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Vikings Division Prospects Still Good

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Minnesota Vikings v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Vikings are a somewhat disappointing 3-2 after five games, which leaves them neither here (a top contender) or there (a long shot at best for the post-season). On the positive side, the Vikings defense remains a top one, their running game is also top- tier, and so far they haven’t been hurt too badly by injuries. On the negative side, the Vikings passing game has been inconsistent, and perhaps most importantly, they haven’t beaten a good team. Such was the case last season too, with the possible exception of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Three of the past four seasons, the Vikings have been in similar situations. In 2017, the Vikings were 3-2 after five games, last year they were 2-2-1., and in 2015 they were 3-2 In one case, the Vikings finished a disappointing 8-7-1, in another they finished 13-3, and in another they finished 11-5. And in 2016, they were 5-0 only to finish 8-8.

So, with such seemingly random results from a similar starting point, what should we expect this season?

Let’s take a look into some factors that could prove insightful into the Vikings future prospects for success.

Injuries

Injuries, particularly key injuries to starters, have a high correlation to success, in both the regular and postseason. Football Outsiders compiles an Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) statistic, which attempts to quantify injury losses for each NFL team, including injured players who still play at reduced capacity, and adjusted based on position and starting status.

Not surprisingly, teams finishing toward bottom of the league in terms of most AGL don’t often make the playoffs, while teams with relatively few AGL tend to make the playoffs. For example, 7 of the top 10 teams in fewest AGL made the playoffs last season, while only 3 of the bottom 10 teams did. The same was true in 2017, only just one team in the bottom ten made the playoffs.

The 2016 Vikings finished 30th in AGL, including the most Offensive AGL on record. Those AGL were probably the most important factor in the 5-0 Vikings finishing 8-8.

Of course injuries are impossible to predict, but we do know where the Vikings stand currently in terms of injuries. Currently the Vikings don’t have any injured starters, or starters on IR, which would lead to increases in AGL as the season progresses. That’s a good thing. They’ve had a handful of AGLs so far, but no serious or enduring injuries - knock on wood.

The Vikings also have some depth in their roster where they could sustain an injury in a few position groups without too much of a drop off in performance.

All that bodes well for the rest of the season for the Vikings.

But in 2017 the Vikings were 11th in AGL with 47.7, while in 2018 they were 12th with 73.9, and 12th in 2015 with 59.0. Very similar in relative ranking, but important differences in win-loss records.

If you consider AGL within the division as an important determinant, the 2015 Vikings were narrowly 2nd to the Packers, with the Lions nearly 20 AGL worse, and the Bears about 35 worse. The Vikings won the division on a week 17 win over the Packers.

In 2016, the Packers and Lions were virtually tied in lowest in AGL in the division (72), and finished 1-2 respectively, and both made the playoffs.

In 2017, the Vikings had the fewest AGL, with the Lions 2nd but around 25 more, the Packers over 30 more, and the Bears 70 more. The Vikings won the division easily, followed by the Lions, Packers and Bears.

In 2018, the Bears injury luck went from just about worst the previous two years, to nearly the best - including easily the fewest AGL in the NFC North with only 36.6. The Vikings and Lions had about 30 more, and the Packers almost 60 more. The Bears won the division easily.

Looking at these numbers, relative AGL within the division has an extremely high correlation to who wins the division crown. Extremely high.

They also add to the notion of the NFL being more of a demolition derby than anything else. Especially in the NFC North over the past several years.

Looking at this season so far, none of the NFC North teams have been hit particularly hard with injuries, although it appears the Bears may have more AGL coming with injuries to Mitch Trubisky and Akiem Hicks that could cause them to miss multiple games. The Packers have suffered minor injuries to multiple players, which potentially could lead to more AGL in the future. We’ll see.

But with a lot of parity in the NFL, and the NFC North, injuries can play an outsized role in determining success. And with the division within a game top to bottom, and the Vikings relatively healthy, their prospects in this key factor in determining success remain good.

Performance So Far

Of course actual performance should have something to do with winning, we hope, and not just injuries or lack thereof.

OVERALL PFF GRADE

One measure of overall team performance is each team’s overall PFF grade, a compilation of individual player grades covering all aspects of offense, defense and special teams, according to PFF weightings and measures. Of course there is debate about them, but what is most relevant here is their overall correlation with success over the course of the season, which is very high.

It’s also interesting as a comparison among NFC North teams.

So far this season, with few injuries to any NFC North teams, and fairly even between them, the Vikings have a noticeably higher overall PFF grade compared to other NFC North teams, and the league in general.

The Vikings currently have the 5th highest overall PFF grade as a team in the NFL, at 80.7. The Lions are second in the division (13th overall) with a 75.6 overall grade. The Packers are third (15th overall) with a 74.8, and the Bears are last (20th overall) with a 71.2. Given that these are compilations of a lot of numbers, they tend not to fluctuate tremendously week-to-week, especially as the season wears on. Kinda like batting average in baseball in that respect.

These grades are a bit surprising, considering the Vikings are currently last in the division, and having lost to both the Packers and Bears. But they are also somewhat predictive, in the sense that teams with the best PFF grades tend to do relatively well over the course of a season.

Last year, nine of the top ten teams in overall regular season PFF grade, including all nine of the top nine, made the playoffs (the Vikings finished 11th). The Bears were 5th. The Packers and Lions were 18th and 19th, respectively.

In 2017, the Vikings finished 2nd in overall regular season PFF grade, in 2015 they were 9th.

But if the Vikings are playing relatively well compared to their division rivals, but are trailing them in division rankings, that doesn’t make sense. There must be some other factor effecting results.

POINTS, YARDS, AND SUSTAINABLE PERFORMANCE

The Vikings rankings on offense and defense, particularly compared to division rivals, after 5 weeks is worth noting.

Offense has been the area of weakness so far for the Vikings, and yet here are the rankings in terms of yards per game and yards per play for each NFC North team on offense:

Yards Per Game

1. Lions (387.5 - 8th overall) 2. Vikings (357.4 - 18th overall) 3. Packers (337.2 - 25th overall) 4. Bears (266.0 - 30th overall)

Yards Per Play

1. Vikings (6.2 - 6th overall) 2. Lions (5.7 - 15th overall) 3. Packers (5.3 - 23rd overall) 4. Bears (4.5 - 30th overall).

On defense, which is a strength of the Vikings, they rank as follows compared to NFC North rivals:

Yards Per Game Allowed

1. Vikings (292.4 - 4th overall) 2. Bears (312.2 - 5th overall) 3. Packers (376.8 - 22nd overall) 4. Lions (405.5 - 27th overall)

Yards Per Play Allowed

1. Vikings (4.5 - 3rd overall) 2. Bears (4.7 - 5th overall) 3. Packers (5.8 - 17th overall) 4. Lions (5.8 - 18th overall)

Looking at these statistics, the Vikings look pretty strong within the division on both sides of the ball, and even stronger when you consider both offense and defense together.

What’s hurt them relative to the division is turnover margin.

The division-leading Packers look like a third-place team when it comes to both PFF grades and yards gained and allowed. But they’ve been on the receiving end of 10 turnovers in three of their four wins (including 4 against the Vikings). That sort of turnover rate is unlikely to continue throughout the rest of the season, and could lead the Packers back to the position their yards gained/allowed and PFF grades would suggest.

Future Strength of Schedule

Among NFC North teams, future strength of schedule is very similar, as each team plays mostly the same opponents. The Packers are at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the other NFC North teams at this point as they have one fewer home game remaining, with five rather than six for everyone else.

The Bears and Lions may also be at a bit of a disadvantage as they both will have their remaining schedule without a bye-week, which can be tough from a wear-and-tear standpoint.

Also, the Vikings remaining games against the Bears and Packers are both home games as well, which is an advantage.

Bottom Line

While the Vikings are a game behind the Packers at the moment in the division race, and a half-game behind the Lions, the Vikings relative (sustainable) performance, along with being relatively healthy and with a bit of an advantage in the remaining schedule all combine to give the Vikings a favorable outlook for the rest of the season.

Injuries have been a leading determinant of division success in recent years, so the Vikings staying healthy will be key. But in terms of performance, despite some disappointing outings against division rivals, the Vikings still stack up well against NFC North opponents in key stats on both offensive and defensive, as well as overall PFF grades.

As variables like turnovers revert to the mean over the course of the season, that may favor the Vikings in their quest to regain the NFC North division crown.