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Vikings Moving Up the Charts

Are the Vikings really playing like it’s 2017?

Philadelphia Eagles v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Vikings continue to move up the rankings after a blow-out victory over the Eagles. They had been ranked fairly high prior to that (higher than their record would suggest).

Here are some measures.

Pro Football Focus (PFF) Overall Team Grade

The Vikings are currently the 3rd ranked team in overall team grade (85.3), behind only the two unbeaten teams - New England and San Francisco. In other words, the Vikings are playing pretty good football - relative to the rest of the league - when you compile all the facets of every play and every player graded in all three phases by PFF and compile them into one overall grade for the whole team.

And while there is disagreement about PFF grades, it is true that the top PFF graded teams tend to be playoff teams. At the end of the regular season last year, the Rams, Saints, Chiefs and Patriots were the top graded teams. Those were also the conference championship teams.

In 2017, at the end of the regular season, the Falcons, Vikings, Saints, Eagles, Patriots, Steelers and Jaguars were the top 7 graded teams. All either made the conference championship or were literally a play away from doing so in the divisional round.

So far, the top teams in overall PFF grades this season are the Patriots, 49ers, Vikings, Cowboys, Ravens, Saints.

It’s also interesting that the Vikings NFC North rivals are well down the list- the Lions are #13, the Packers #15, and the Bears #20. This doesn’t count the Lions-Packers game tonight of course.

Point Differential

The Vikings also rank 3rd in point differential, or the difference between total points scored, less total points allowed, with 57. Once again, only the Patriots (142) and 49ers (83) have a higher point differential than the Vikings.

Similar to overall PFF grades, point differential is also highly correlated to making the playoffs. Last season, all the highest point differential teams in the AFC made the playoffs. In the NFC, only the Cowboys (15) made the playoffs with a lower point differential than a non-playoff team - the Vikings with 19. The Eagles also had a 19 point differential.

Yards Per Play

Another measure of success which helps fill out the picture is yards per play, and yards per play allowed. While not quite as highly correlated as the other measures, it’s still a strong indicator of success, and perhaps a better indicator than yards per game in measuring overall efficiency.

Currently, the Vikings offense ranks 3rd (once again) in yards per play, at 6.3. Only Kansas City and Dallas have a higher mark on offense. Once again, the Vikings’ NFC North rivals rank well down the list. The Lions are 12th, the Packers are 23rd, and the Bears are 30th.

On the defensive side, the Vikings rank 5th overall in yards per play allowed at 4.8. This is narrowly behind the #4 Bears (4.7), and well ahead of the 19th and 20th ranked Packers and Lions with 5.8.

Turnover Margin

The only measure in which the Vikings are not a top team is turnover margin, or average turnover margin per game. They are currently 14th, at +0.2 per game. This goes a long way toward explaining their 4-2 record, considering they’re basically a top 3 team in every other measure, and haven’t played either the Patriots or 49ers. In both of their losses, the Vikings were -2 in turnover margin, and you could make a pretty good argument that was a key factor in both losses- particularly the Packers loss.

It also explains the NFC North division standings to some degree. The Packers are currently averaging +1.4 per game (2nd), and the Bears are 3rd at +1.2. The Lions are also ahead of the Vikings at +0.5, which ranks 9th. Of course it remains to be seen if the Packers and Bears can sustain their current turnover margins over the course of the season.

Recent historical stats argue strongly against it. Last season, only 3 teams had a turnover margin greater than +0.6 - the Seahawks (+0.9), Bears (+0.8), and Texans (+0.8). And no team has maintained a turnover margin as high as the Packers or Bears currently over the course of a season since the 2015 Panthers.

Leading in turnover margin is also somewhat correlated with playoff teams. Last season the top 7 teams in turnover margin all made the playoffs, although the other 5 playoff teams were spread well down the list.

And in 2017, the 12 playoff teams finished 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 17, 19, and 24th in turnover margin - similar to 2018 with about half the playoff teams in the top 12, and the other half spread out down the list. The Vikings were 13th.

Outpacing 2017

It’s also worth mentioning that the 2019 Vikings are currently meeting or outpacing the 2017 Vikings in these key measures after 6 games. Both teams were 4-2 after six games. Here is some comparisons:

Points Per Game: 2017: 20.3 (19th) | 2019: 25.0 (12th)

Points Per Game Allowed: 2017: 17.2 (5th) | 2019: 15.5 (6th)

Point Differential: 2017: +19 | 2019: +57

Yards Per Play: 2017: 5.5 (12th) | 2019: 6.3 (3rd)

Yards Per Play Allowed: 2017: 4.8 (5th) | 2019: 4.8 (5th)

Turnover Margin Per Game: 2017: +0.3 (12th) | 2019: +0.2 (14th)

Considering the 2017 Vikings finished 13-3, it would seem to be rather auspicious that the 2019 Vikings are, on balance, outperforming the 2017 team at this point.

No Guarantees

While just about all these stats and rankings bode well for the future, and suggest the Vikings are on the right track, they haven’t qualified for the post-season. Winning the division is the best chance to make the playoffs, and as I wrote in a previous piece, injuries based on the Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric published by Football Outsiders is highly correlated to how the NFC North has played out in recent years.

So far the Vikings haven’t lost too many games from starters (knock on wood), and don’t have any starter on IR which would indicate more AGL are coming. All of the Vikings NFC North rivals have had more AGLs so far, and with more players with limited injuries than the Vikings, that differential may grow.

Bottom Line

Back in 2017, this was when the Vikings started stacking wins - going from 4-2 to 10-2 over the subsequent 6 games. For the 2019 Vikings, it would seem about as Herculean a task as it seemed two years ago at this time.

In 2019 the next six games are @ Lions, Redskins, @ Chiefs, @ Cowboys, Broncos, bye week, @ Seahawks.

In 2017 the next six games were Ravens, @ Browns (London), bye week, @ Redskins, Rams, @ Lions, @ Falcons. The Ravens were 3-3 when the Vikings played them, the Browns were awful, the Redskins were 4-4, the Rams were 7-2, the Lions were 6-4, and the Falcons were 7-4.

In both cases, four games on the road, two at home, a bye week mixed in. The Rams and Falcons were playoff teams in 2017, and it looks like the Seahawks and Chiefs are on pace to make the playoffs in 2019. The rest of the teams are average or worse in both cases.

But overall, the 2019 task may be a little tougher, as the road games are against more difficult teams, and the Seahawks on the road is looking perhaps the toughest of the bunch. But the stretch is similar. However, the 2017 Vikings lost Dalvin Cook after week 4, and the 2019 Vikings did not.

We’ll see how it plays out.

But the notion, ridiculed only a couple weeks ago, that the 2019 Vikings are on pace with the 2017 Vikings, isn’t so fanciful.