 14 weeks ago. Winners of eleven of their past twelve games, the Minnesota Vikings are the odds-on favorite to emerge from the NFC and be the first team to play a—well you know that part already.
So...how the hell did we get here? How did the Vikings overcome such seemingly insurmountable early-season turmoil to finish the year as one of the best teams in the league?
For starters, they have a hell of a team with lots of talent all over the field, especially on defense. This iteration of the Vikings was built by a front office and Head Coach that have shared a vision of what they wanted this team to become over the past four years.
But we’ll get to that later. Not many people are talking about one of the main reasons why the Vikings are poised for a deep playoff run: they have actually been pretty lucky this year.
It’s not something that fans usually want to hear. “Getting lucky” is great in the context of bar hookups and Daft Punk songs, but in sports, the phrase tends to water down otherwise hard-earned accomplishments. “You just got lucky” is one of the most tried and true ways for fans to instantly dismiss a rival team’s victory.
For example: the Saints got lucky in the 2009 playoffs when the referees decided that defenders incentivized by Gregg Williams’ bounties repeatedly trying to maim Brett Favre was suddenly within the NFL rules. See? Super Bowl title validity completely negated!
In today’s parity-driven NFL, luck shouldn’t be a four-letter word. It isn’t something that’s nice to have every once in a while. It’s damn near a requirement. A handful of plays or circumstances can change a promising season into a lost cause, and vice versa. Even the most talented teams need some bounces to go their way in order to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on the first Sunday in February.
The largest manifestation of good or bad luck usually comes in the form of injuries. Football is an inherently violent sport. No matter how many rules the league tries to put in place in the name of player safety, the Injured Reserve lists will continue to be more densely populated than Manhattan. It’s a sad reality of our country’s most popular form of athletic entertainment.
This year was certainly no different. Just ask Packers fans how injuries can make or break a season. (That is, if you can get a word in edgewise. Most Green Bay fans haven’t shut up about Anthony Barr yet.)
The Aaron Rodgers injury was obviously a major wrinkle. It eased one franchise’s trajectory to an NFC North title while exposing deep-rooted flaws in another, spurring wholesale changes in the days since their season ended. (Technically, Packers fans should probably be thanking Barr. His hit accelerated Dom Capers getting fired and Ted Thompson being put out to pasture before wasting more of what’s left of Rodgers’ prime.)
There’s no doubt that the lack of one of the best quarterbacks of this generation made two of the Vikings victories a lot easier. I’m not saying Minnesota wouldn’t have swept the Packers anyway—just that the degree of difficulty wasn’t nearly as high. Despite what Green Bay fans may try to lead you to believe, Rodgers’ broken collarbone only affected two of the Vikings’ 13 wins.
But the injury luck didn’t stop with Green Bay for the Vikings this year. Several opponents had key players out when facing Minnesota throughout the year. Here are some of the notable opposing players that missed Vikings victories according to NFL.com’s week-by-week injury reports:
- Week 1 vs. the Saints: Alvin Kamara wasn’t injured to start the season, but he was certainly limited by the presence of Adrian Peterson. His 38 yards from scrimmage from only 11 touches was his lowest output this season outside of the game he left with a concussion. Playing New Orleans post-AP could have been a much different story.
- Week 3 vs. the Buccaneers: CB Brent Grimes (leading to Ryan Smith getting annihilated by Stefon Diggs)
- Week 5 at the Bears: LB Nick Kwiatkoski. Also the NFL debut for Mitchell Trubisky.
- Week 6 vs. the Packers: LB Ahmad Brooks, CB Kevin King, S Morgan Burnett, CB Davon House, QB Aaron Rodgers (after 8 snaps)
- Week 7 vs. the Ravens: WR Jeremy Maclin, G Marshal Yanda, RB Danny Woodhead, TE Maxx Williams, WR Mike Wallace (after 5 snaps)
- Week 8 vs. the Browns: T Joe Thomas, DE Myles Garrett, CB Jason McCourty, S Jabrill Peppers, WR Corey Coleman
- Week 10 at the Redskins: TE Jordan Reed, WR Ryan Grant (after 9 snaps)
- Week 11 vs. the Rams: Nickell Robey-Coleman (after 9 snaps)
- Week 13 at the Falcons: CB Desmond Trufant
- Week 15 vs. the Bengals: LB Vontaze Burfict, RB Joe Mixon, CB D’Andre Kirkpatrick, LB Kevin Minter, LB Nick Vigil
- Week 16 at the Packers: QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Davante Adams, LB Clay Matthews, LB Nick Perry, RT Bryan Bulaga, G Jahri Evans, RB Ty Montgomery
- Week 17 vs. the Bears: G Josh Sitton, G Kyle Long, T Bobby Massie, TE Zach Miller
That’s quite an extensive list of some pretty important players.
Of course, this is the part where I’m obligated to point out all the injuries the Vikings have persevered through this year.
On offense, Minnesota suffered some catastrophic setbacks that would have ruined lesser teams. The most significant injuries were the aforementioned Cook ACL tear and getting only 26 limping snaps in Chicago from Sam Bradford after the opening game. Getting a grand total of 20 quarters from your QB1 and RB1 usually spells disaster. Luckily, the Vikings are getting one of the most unexpected career seasons in recent memory from Case Keenum.
Even having Keenum on the team at all was a stroke of luck on its own. Signing him this past offseason is being viewed as a sage, season-saving move in retrospect. At the time, it was rather “meh.” One of the names being bandied about instead of Keenum last summer: none other than Nick Foles. After seeing how the Eagles limped to the finish under Foles, I think it’s safe to say Rick Spielman made the right choice.
You might also remember that there was a large contingent of Vikings fans pushing for Taylor Heinicke to be Bradford’s primary backup during Training Camp in August. And it didn’t even seem that crazy at the time! In fact, here is my evaluation of Keenum after watching a week of live practices in Mankato:
I mean...just look at that. “His pocket presence was OK” has now turned into “he’s a modern day Houdini under pressure.” The ominous “watch out” if Bradford goes down has turned into an emphatic “watch out!” warning to the rest of the league. We can still debate exactly how good Keenum has been this year, but one thing remains certain: absolutely nobody expected this good of a season from Keenum.
In a roundabout way, it was kind of fortuitous that Bradford went down so early in the season too. It gave Keenum plenty of time to establish himself and prove that it was “his team.” The #VikingsTwitter civil war was bad enough when Teddy Bridgewater returned to the active roster; could you imagine the turmoil if Keenum only had a few wins under his belt by that time?
And now, the Vikings have even more luck at the quarterback position heading into the postseason. Both Bradford and Bridgewater might be available, which could prove to be lucky if something happens to Keenum. No other team in the playoffs is better equipped to survive their QB going down.
Overcoming unexpected change at quarterback wasn’t the only unfortunate hurdle the Vikings had to clear this season. The offensive line avoided a repeat of their infamous injury implosion that derailed 2016, but they didn’t escape unscathed either. Nick Easton missed a quarter of the season and is now on Injured Reserve. Pat Elflein has missed two of the past four games with a shoulder injury. Mike Remmers was out for a month and a half. Riley Reiff missed a game-plus after getting his ankle rolled up on. Luckily, Jeremiah Sirles and Rashod Hill have been serviceable replacements, especially compared to how bare the backup cupboards were a year ago.
Like the Keenum signing, the acquisition of Reiff and Remmers was met with a largely lukewarm response. But now, if there’s one thing you can point to when it comes to the turnaround of the offense in 2017, it has to be the improved play of the offensive line.
Outside of the injury to Cook, the major players among the Vikings specialists have had a nice run of injury luck in 2017. Latavius Murray was limited at the beginning of the year. Diggs missed two games in the middle of the year. Kyle Rudolph was banged up at the end of the year—in fact, it sounds like he really needed the bye week. But other than that, it has been relatively smooth sailing. And much like Keenum, Murray and Jerick McKinnon likely benefited from the starter going down early in the season. It gave Pat Shurmur plenty of time to adjust his offensive game plan and turn the two running backs into a potent thunder and lightning combo that’s unsurpassed this side of New Orleans.
While the guys that tote the rock have been remarkably healthy this year, they have nothing on the defense. There were 15 Vikings defenders that saw at least 245 snaps this season. They missed a grand total of seven games. Here is a comprehensive list of all the games missed by defensive contributors this year:
- Two by Andrew Sendejo
- Two by Mackensie Alexander
- One by Everson Griffen
- One by Brian Robison
- One by Shamar Stephen
And that’s it. When you have a defense that’s already extremely talented and extremely well coached and you combine it with extremely good injury luck, the result is extremely dangerous for any opponent. It’s no surprise that the Vikings finished the season first in weighted defensive DVOA, because no defense in the league is playing better right now.
While the Vikings weren’t lucky enough to clinch the top seed in the NFC, they could definitely benefit from the misfortune in Philadelphia. With Carson Wentz out, it’s probable that the Vikings will be favored in every matchup leading to the Super Bowl regardless of opponent and venue.
With all this talk about good fortune, one could always counter with the old saying that you create your own luck. And make no mistake about it—the 2017 Vikings have earned their status as a contender. In just four years, Mike Zimmer has transformed a defense that was dead last into the top team in both points and yards against. He has worked with Rick Spielman to get the kind of personnel and staff in place needed to compete for a championship. The Vikings have learned from past mistakes in order to avoid repeating them. Something special has been built in Minnesota, and it’s almost time to find out exactly how special it can be.
That said, I still wouldn’t mind having Lady Luck on our side for the next month. With this franchise’s tortured playoff history, there are few teams that can claim they’re “due” for some postseason luck more than the Vikings.
Ninety-six days ago, I thought the season was over. In 30 days, I might finally be able to unpin the tweet at the top of my Twitter profile.
With a little luck, of course.
And now for my Wild Card picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
CHIEFS over Titans
Kansas City has won one of their past ten playoff games and haven’t won at home in the postseason since 1993. For a large part of their season it looked like they were the 2016 Vikings reincarnate. But the Chiefs have appeared to finally turn it around, and I have maintained for the past several weeks that the Titans suuuuuuuck. Plus DeMarco Murray is out. The Curse of Joe Montana will finally be lifted!
Falcons over RAMS
This is probably a bit of a stretch, but there is usually one surprising upset on Wild Card weekend and I don’t see any of the other home favorites losing. Everyone seems to be a little too high on a coach, quarterback, and team that hasn’t experienced the playoffs yet. Atlanta has suffered from a mean case of Super Bowl hangover all season, but they’re still an incredibly talented team and the defending NFC champions. It still feels like the Rams are a season away to me.
This pick will probably look really stupid when Todd Gurley has three touchdowns and over 200 yards from scrimmage and then I’m absolutely petrified of them coming to US Bank Stadium next week. But I’m going to stick to it anyway.
JAGUARS over Bills
I will be rooting for Buffalo in this game, if only for the #BillsMafia Twitter celebration videos it would inspire. And Blake Bortles could single-handedly implode any football game by himself. But I can’t pick Buffalo against this Jaguars defense, especially with LeSean McCoy banged up. I expect Jacksonville to have a 3-to-1 run/pass ratio and cruise to victory.
SAINTS over Panthers
If the first two games between these teams have taught us anything, it’s that New Orleans is simply a bad matchup for Carolina. The Panthers front seven is a force to be reckoned with, but Drew Brees can neutralize that by dinking and dunking them to death with Mark Ingram and Kamara. I would expect this one to be a little closer than the first two, but I think the Saints are the best non-Vikings team in the NFC bracket. They’re going to be a tough out.
Last week: 12-4
2017 regular season: 169-87