“What could possibly go wrong?”
Famous last words, right? We’ve all been there before. The final exam where you’re convinced that you’ll know the answer to every question before the professor even hands you the test. The villain having a foolproof plan for defeating the protagonist and taking over the world. The genius entrepreneur assuring everyone that his revolutionary robot is programmed to only help humans.
That’s what Week 3 feels like in Minnesota. As of this posting, the Minnesota Vikings are 17-point favorites over the Buffalo Bills according to Bovada. If that number holds, it would be tied for the largest point spread in favor of the Vikings in team history. Many people that haven’t already been knocked out of their Survivor Pools will be hitching their wagon to the heavily favored Vikings this week. Minnesota is a bona fide Super Bowl contender that somehow keeps adding important pieces to their team. Meanwhile, Buffalo looks like they are locked in a season-long competition with the Arizona Cardinals for the first overall pick in the 2019 draft.
If ever there was a franchise that knows that a “sure thing” in football can be anything but, it’s this one. You can look anywhere throughout the Vikings’ 57-year history and find countless instances of the team grasping defeat from the jaws of victory. Or, you could just look to last week’s overtime. That’s probably easier.
The Bills are one of maybe two franchises (along with the Browns) that could rightfully claim to be more tortured than the Vikings. The Vikings lost four Super Bowls in a decade; the Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row. We constantly gripe about coming up short in the playoffs; the Bills just made the playoffs for the first time this century. Comparing the past woes of Minnesota and Buffalo is the world’s saddest rendition of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).”
While you could debate the “merits” of which fan base has had it worse over the years, there is no argument as to which is suffering more this season. You don’t need a huge point spread to tell that the Vikings are a much better team than the Bills. The Vikings spent most of this week tweaking their roster, adding key veteran pieces in hopes of a deep playoff run. The Bills spent most of this week wondering why one of their players literally retired at halftime.
Two games is a small sample size, but the sample has been pretty rotten for Buffalo. They have scored the second fewest points in the NFL and are tied for the most points allowed. They have allowed scores on 50% of opponents’ drives, forced a turnover on 3.8% of opponents’ drives, and are allowing 27.2 yards per drive. Each of those numbers are currently worst in the league. They’re rated dead last on both offense and defense in DAVE, a formula by Football Outsiders that combines preseason projections with current performance. It basically means they were expected to be pretty bad and they’re playing even worse.
Since the Bills knew they probably weren’t contending this season, they tried to give their raw rookie quarterback some time on the bench to develop. That time turned out to be 34 minutes into the first game of the season. Nathan Peterman went full Blutarsky with his quarterback rating against the Ravens, forcing Head Coach Sean McDermott into playing Josh Allen right away.
If history is any indication, Allen is going to have a long day against the Vikings. As Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune pointed out Wednesday, Zimmer’s defense has been notoriously tough on rookie quarterbacks. Here is a statistical breakdown of the rookie QBs to play against the Vikings under Zimmer:
Rookie Quarterbacks vs. Zimmer’s Defense
A total of three touchdowns in five games, with none of the quarterbacks even sniffing 200 yards. Only one had a quarterback rating of over 70 or adjusted yards per attempt of over 6. And now you’re throwing Josh Allen—who had plenty of question marks coming in—against the best Zimmer defense yet. On the road. In his second career start. To quote Jerry Seinfeld:
To quote Seinfeld again, having said that, half of the rookie quarterbacks that have faced a Zimmer Vikings defense have actually won. (Wentz and Prescott benefited from a total of six Vikings turnovers in those two games, but still.) Does Allen have any chance at pulling off the huge upset?
The good news: he certainly has a better chance than Peterman. He was so comically bad Week 1 against the Ravens that it was basically impossible to evaluate the rest of the Bills offense with Peterman in.
The bad news: Josh Allen has completed only half of his passes, has one garbage time touchdown compared to two interceptions, and is sporting a paltry 3.52 adjusted net yards per attempt through the first six quarters of his career. One of the biggest concerns about Allen coming out of the draft was his accuracy. Those concerns have already shown up a handful of times early on.
There have also been some throws that help you understand why the Bills fell in love with Allen. He has prototypical NFL size and an absolute cannon of an arm. When he gets time to set his feet and let loose, the results can be pretty impressive.
Problem is, Allen hasn’t been afforded the luxury of a clean pocket much yet. He has already been sacked eight times in 56 dropbacks. Some of it is due to Buffalo’s sub-par offensive line. This team starts former Vikings legend Vladimir Ducasse at left guard, and he might actually be one of the better linemen the Bills have. But Allen has to shoulder some of the blame here too. He has taken a few unnecessary sacks due to locking in on his first read and holding onto the ball for too long. (Two more concerns about him coming out of Wyoming.) With how well the Vikings can disguise coverage before the snap, they’ll tee off on Allen all day if he doesn’t go through his progressions.
The one part of Allen’s game that the Vikings need to be wary of is when he uses his legs. Allen is a very capable runner; in fact, he’s only three yards behind LeSean McCoy for the team rushing lead through two weeks.
Last week I thought the Vikings were overly cautious in trying to keep a hobbled Aaron Rodgers in the pocket early on, which hindered the pass rush until later in the game. This week, they might be better served to keep the edges contained and ensure Allen can’t run for big gains. While Rodgers can pick anyone apart with a bit of time, I have my doubts that Allen can consistently do damage from the pocket. Kelvin Benjamin is a solid wide receiver, but the likes of Zay “I can’t believe I’m the brother that’s still employed” Jones, Andre Holmes, and Robert Foster won’t scare the Vikings’ secondary. The Bills passing attack has been so inept through the first two games that Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have combined for more receptions, yards, and touchdowns than Buffalo’s entire roster.
When the passing game is struggling, it’s nice to have a good running back to rely on. The Bills still have that—for now. McCoy has been limited in practice this week with a rib injury, but that appears to be the least of his worries this week. It’s doubtful that Shady’s off-field controversy will affect his status for Sunday, but his situation is leaning toward Adrian Peterson territory in all the wrong ways. On the field, McCoy has been largely neutralized through the first two weeks due to the Bills being down big early in both games; the Vikings will aim to continue the trend on Sunday.
The outlook is better for Buffalo on the defensive side of the ball, but it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows there either. Star defensive end Shaq Lawson missed last week’s game against the Chargers and still wasn’t practicing on Wednesday. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are a solid safety pairing, and Tre’Davious White is coming off an excellent rookie campaign last year. But the rest of the secondary is very thin, especially after starting cornerback Vontae Davis straight up retired one half into his Bills career. The Bills have already been picked apart by Joe Flacco and Philip Rivers to the tune of a 75.4% completion rate, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. Buffalo has been playing a lot of soft coverage with two high safeties and getting carved up underneath because of it.
Wait a second. Soft two-deep coverage that allows the opposing offense to march up and down the field? That sounds vaguely familiar. Oh yeah, that’s right—it’s because the Bills Defensive Coordinator is none other than Leslie Frazier! I’m sure that Frazier has gone back, looked at the tape, and looked for ways to improve for this game though. [Insert exaggerated eye roll here.]
By now it should be fairly obvious that the Bills are eminently beatable. The Vikings are clearly the superior team, but they still need to clean up some of what has been hindering them. For starters, the run blocking desperately needs to improve. That won’t be a straightforward task against Buffalo either. Star Lotulelei hasn’t really lived up to the potential that made him a first round pick in 2013, but he has been doing a solid job of occupying blockers to free up Kyle Williams in the middle and Jerry Hughes off the edge. Minnesota’s offensive line has had plenty of struggles against defensive tackles through the first two games; hopefully Pat Elflein will be able to make his season debut on Sunday and shore up the middle. Even if Dalvin Cook can’t go this week, Latavius Murray should be able to shoulder the load and keep the Bills defense honest.
While the run game has been a much bigger concern than the passing attack thus far, the Vikings offense as a whole needs to prove that they can put together four solid quarters. They struggled trying to put the 49ers away and it took them almost three full quarters to hit their stride against the Packers. If they can’t be more consistent at home against an inferior opponent, it doesn’t bode well for them hitting the road against two of the NFC’s best teams in the coming weeks.
The defense has some room to improve as well. George Kittle and Jimmy Graham enjoyed way too much open space in the opening two games; the Vikings must ensure that Charles Clay isn’t afforded that same luxury on Sunday. For a defense with so much talent and continuity, it has been a bit alarming to see the amount of missed coverages the Vikings have had so far. Eric Kendricks wasn’t very impressive against the Packers. Mackensie Alexander needs to thank his lucky stars that Mason Crosby missed at the end of regulation last week. If he hadn’t, Mack would still be getting skewered for staring at Rodgers while completely ignoring Graham running behind him. It certainly looks like Zimmer was furious with him at the end of the play.
And don’t you think it’s about time for Anthony Barr to make a couple splash plays in his big contract year? Sheldon Richardson certainly seems to be playing for his next big payday. If given the choice between the two right now, I know who I’d go with.
In the end, all of these complaints about the Vikings are picking nits, especially when compared to the calamity that the Bills have been so far in 2018. Adding Dan Bailey and Tom Johnson this week increased the gulf of talent between these two rosters even further. I think this game will closely resemble how the Vikings handled the Bengals last season—force some mistakes, jump out to an early lead to get the home crowd in a frenzy, and coast to an easy victory. If the Vikings want to be taken seriously as a Super Bowl hopeful, they should dispose of the Bills in a tidy fashion. True title contenders take care of business in games like this.
I’m making the Vikings my Survivor Pool pick this week. It couldn’t possibly go wrong!
Vikings 31, Bills 10
And now for the rest of my Week 3 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
BROWNS over Jets
Cleveland has won exactly once in their last 37 games, and Hue Jackson will try his best to screw this up. But the Browns defense should be able to make Sam Darnold look like the rookie that he is. Plus I’m subscribing to a theme this week: cut the young kicker you regret drafting, get a home win the following game!
Saints over FALCONS
While Atlanta looked much better last week, injuries to key players have already started to pile up for them. I think New Orleans breaks out of their traditional early-season funk and edges past their division rival on the road.
Bengals over PANTHERS
I’ll stay on the “Cincinnati is better than most people think” bandwagon for at least one more week.
RAVENS over Broncos
I can’t tell if Case Keenum is regressing because he’s throwing more interceptions this year or he’s still great because he’s pulling off these late victories. I’m guessing the former for now. Beating the Seahawks and Raiders at home by a grand total of four points probably isn’t a precursor for another deep playoff run.
Packers over REDSKINS
No matter which team wins this game, I’ll be set from a schadenfreude standpoint.
JAGUARS over Titans
Jacksonville had my curiosity before the season. After their beatdown of New England that included a legitimately stellar performance from Blake Bortles last week, they have my attention.
EAGLES over Colts
Carson Wentz is back. He could struggle a bit this week, but he should have the rust knocked off by the time he sees the Vikings in Week 5. [Grits teeth] I’m so happy to see my fellow North Dakota State alum back on the field. Yay.
CHIEFS over 49ers
Watching Kansas City play this season is like playing Madden with the defensive sliders turned all the way down on both sides. Take the over, start everyone you can for both teams in fantasy, and watch Patrick Mahomes go nuts.
DOLPHINS over Raiders
Miami looks poised to have one of those classic “go 10-6 and make the playoffs without any particularly impressive wins” seasons.
TEXANS over Giants
The loser of this game earns the title of “most disappointing team through three weeks.” If Houston loses this one, Bill O’Brien could be in big trouble. Good thing he’s going against the rotting corpse of Eli Manning.
RAMS over Chargers
Can we call this “The Battle for Los Angeles” even if the city of L.A. couldn’t care less about one of the teams?
Bears over CARDINALS
It feels like the Sam Bradford we saw in Week 1 of the 2017 season was three decades ago. Just put Josh Rosen in already. Give some hope to the people that drafted David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
Cowboys over SEAHAWKS
At least Seattle still has Shamar Stephen, right?
Patriots over LIONS
BUCCANEERS over Steelers
Last week, I wrote this in my picks:
Could you imagine the 2-0 Bucs hosting the winless Steelers on Monday Night Football next week?! Yeah, you’re right. Me neither.
After seeing Ryan Fitzpatrick’s glorious post-game press conference outfit last week, I can’t imagine the Bucs ever losing again. Especially to the soap opera the Steelers have suddenly devolved into.
Last week: 9-6-1
Season so far: 19-11-2