Well, it’s that time of year again. Pre-season is over, roster cut-down decisions made, and the promise of the new season is upon us. But how that season will play out remains to be seen - we have only hints of this or that, reading of tea leaves, last year’s data, and the smoke and mirrors of pre-season action to base our predictions. And yet, for the fourth year running (sort of), I make my annual season predictions for the Vikings and the season ahead.
A LOOK BACK TO BEGIN
Three years ago, when the over/under for the Vikings just prior to the season opener was 7.5, I predicted a 10-6 season and the division coming down to the last game vs. the Packers, which I predicted the Packers would win and take the division. I was wrong. The Vikings won, went 11-5, and took home the NFC North crown.
Two years ago, I didn’t make a prediction because Teddy Bridgewater just went down, but I was optimistic enough about Sam Bradford to go with the Vikings to repeat as division champs, with this caveat:
This year I like the Vikings to repeat as NFC North champs, but it may come down to injuries- particularly along the offensive lines where both teams are weak.
Well, that caveat was true as the Vikings offensive line was devastated with injuries en route to an 8-8 record and well back from any division-winning aspirations.
Last year around this time, there was plenty of doubt in the air as the Vikings didn’t look good in preseason. And following an 8-8 season in 2016, the national media weren’t that high on the Vikings chances either - and unanimous that it would be a Packers cake-walk in the NFC North. But I liked the Vikings, arguing that a few incremental improvements offensively could make a big difference in the win-loss column, and went with a 12-4 record for the Vikings that should be good enough to win the NFC North.
Looking back at the comments from that article last year, there were a lot of ‘purple-colored glasses’ type comments. And the poll results were telling: only 4% of the nearly 2200 votes in the poll were for a record of 13-3 or better - which shows what a surprise last year was - and of course was the correct answer. I wonder what the predictions would have been had people known Case Keenum would start at QB beginning week two.
LOOKING AHEAD TO THIS YEAR - AND INJURIES
This year expectations are a lot higher. But a lot of things went right for the Vikings to end up 13-3 at the end of the regular season last year. Case Keenum played out of his tree. Aaron Rodgers went down for the season early in the first game against the Vikings. The Vikings defense was #1 in the league and the best on third down since Mike Zimmer entered the league (which was a long time ago). The Vikings still had more than their fair share in key injuries - starting QB, starting RB in Dalvin Cook, and once again some offensive line injuries late in the season- and Everson Griffen. But thanks to Keenum, Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray stepping up to fill the void and then some, things still worked out very well.
It just goes to show how an NFL season can be just as much a demolition derby as an Indy 500, and having quality depth on the roster can make all the difference. Just ask the Packers. If you look at Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost statistic for last season, you’ll find that most teams in the top half of the list (with fewest player games lost) - including the Vikings- were playoff teams. Only two teams in the bottom half made the playoffs. The Vikings surprised a lot of people last season - in part because they went from near the bottom in AGL to the upper half. Meanwhile disappointments like Seattle, Cincinnati and the Giants went from the top 10 to the bottom half in AGL.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Redskins - Kirk Cousins’ old team - was dead last in AGL last season, meaning they suffered the most missed time (as weighted by FO) last season. The Bears have been last and next-to-last in AGL the last two seasons. The Rams have lost the fewest games to injury in each of the past two seasons. Will that luck continue?
All that to point out rather starkly that health is right up there with talent in terms of winning in the NFL over the course of a season - and that this season’s predictions are assuming the Vikings are not hurt more than average when it comes to AGL, that is to say once again in the top half like last season.
PREDICTING SEASON RESULTS
Comparing this season’s roster to last year’s, the Vikings start this year stronger. It’s not just additions like Kirk Cousins and Sheldon Richardson, it’s also existing players that have improved since this time last year. Guys like Trae Waynes, Laquon Treadwell, Danielle Hunter, and MacKensie Alexander. Not to mention Dalvin Cook’s return.
I also think the offensive line will be improved this year. There may not be too much tangible at the moment to justify that, but it’s not unusual for free agent acquisitions like Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers to perform better their second year with their new team, Reiff in particular had a down year last season - well outside his historical track record. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him rebound this year. I also agree with the Vikings coaching staff that Mike Remmers is better suited inside at guard. Looking at the other inside positions- center and left guard - there is reason for optimism as well. First, Nick Easton at left guard last season was the lowest rated offensive lineman according to PFF, with a 57.5 overall grade. If Brett Jones replaces him this season, he brings a 68.6 grade with him from last season at center. It looks like Jones will start week one at center, but Pat Elflein, now off the PUP list, should be back by the end of the month, if not sooner I would think. At right tackle, Rashod Hill may benefit from being in better shape this year and having about a half season of starts at right tackle last season under his belt. Lastly, offensive line depth has improved, with guys like Aviante Collins and Brian O’Neill improving and able to fill in as needed.
All this should help the offense - whether having an extra weapon or two in Dalvin Cook and Laquon Treadwell, or having a slightly better offensive line with better depth - which is typically needed over the course of a season. I can’t say Kirk Cousins will have a better season overall than Case Keenum did last year, but it may be similar. Cousins should benefit from a better receiving corps than he had last season in Washington, and a better defense that will help take the pressure off him to deliver. The Vikings averaged about 3 more points/game than the Redskins last season, and giving Kirk Cousins a better supporting cast may help him make up that difference and maybe a point or two more per game on top of that, which would meet or exceed his 2016 point production. It’s not unrealistic to see the Vikings move from averaging around 24 points/game last year to around 25-26 points/game this year.
Defensively, the continuity of scheme and players, along with improvement in a couple positions, should lead to similar results as last season, in terms of points and yards allowed per game. It will also help to have better depth at the corner and safety positions, as that will help avoid any drop off due to starters missing games to injury or suspension. Better defensive line depth should allow for better rotation and fresher players deeper into games and the season.
But one of the weaker areas of the defense last season was turnovers, where they ranked only 24th. I would not be surprised to see that ranking improve this season, as a combination of greater pressure up-front and a slightly improved DB group force opponents into more turnovers. Last year the Vikings averaged 1.2 takeaways per game. I expect that number to be much closer to 2.0 this season.
ANALYZING THE SCHEDULE
Beginning the season at home against the 49ers is a modest challenge to start things off. I think week two at Green Bay is favorable timing for the Vikings annual visit to Lambeau field when weather isn’t an issue and the Packers new receivers and DBs may still be working out the kinks. The Bills at home week three looks favorable for the Vikings too.
That leads to the most difficult two game stretch on the Vikings schedule - at the Rams and Eagles. The Rams game is a quick turnaround on Thursday night, but giving the Vikings a few extra days rest prior to the Eagles game. Both games are tough matchups, but I expect the Vikings to go 1-1 over this two-game stretch.
The next two games - Arizona at home and at the Jets - should be easier matchups for the Vikings, and games they should win. That leads to the Saints game, once again at home. Undoubtedly that is a game circled on the calander in New Orleans, and once again a tough matchup. But I don’t see the Vikings losing this game at home.
Then the Vikings have their NFC North stretch - Lions at home, bye week, Bears away, Packers at home. They will all be close games, but I expect the Vikings to win most or all of them. The Lions have done the least to improve during the off-season among NFC North teams, the Packers have improved by getting Rodgers back and adding some promising rookie CBs, and the Bears with Khalil Mack and others, but they’re still not there yet offensively.
The next stretch - at New England and at Seattle should be a couple tough road games. But I’m wondering if these are not both lesser versions of the formidable teams of the past. I could see these being tough but winnable games for the Vikings against two of the very best QBs in the league but with lesser supporting casts than in previous years.
The season ends with the Dolphins at home, the Lions away, and once again the Bears at home. I would not be surprised if all three of these teams had nothing to play for at this point in the season, which could make them easier games for the Vikings.
Overall, the Vikings play all four of the other teams in the top 5 power rankings (Eagles, Rams, Saints, Patriots) to begin the season, along with the #9 ranked Packers twice. Those six games are the toughest on the Vikings schedule, but I expect them to win at least half of them, maybe going 4-2 overall among these games. The other ten are games the Vikings should win. That leads to a 14-2 overall record, but I’m gonna throw in one more ‘‘disappointing’ loss in there and go with a 13-3 prediction for the regular season - same as last the Vikings had last season.
The main reason I’m predicting another 13 win season is because the Vikings defense will keep them in every game, and the Vikings offense has too many weapons for opposing defenses to shut down completely.
I also think Mike Zimmer will improve in his approach to game planning and self-scouting, making it more difficult for teams to effectively game plan against him. He has the tools and weapons on both sides of the ball to vary game plans and keep opponents guessing, which is an advantage the Vikings didn’t use as much last season.
NFC NORTH PREDICTION
My 13-3 prediction for the Vikings will secure another NFC North title, and may give them a number one seed in the playoffs, depending on the outcome of games against leading NFC contenders like the Saints, Eagles and Rams.
But for the rest of the NFC North, this season may be disappointing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers got a wild card spot with a 10 or 11 win season, but also a quick exit from the playoffs. Coordinator coaching changes, losing Jordy Nelson, young DBs, and not as good an offensive line will hold the Packers back some. Jimmy Graham won’t be a big a factor as expected, but still helpful in the red zone.
The Lions may also come away disappointed and out of the playoffs, going maybe 9-7 or 8-8. They are good enough to be in games against good teams, but not enough to win them much. And they can have their share of disappointing performances as well. But the bottom line is that Lions new head coach Matt Patricia has more work to do to build the Lions into a real contender.
The Bears may be the most improved team in the NFC North this year, but that may get them to about 8-8 or so. It will be interesting to see how they fare at Green Bay week one. In any case, the Bears are putting together a pretty strong defense, but whether Mitch Trubisky can take the Bears offense into anything more than average remains to be seen.
PLAYOFF TEAM PREDICTIONS
I’ll also take a stab at playoff team predictions for the NFC this year, and go with the following:
NFC North: Vikings, Packers
NFC East: Eagles
NFC West: Rams
NFC South: Saints, Falcons
I would be fairly surprised if the Vikings, Eagles, Rams and Saints did not all win their division this season, barring injury. They seem the clear favorites, although both the Packers and Falcons will be in contention. I suspect the Panthers will disappoint this year, and the Rams and Eagles to win their divisions easily. The Saints will be very good too, and I suspect will win their division comfortably.
In the AFC, I’ll go as follows:
AFC East: Patriots
AFC West: Chiefs
A lot could happen in the AFC, where there are a few margin teams that could step up and claim a playoff spot, but for now I’m more comfortable going with mostly repeats of last year’s playoff teams- except giving the Texans the nod with Deshaun Watson’s return and a strong defense and the Ravens should bounce back enough from a disappointing 2017 campaign to get the other wildcard spot.
What happens from there is anybody’s guess. I’ll wait until January to make those predictions.
How many wins will the Vikings have this regular season?
This poll is closed
Less than 7