Entering the bye-week this year, things seem a little similar to last year. Last year the Vikings were 6-2 heading into the bye week with a little momentum, but were looking at a tough slate the next five games - four of them on the road. The Rams, Falcons and Panthers were all playoff teams, the Lions had beaten the Vikings a few weeks earlier at home, and at the Redskins, where the Vikings had lost the year before, wasn’t a easy win either. But the Vikings managed to win four of those five games, and that punched their ticket to the post-season and a first-round bye.
This year doesn’t look any easier. And at 5-3-1, there’s less margin for error.
The Vikings face the Bears in Chicago, the Packers at home, the Patriots in Foxboro, and the Seahawks and the 12th man in Seattle. All of these games are in prime time - two Sunday night division match-ups to start it off, followed by a late Sunday afternoon in Foxboro, and ending with a Monday night game at Seattle.
And while the Vikings have fared better in recent years, prime time games have not been when they’ve performed best historically. And did I mention three of these four games are on the road?
Yes, it’s a tough slate. And one that may determine where the Vikings land in the playoff hunt.
Game One: At Chicago
The Bears weren’t supposed to be good this year, but it wasn’t just the addition of Khalil Mack that made them good. They’re also healthy for once, and Mitch Trubisky is another year along his learning curve. The Vikings have had a tough time at Soldier Field in recent years, and I doubt it will be a cake-walk this time either. One area of concern in this game in particular is turnovers. The Bears thrive on turnovers and have the most takeaways in the league so far - averaging 2.6 per game. The Vikings have suffered some untimely turnovers that have sunk them in at least a couple games (Bills and Saints leap to mind), so taking care of the football will be key to coming out of Soldier Field with a win.
The Bears have a defense every bit as good as the Vikings right now. They are fifth and sixth in the league in points and yards allowed, respectively - better than the Vikings in both counts. But the Vikings defense has the advantage in third down conversion % allowed and in the red zone - where they rank #1 and #2 respectively. The Bears rank only 25th in red zone conversions allowed - a big chink in their armor.
Offensively the Bears have put up nearly 30 points a game - in part thanks to their takeaways - about five points more than the Vikings. The Vikings, oddly, have also averaged 30 points a game on the road so far - about 10 more a game than their home average. Let’s hope that continues for the rest of their road games.
The Vikings will be rested and hopefully healthy coming off their bye week, and they’ve won their last two post-bye week games. The Bears are 3-1 at home (not counting the Detroit game on Sunday). This game will be for the division lead, so plenty to play for - and I expect the home team will be wanting to prove themselves against the reigning division champs.
Game Two: Packers at Home
This may be the easiest game of the bunch, in part because it’s at home. The Packers have to win the rest of their games to have a chance at the playoffs, so they will come to Minneapolis with their backs against the wall. I suspect that at 4-5-1, the Packers may try to rally to keep their playoff hopes alive, but there is no denying that things haven’t gone well for the Packers this season. And the well of late-season miracles went dry last year and doesn’t look primed this year either.
One of the reasons things don’t look so good for the Packers at this point is because this isn’t the best Packers team the Vikings have faced in recent years. In part that’s because Rodgers doesn’t have the rapport with his new receivers, the Packers OL isn’t as good as it once was, and the Packers defense still isn’t there yet.
But the Packers usually play the Vikings tough, and both teams know each other well, so it’s likely to be a closely fought game- with playoff hopes on the line. Having said that, the Packers rank lower than the Vikings on all the major metrics on both offense and defense, and have yet to win a game on the road this season.
Game Three: At New England
This looks to be the toughest game of the bunch. Facing the dynasty that seems to be hitting their stride (except for the Titans game) in Foxboro - where they haven’t lost this season - is not usually a recipe for success. Tom Brady is a mere 112-19 (.855) in his career at home, and the Vikings are 0-4 as a franchise against the GOAT.
But all streaks must come to an end, right?
The Patriots currently are ahead of the Vikings on nearly all key metrics on both offense and defense, but in most cases narrowly so.
But despite the Patriots’ and Tom Brady’s formidable record at home and against the Vikings, and their performance advantages to date, this is the type of game the Vikings can surprise on the upside. Assuming the Vikings are in the thick of the playoff hunt, this is a game they will want to prove themselves. Of course the Patriots will want to gear up for the playoffs themselves, and make a point of using December games for that purpose.
Tough game all around for the Vikings. But still winnable.
Game Four: At Seattle
Playing in the Clink, as CenturyLink stadium is known, is never an easy task. The 12th man gives the Seahawks an outsized home advantage, and the team itself, while not the Seahawks of yesteryear, has been playing better as the season goes on, and Russell Wilson is still as formidable a QB as any. But at 5-5, the Seahawks have little margin for error the rest of the way. They play at Carolina next week, (before an easier home game against the 49ers), and their playoff hopes may well hinge on the outcome.
The Seahawks are an interesting team in that despite having Russell Wilson at QB, they rank near the bottom of the league in passing yards. But they are currently best in the league in rushing yards per game. Stopping the run may well be a key to victory at Seattle. The other (as it usually is) is stopping Seattle in the red zone, where they convert at a 71% rate right now - 6th best in the league.
Defensively, the Seahawks are not as formidable as they once were with the Legion of Boom, but they’re still a top ten unit overall. They’re stingy on 3rd down (6th best), but only middle of the pack in the red zone, allowing a 58.6% conversion rate. The weak point for the Seahawks has been their run defense, allowing 4.9 yards per carry - 28th in the league.
The Vikings should be able to capitalize on a weak Seahawks run defense, and seem likely to keep the Seahawks passing game in check on defense. But the key may come down to the red zone matchup, with the 6th ranked Seahawks offense facing the #2 ranked Vikings defense.
At 5-3-1, the Vikings- like most of the teams they face during this stretch- don’t have a lot of room to absorb more losses if they want to make the playoffs. Coming out of this four-game stretch with a 2-2 record is about the worst case the Vikings could manage and still have some hope for a playoff birth. But that would also require winning out.
But coming out of this stretch with a 3-1 record - particularly if they manage two division wins and beat the Seahawks - would put the Vikings in a much better position both in terms of the division crown and the playoffs. But that would also mean mean winning two of three tough road games - no easy task. 4-0 would make a very strong statement.
Last season the Vikings were able to ride a stellar post-bye-week performance (apart from the Carolina game) to a first-round bye in the playoffs. Any chance for a first-round bye this season would probably require them to win out the season, and hope the Saints and/or Rams slip up a little down the stretch. But for the next month in prime time for the Vikings, every game is crucial.
This is where playoff teams step-up - and where we find out what this Vikings team is made of.
How will the Vikings fare over the next four games ?
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