One of my favorite relatively unheralded TV shows of all time is Community. It was an incredibly clever, irreverent, and fast-paced comedy that had a sneakily star-studded cast. Even if you have never seen the show, you have inevitably seen Joel McHale, Donald Glover, John Oliver, Chevy Chase, Ken Jeong, Alison Brie, Jonathan Banks, and the rest of the cast in a multitude of other projects. While it was on air (and then canceled, and then revived online), it was my favorite weekly dose of silly yet sharp humor.
The most discussed episode from the show also happens to be my favorite of its 110-episode run, titled “Remedial Chaos Theory.” (If you subscribe to Hulu, you can watch it here.) When Troy and Abed host a housewarming party at their new apartment, Jeff tosses a die to see who has to go downstairs to get the pizza. The episode revolves around the different timelines that occur depending on how the die is cast. The one seemingly innocuous choice splices the timelines into shockingly different conclusions.
Even if you have never seen a minute of the show, chances are you have seen a popular gif from this episode. It’s from what Abed calls “the darkest timeline,” where Troy is selected to get the pizza. Even though he promises to return fast so he doesn’t miss anything, there’s a smash cut to this scene when he returns:
The apartment is on fire, Pierce has been shot, and there’s a Norwegian troll doll menacingly smiling back at Troy amid the chaos. (If you watch the episode, it makes sense, I swear.) Everything has gone horribly wrong but you aren’t exactly sure why.
With how the 2018 season has unfolded thus far for the Vikings, a lot of us feel like we might be living the darkest timeline. While the Vikings are 6-5-1 and still in control of their own destiny as it pertains to a playoff berth, it’s a far cry from the dominance many of us expected after adding important pieces to a team that went 13-3 and was the NFC runner-up last season.
A couple of those important pieces have been lightning rods for blame when the Vikings have struggled this season. Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo is only twelve games into his play calling tenure in Minnesota, yet the torches and pitchforks are already out for him in some particularly noisy corners of #VikingsTwitter. Mike Zimmer has done little to quell the mob mentality with his thinly veiled public frustration for the offense the past few weeks. I totally understand the frustration with DeFilippo; I have been a vocal critic of his work at times throughout the season. When most of the pieces are the same and the results are vastly different, it’s easy to blame the new guy. (After you grow tired of firing out those angry “THIS IS WHAT $84 MILLION GETS US?!” tweets, of course.)
After watching the film against New England, I agree with Arif’s assessment from earlier in the week: it’s way too soon to give the axe to DeFilippo. The Vikings offense is under-performing and you can definitely put some of the blame at JDF’s feet, but the struggles have truly been a team effort. I did a quick Twitter thread on Thursday pointing out a handful of Week 13 plays that faltered more because of lack of execution by Kirk Cousins and the offensive line than the play calls themselves:
If you're gonna check down and take what the #Patriots are giving you, why not hit Diggs open across the middle here? Cook did great to get 5 yards here but Diggs already had 5+ with a head of steam if Cousins passed to him. pic.twitter.com/6ckgqecbmr— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) December 6, 2018
Still, many of us were irked last week against the Patriots because the running game was actually efficient for once. It was pretty obvious that New England was focused on preventing big plays to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The Patriots defense kept the line of scrimmage busy before the snap, but mostly backed off into coverage. Dalvin Cook enjoyed his second highest output of the year, yet he only carried the ball nine times and the Vikings offense had their second fewest yards of the season. The easy narrative here is to wring your hands about DeFilippo’s play calling and lament how Cook should have got the ball more. In reality, Cook did get 17 touches (including eight catches on ten targets). And after this 18-yard run that set up the game tying field goal late in the third quarter, the Vikings were suddenly down by 14 points the next time Cook touched the ball just six offensive plays later.
Much has been made about how the Vikings are currently the pass-heaviest team in the NFL. Courtney Cronin detailed how Minnesota is 30th in designed run percentage (30.3%). If the Vikings can pull off a postseason berth at that rate, it would be the most lopsided play calling for a playoff team in a dozen years. But as Cronin and Matt Bowen went on to detail in the article, the ratio is much less important than the results. With an offensive line that has had plenty of struggles run blocking, play design and pre-snap motion are much more critical than simply pounding the rock a certain number of times. When it comes to running the football in today’s pass-happy NFL, you have to concern yourself with efficiency over volume.
One team that has been surprisingly good in both efficiency and volume is the Vikings’ opponent on Monday—the Seahawks. While Minnesota has wilted at times under the crushing expectations, Seattle has enjoyed a “prime timeline” in a year where many had them pegged to struggle through a rebuilding phase. Early on, it looked like they were going to play down to their lowered expectations. Mistake-filled road losses to the Broncos and Bears had the Seahawks in an ugly 0-2 hole. Since then, they have gone 7-3 and currently own the pole position in the NFC Wild Card race. Seattle rocketed up when everyone figured they were trending down.
One reason why the Seahawks zigged when most thought they would zag: they have been unexpectedly proficient on the ground. They are the only team in the NFL that runs more than they pass; unsurprisingly, they lead the league in rushing. Last week, the Seahawks pounded the 49ers into submission with a large amount of runs that featured an extra eligible tackle. Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny combined for 134 yards on 20 carries.
Two of the Seahawks’ three losses since their rough start have been to the powerhouse Los Angeles Rams. The ‘Hawks gave the Rams all they could handle in both games because they ran the ball so effectively. Seattle racked up a whopping 463 yards on the ground in their two meetings with LA.
This newfound prosperity on the ground is a bit surprising because it isn’t happening behind a highly celebrated offensive line. Outside of left tackle Duane Brown, Seattle’s big guys up front are fairly pedestrian. In fact, Pro Football Focus has them ranked 28th in run blocking, two spots behind the Vikings. Football Outsiders has Seattle ranked more favorably, especially in the power run game, but still middle of the pack when it comes to adjusted line yards. The biggest facet of Seattle’s success running the ball may be the simple fact that they have been so dedicated to it throughout the year.
Having Russell Wilson and a few dangerous weapons in the passing game to keep you honest helps too.
Wilson is playing some of the best football of his career in 2018. He has been insanely efficient this season. Wilson’s 8.3 yards per attempt, 9.4 adjusted yards per attempt, 115.5 quarterback rating, 1.5% interception rate, and (historically great) 8.9% touchdown rate are all career bests. Seattle can afford to run the ball so often because they’re always a threat for a quick strike through the air. Doug Baldwin didn’t practice Thursday or Friday; losing their most reliable receiver would be a huge blow for the Seahawks. But the emergence of Tyler Lockett and David Moore have made the prospect of missing Baldwin much more palatable. The duo has combined for over 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. Jaron Brown has thrown in another five scores—not bad for a WR4. If Trae Waynes isn’t cleared from his concussion by Monday night, Lockett’s ability as a home run threat might be hard to stifle for 60 minutes.
While Wilson is connecting for scores at a rate that shouldn’t be sustainable over twelve games, he is also taking sacks at the highest rate of his career—37 of them to be exact. A 9.9% adjusted sack rate puts the Seahawks at 29th in the league. Wilson has been sacked multiple times in all but one game this season. There should be ample opportunity for the Vikings to get pressure after being largely shut out in New England last week. Wilson has been historically susceptible to pressure up the middle. The Vikings have had success on stunts this season. Former Seahawks Sheldon Richardson and Tom Johnson are eager to show Seattle what they’re missing. Pressure up the gut could be a great way to force some unfavorable down and distances to throw off the balance the Seahawks have so carefully curated.
If the defense can keep Wilson and the ground game in check, the Vikings offense should be able to get yards in chunks against the Seahawks. Seattle’s D hasn’t fallen off as much as many anticipated in the post-Legion Of Boom era, but they’re still middle of the road by most metrics. They have been especially vulnerable to explosive plays; Sharp Football Stats has them ranked 29th against the run and 22nd against the pass in explosive plays allowed. Ted’s Five Questions article with Kenneth Arthur of Field Gulls did an excellent job of breaking down which areas the Vikings could exploit. As Arthur noted, there are some promising pieces to the secondary, most notably strong safety Bradley McDougald and rookie cornerback Tre Flowers. (By the way, how the hell do the Seahawks keep finding all these tall, talented cornerbacks on the third day of the draft? It’s like they have the code for the airlock in Spaceballs and nobody else in the league has figured it out yet.) Bobby Wagner is still the crazy glue in the middle that keeps everything together on defense. But as long as the Vikings can stymie a Seattle pass rush that has been far from formidable outside of Frank Clark and Jarran Reed (who have over half of the team’s 31 sacks), Cousins should find some areas to exploit.
The following statement won’t win me any originality points, but it might hold true more on Monday night than in any other game this season: if you want to run the ball more effectively and stop a team that’s dangerous on the ground, getting an early lead would certainly help. A decent portion of the imbalance in the Vikings offense can be attributed to game script; you naturally pass more when you’re trailing, especially by multiple scores. The Vikings are 0-5-1 in games where they have trailed by double digits at any point and 6-0 when they haven’t. Again, this kind of revolutionary information isn’t going to win me a Pulitzer for investigative reporting, but it emphasizes the importance of starting off well. Outside of the wild Week 2 finish, this Vikings team simply doesn’t appear to be equipped to chase the game. Becoming one-dimensional behind a shaky offensive line with a quarterback that has struggled to improvise is a predictable death sentence.
While I’m on this run of being Captain Obvious, allow me to give the weekly reminder that turnovers are important! The Seahawks turned the ball over five times in their abysmal 0-2 start; they have four turnovers in the ten games since. In that same ten-game stretch, the Vikings have turned the ball over 16 times. That’s a big reason why the Vikings are currently looking up in the standings at a team that’s probably less talented top to bottom.
I truly believe that the Vikings are bringing a superior roster to CenturyLink Field on Monday night. However, the Seahawks are still a good team, and that’s a hurdle Minnesota has yet to clear in 2018. I can find plenty of reasons to pick the Vikings to win this game and take a huge step toward playoff qualification. But I’m still haunted by one particular revelation Kevin Clark uttered at the 44-minute mark of The Ringer NFL Podcast when discussing the Vikings this past Monday:
I keep looking for reasons to say that they’re good and I haven’t seen them.
Sadly, we’re 3⁄4 of the way through the season and I can’t say I disagree with Clark here. The Vikings are certainly talented enough to beat anyone, but they remain winless against winning teams in 2018. Wilson is almost as tough to beat at home as Tom Brady. When you throw in the old trope of this being a prime time road game, I’ll admit that my confidence isn’t exactly soaring.
Hopefully the Vikings can finally cast the die in their favor on Monday night and avoid the possibility of the true darkest timeline—missing the playoffs. I still think they’re capable of going full 2012 Mode and sneaking into the 6 seed if they lose this game, but I’d rather they didn’t use up their remaining room for error with three games left to play.
C’mon Vikes. Prove me wrong. Don’t light the apartment on fire just yet.
Seahawks 27, Vikings 23
And now for the rest of my Week 14 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
TITANS over Jaguars
Since this post is a couple days later than usual, I’m including my tweet from Thursday where I picked Tennessee:
Since I'm posting my picks Friday instead of Thursday this week, I'll take the #Titans over the #Jaguars tonight.— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) December 6, 2018
Why? Who cares! It's a terrible AFC South Thursday night game! Go do something productive with your evening instead!
I was wrong about when my article was going to post—more on that at the end of the article—but at least I was correct about the game. Also, my condolences to anyone that went against Derrick Henry in their fantasy playoffs. Or, more likely, had him on their bench while he exploded for over 200 yards and four touchdowns.
PACKERS over Falcons
Addition by subtraction. Don’t be surprised if Aaron Rodgers suddenly starts connecting on those inexplicable passes he has been short-hopping for the past few weeks.
BILLS over Jets
Buffalo won at New York by 31 points three weeks ago, so of course I was incredibly tempted to pick the Jets here. But I’m impressed with how Josh Allen is quickly developing into one of the best young running backs in the league.
(No, that wasn’t a typo.)
Panthers over BROWNS
Help! I keep picking Carolina every week even though they keep losing! Gregg Williams, you’re my only hope!
Colts over TEXANS
Help! The Texans have won nine straight games and I keep refusing to acknowledge that they’re actually good! Andrew Luck, you’re my only hope!
CHIEFS over Ravens
I’m a little worried about Baltimore needing the game more, Lamar Jackson against the shaky KC defense, and the bad karma surrounding the awful Kareem Hunt situation. But I would be more worried about picking against Patrick Mahomes at home.
Patriots over DOLPHINS
New England is going to clinch the AFC East with three weeks to spare. Again. Let’s hope they completely demoralize the Dolphins before they visit the Vikings next week.
Saints over BUCCANEERS
New Orleans is coming off ten days rest, eager to get their offense back on track after scoring only ten points last Thursday, and looking to avenge their crazy Week 1 loss to Tampa. I smell a blowout.
Giants over REDSKINS
Mark Sanchez and Eli Manning used to be New York’s favored sons not that long ago. Now they’re the saddest quarterback matchup in a long time.
CHARGERS over Bengals
There are a few NFL teams that have fallen off a cliff lately; the Bengals have already reached terminal velocity.
Broncos over 49ERS
[Looks at Denver’s remaining schedule]
[Looks at how much trouble the Vikings are in if they lose in Seattle]
[Thinks of the impending avalanche of Case Keenum vs. Kirk Cousins takes if the Broncos make the playoffs and the Vikings don’t]
[Gulps, pulls at collar]
COWBOYS over Eagles
So is Dallas...good now? Their defense certainly looked the part against the Saints.
CARDINALS over Lions
If you watch even a second of this game outside of the handful of times it’s bound to show up on the RedZone Channel, I have only one question for you: why the hell are you betting on this Cardinals and Lions game?! Please, get some help. You have a gambling problem.
Steelers over RAIDERS
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 9-4 on the season after Seattle dismantled San Francisco last week. Is everyone else excited for Jaylen Samuels to swing your fantasy playoffs? I know I am!
Rams over BEARS
Hey. Sean McVay. Do us a solid here. Don’t let Matt Nagy threaten your “Best Young Head Coach” title. Keep us in the division race. Please.
Last week: 9-7
Season so far: 120-70-2
An important final note
A quick postscript as to why I was late in posting my preview article this week: our three year old daughter had a bout of pneumonia and was admitted to Children’s in St. Paul for a couple nights. She’s just fine now, and I truly appreciate all the kind words everyone sent along on Twitter throughout the last couple days. Seeing an online community that can be filled with such snark and vitriol offer an outpouring of warm thoughts meant the world to me. It was a bit of a scare, but our ordeal was nothing compared to what a lot of other families have to deal with when it comes to the health of their children.
It was a weird twist of fate that I spent a couple nights in a children’s hospital the same week that Kyle Rudolph was nominated as the Vikings’ candidate for Walter Payton Man of the Year. The amount of time and finances Kyle and his wife Jordan have spent helping the Twin Cities area since the moment he arrived in Minnesota is truly staggering. The End Zone at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital that the Rudolphs created is an act of kindness that goes above and beyond in so many ways. I had already watched the incredible video that the Vikings made for Rudolph’s nomination a few times this week; on Friday night, I watched it with my wife in the hospital room while our daughter rested. To say it struck a chord with us was an understatement. I’m tearing up again just writing about it.
Thank you for everything you do, Kyle. While you have been a great player on the field for the past eight seasons, the work that you and your wife have done off of it will be felt by this community long after you don the purple for the last time.