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Vikings vs. Cardinals Preview: Fool Me Twice

We all know what happened the last time the Vikings were a heavy home favorite. How can they prevent the same fate against the Cardinals?

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs: best duo since J.D. and Turk.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week I was picking up my five year old daughter from after school care where she’s in kindergarten. I had already picked up my three year old daughter from daycare so I brought her in with me to help get her sister. My oldest was hard at work doing her craft of the day—fuse beads. For the uninitiated: basically the kids take a bunch of tiny beads, place them on a pegboard with a specific design (hers was a unicorn, naturally), and then have the teachers iron them. The hot iron fuses the beads together (hence the name) and you get a cute little design to take home after it cools off. It’s tedious as hell but a great way to keep a bunch of hyperactive kids busy.

My arrival was met with exasperation as she hadn’t quite finished her project yet. “Daddy, I NEED to finish this! I only have a few more beads!” I agreed to wait while I tried to find a pegboard for little sister to play with. But big sister is a sweetheart and she was kind enough to ask her younger sibling to join. “You take some green beads and put them on the tail.” Of course, being three, lil’ sis knocked a half dozen beads off while she was trying to help. “NOOOOO!” my oldest shouted. “That’s not how you do it!”

“That’s why I’m going to get your sister her own to play with,” I explained. “Just take a quick break and let’s all go find a board for her.”

“NO! I NEED to finish this!” Then she focused her attention back to her little sister. “Now here. Look how I do it.”

“Honey, just wait,” I pleaded. “I really don’t think you want your sister to help on this one.”

“I’m fine, daaadd,” was her response, in a tone that gave a glimpse into what her teenage years will be like.

“OK, fine. I’ll be quick.” I raced to the other table knowing what would happen if I took too long.

Apparently four seconds was too long.

I heard the beads scattering on the floor before I could turn around to see the incredibly guilty look on the youngest’s face. Her big sister sat in stunned silence for a couple seconds before unleashing what had to be the loudest wail that has ever escaped her lungs. Giant tears rolled down her cheeks. The project that she had painstakingly worked on for almost an hour was completely ruined. She was inconsolable for a full five minutes before her teachers, friends, and I were finally able to settle her down.

After she came around, I sat her on my lap and explained, “That’s why I told you to wait. I’m sorry your unicorn is ruined, but you already saw that your little sister messed it up the first time. She doesn’t know any better. [Note: little sister might know better, but at this age she certainly DGAF.] Did you learn your lesson?”

She looked up at me with her giant blue eyes and nodded. The episode was over as quickly as it had started. She wiped her nose, got down from my lap, and started to gather her things so we could leave.

“It’s OK Daddy. We’re doing fuse beads again next week anyway.”

I wish someone would have taken a picture of my face after she said that.

So why am I sharing this parenting adventure before talking about anything that has to do with football? Two reasons:

  1. As a public service announcement. If you don’t have kids yet, you better make damn sure you’re 100% ready for them. To paraphrase Snoop Dogg in “Lodi Dodi,” this types of sh*t happens every day as a parent of young children.
  2. It reminded me of the upcoming game between the Minnesota Vikings at Arizona Cardinals.

Like my older daughter, Vikings fans have already been burned by inviting someone they didn’t view as a threat into their personal space—in other words, the Buffalo Bills in Week 3. A few weeks later, they’re welcoming another team with a shoddy record into US Bank Stadium. Will the Vikings be able to sidestep the trap game and ensure that we aren’t left with giant tears rolling down our cheeks? How can they avoid another disaster they should have seen coming and ensure their project—namely the 2018 season—isn’t damaged beyond repair?

For starters, it would serve them well to refrain from making another rookie quarterback named Josh look like an All-Pro. In Week 3, Josh Allen took advantage of an early lead and a sloppy Vikings defense to literally leap over the competition for his first NFL victory. Although Josh Rosen went three picks after Allen, he was widely regarded as the more polished quarterback in this year’s NFL Draft. Arizona fans are rightfully excited about the new kid, especially when compared to the guy he replaced only eleven-plus quarters into the season—our old checkdown-happy pal Sam Bradford. Rosen led three touchdown drives en route to the Cardinals’ first win of the season in his second NFL start last Sunday over C.J. Beathard and the 49ers.

You wouldn’t think so upon first glance of the box score though. The 49ers out-gained the Cardinals by 227 yards and had the ball over 20 minutes longer. They were able to move the ball early and often by using some of Kyle Shanahan’s creative play calling. San Francisco neutralized the dangerous pass rush of Chandler Jones on multiple occasions by using misdirection and throwing behind Jones’ rush.

Kyle Juszczyk had six catches for 75 yards last week; I could see John DeFilippo using Dalvin Cook (if available), Latavius Murray, and C.J. Ham in a similar manner on Sunday. The Vikings Offensive Coordinator might have called his best game of the season last week against the Eagles. Counteracting a formidable pass rush with misdirection is just what the Vikings did several times in Philly. This crucial 3rd and 1 conversion to Kyle Rudolph late in the game was a perfect example.

Even with all the smart play design and big offensive numbers, San Francisco still lost by ten points and Jones was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. The Arizona defense forced five turnovers, sacked Beathard four times, and scored a touchdown. For some reason, #55 speed rushing around the left tackle for a crucial strip-sack to spark an upset for a previously winless road underdog feels vaguely familiar.

Remember those three touchdown drives from Rosen we alluded to earlier? Here’s how they happened:

  • Their first offensive play on a 75-yard bomb
  • An 18 yard drive set up by a fumble
  • A 26 yard drive set up by an interception

The first TD was on an admittedly beautiful throw to Christian Kirk; the rest of Rosen’s day was spotty at best. While he certainly seems to possess many of the traits needed to be a successful NFL quarterback, he has flat out missed several makeable throws early in his career. Rosen’s current 49.2% completion percentage simply isn’t going to cut it, even if he’s much more willing than Bradford to take shots down the field. The body language of Larry Fitzgerald after this incompletion last week says it all.

Granted, Arizona’s weapons in the passing game aren’t the greatest. Fitzgerald is a legend, yet he’s at the tail end of his Hall of Fame career. Kirk, a second round rookie out of Texas A&M, has shown some promise. Other than that, Ricky Seals-Jones is ranked 41st out of 43 qualifying tight ends in DVOA. Jermaine Gresham has had the words “when healthy” follow him throughout his career; he’s still working his way back to full strength from a torn Achilles. Chad Williams ranks 141st in yards per route run per Pro Football Focus. Judging from what we saw in Training Camp, I have my doubts that new signing Kendall Wright will add much to a team that’s already saturated with slot wide receivers. But hey, at least they have David Johnson, one of the most dynamic running backs in the game, right?

If you think Cook has had a rough go of it running the ball this season, I implore you to watch some Cardinals game tape. Arizona is dead last in rushing yards and somehow averaging fewer yards per carry than Minnesota’s train wreck of a ground game. Watching the film, I was amazed at how many of Johnson’s carries went exactly where it looked like they were going to go before the snap. With an offensive line as weak as Arizona’s, it’s surprising that Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy isn’t using more creativity to manufacture some space for his star back.

[Thinks back to McCoy’s tenure as Head Coach of the Chargers]

OK, maybe not that surprising.

Speaking of facets of the offense that are somehow even worse than the Vikings, the Cardinals’ offensive line has been pretty bad this year. Minnesota is 27th in PFF’s offensive line rankings through five weeks; Arizona is dead last. To make things worse, they’re beat up too. Starters D.J. Humphries, Mike Iupati, and Andre Smith all sat out of practice on Wednesday. Danielle Hunter should have plenty of chances to continue his streak of getting a sack in every game in 2018. The continued improvement from Stephen Weatherly could pay off in a big way on Sunday as well. His sack sparked the oxygen mask-inducing touchdown by Linval Joseph last week. Courtney Cronin had a great article explaining how Weatherly is growing into his new role in the absence of Everson Griffen. The Vikings defensive front should be able to generate plenty of pressure on Rosen without getting too exotic.

Perhaps keeping it simple is how the Vikings defense is better served right now. Mike Zimmer suggested that he was possibly “over-coaching” that side of the ball after the Rams game that featured several schemed mismatches, blown coverages, and missed assignments. Last week in Philadelphia was a big step back in the right direction. It’s hard to quantify without knowing the play calls, but after watching the All-22 I got the impression that the coverages were noticeably less complicated. You still had Harrison Smith doing his thing before the snap and some late shifts on the defensive line; after all, this is still Zimmer’s defense. But defenders seemed to have more rigid coverage roles instead of the pattern-matching that has backfired at times early in the season. (Something that also helps your defense look better: not going against a play calling warlock like Sean McVay.)

Arizona’s offense is statistically toward the bottom across the board, including third down percentage (25.9%, 31st in the NFL). Even with all the defensive hiccups through five weeks, Minnesota still ranks third on third down, allowing a 29.6% conversion rate. If the Vikings can avoid the early pratfalls they suffered against the Bills, the defense should be able to get off the field and win the field position battle.

And why wouldn’t we want to see more of the wizardry that’s taking place between Kirk Cousins and his prodigious pair of pass-catching personages? Cousins and Adam Thielen have already connected to set a couple league records and are on pace to shatter many more. Stefon Diggs isn’t far off the pace either. Of course, putting up Arena League numbers isn’t unique to the Vikings this season. The huge jump in offensive stats, especially in the passing game, is a league-wide phenomenon. Literally dozens of single-season NFL records could be shattered in 2018 if the current rate holds up. For example, only five different players in league history have had more than 5,000 yards passing in a single season. (Drew Brees has done it five separate times.) Kirk Cousins is currently on pace to have the third most passing yards in NFL history and he isn’t even leading the league! The 5,000 yard plateau has been breached a grand total of nine times ever, and only once before the 2008 season. There are eight quarterbacks currently on pace to do so this year. (It would have been nine if Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn’t benched.) Calling this year’s offensive outburst “video game numbers” is probably an exaggeration for the video games.

Even if the numbers are inflated, that takes nothing away from how great Thielen and Diggs have been this year. They are easily two of the best route runners in the league. Nick Olson over at Vikings Territory broke down how Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby were unwitting attendees of a route running clinic put on by Thielen and Diggs. While Patrick Peterson is still one of the very best corners in the NFL, he can’t cover both by himself. In fact, with how well Minnesota’s dynamic duo is playing, he’s going to have his work cut out just covering either one.

All signs are pointing to a relatively comfortable Vikings victory. The Arizona Cardinals have never beaten the Vikings in Minnesota—their last win in the Twin Cities came in 1977 when the franchise was in St. Louis. The Vikings have won nine straight home games over the Cardinals in that span. (Yeah, yeah, I’m Jinxy McJinxerson, yada yada yada. Whatever.)

Those signs were obviously pointing in the same direction before the last home game too. Unlike my daughters and the fuse bead fiasco, the Vikings should be able to avoid falling for the trap the second time around. The Griffen situation had to be weighing heavy on the Vikings’ minds against Buffalo; they were down by three scores before they knew what hit them. The home crowd and pass rush should make Rosen uncomfortable all day. If Minnesota can get off to a better start, it’s going to be tough for Arizona to maintain drives.

The Cardinals defense is opportunistic and has performed pretty well despite consistently being put in tough situations by the under-performing offense; they’re currently 8th in DVOA. But even with the possibility of the Vikings needing to shuffle their sub-par pieces up front, Cousins and company are playing at a high enough level to take care of business on Sunday.

If disaster somehow strikes twice and the Vikings once again lose as huge home favorites to an anemic offense with a rookie quarterback, I might need my kindergartener to stop me from throwing a tantrum. Nobody wants to see that.


Vikings 26, Cardinals 13

And now for the rest of my Week 6 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Eagles over GIANTS

Philadelphia going further into their tailspin is a tasty proposition, but New York is too much of a mess, even at home on a short week. I’m sad that Ereck Flowers will no longer be around to remind me that it could always be worse at tackle.

FALCONS over Buccaneers

I wouldn’t be surprised if the losing team of this game had 35 points or more. Defense optional in this NFC South clash.

TEXANS over Bills

As Jimmy Fallon says when he dresses up as Sara: this game is Ew!

Bears over DOLPHINS

Every time I think this could be the perfect game for Chicago to come crashing back down to Earth, two words pop into my head: Khalil Mack.

Steelers over BENGALS

Cincinnati is the better team right now. So why can’t I shake this feeling that they’re going to lose at home and spur a cascade of “the Steelers are back” articles?

Chargers over BROWNS

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m kind of excited for this game. Both teams are a ton of fun to watch and totally can’t be trusted to close out games.

Colts over JETS

I went back and forth on this game at least a dozen times. Each time I clicked the respective teams’ radio buttons, it felt wrong. So I might as well go with the underdogs. Or something. I don’t know man, I have sucked at picking games this year.

Seahawks over RAIDERS

Jon Gruden is earning that $10 million per year based strictly on his quotes that lack any semblance of self-awareness. “I tell ya what man, I’m likin’ all these players on other teams that I coulda signed in the offseason instead of the guys I got.”

Panthers over REDSKINS

All those Alex Smith over Kirk Cousins truthers got reeeeally quiet on Monday night, didn’t they?

Rams over BRONCOS

I have Todd Gurley on both of my fantasy teams. Is it weird that I’m already worried about him in the fantasy playoffs because L.A. might have everything wrapped up with three weeks to go?

Jaguars over COWBOYS

Unless Blake Bortles is in a particularly giving mood again, how is that Dallas offense going to score against that Jacksonville defense?

Ravens over TITANS

A battle between the two teams that can easily beat and easily lose to anyone in the league. I’ll give Baltimore the nod since they have been just a bit more consistent.

PATRIOTS over Chiefs

Easily the game of the week, and possibly the season thus far. I’d feel a lot more confident about this pick if it was a playoff game though. ANDY REID BURN!

PACKERS over 49ers

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now over .500 for the first time this season after the Pats took care of business last Thursday. And since I’m already out, I wouldn’t mind getting this one wrong too just to watch the schadenfreude-filled fallout in Green Bay.

Last week: 8-7
Season so far: 44-32-2