In a way, the 2019 schedule of the Minnesota Vikings has unfolded like the narrative of an old-school video game. After dispatching weak introductory enemies (the Falcons in Week 1), an arch nemesis swooped in and stole something important from the heroes (the Packers taking the NFC North lead Week 2). There were some frustrating early battles while you were still learning the controls that made you want to hit the reset button and question why you bought into the stupid game in the first place (the Bears loss Week 4). But once you got the hang of all your characters’ different abilities, the game started getting a lot more fun (the offensive explosion and four straight wins in October).
Of course, just when you thought you had everything figured out, you end up wasting a life on a passable level because you didn’t bring the right supplies (the frustrating loss to Matt Moore and the Chiefs Week 9). Now over halfway through the story mode, you used your newly unlocked abilities (beating a winning team on the road in prime time Week 10) and healing potions (coming back from a 20-0 halftime deficit Week 11) to advance. You had taken on quite a bit of damage at this point of your journey, so you found a save point to regenerate your health (the bye Week 12).
Before embarking on the final stretch of your quest, you’re confident that you now have the experience and weapon upgrades to get revenge on the arch nemesis that defeated you at the beginning of the story (the upcoming rematch with the Packers Week 16). But before you can defeat your enemy and take back what is yours, you must travel to a fortress that has claimed the lives of all those who came before. The stronghold is guarded by a boss with seemingly infinite hit points. Even if you manage to weaken the forces around him, he can unleash unstoppable special abilities that prevent you from passing the level. Just when you think you have worked out his pattern, he changes it and you’re left attacking nothing but thin air. As the loading screen is displayed, you know you’re in for the toughest battle yet.
If you only looked at the numbers, the Seahawks don’t appear as formidable as their 9-2 record would suggest. They have outscored opponents by only 29 points this season, which is closer to the point differential of a 6-5 team. All but one of their victories this year were one-score games.
The Seahawks’ offensive line has been pretty bad. ESPN ranks them 28th in pass block win rate. Football Outsiders has them ranked 22nd in adjusted line yards and 24th in adjusted sack rate. Pro Football Focus ranks the Seahawks 16th in run blocking and 31st in pass blocking. Seattle has allowed 166 total pressures according to PFF.
The defense isn’t enjoying much statistical success either. Seattle is 29th against the pass and 24th overall in yardage allowed. They’re 16th in defensive DVOA and 17th in overall defensive PFF grade. But all these perceived deficiencies have been papered over by a top-five offense led by their incredible, indubitable, and often indescribable quarterback.
Despite some less than stellar play from his supporting cast at times, Russell Wilson has given the Seahawks more lives than the Konami Code this season. His presence alone turns an otherwise average opponent into a Seattle Boss Battle for the Vikings. Wilson is PFF’s top rated quarterback and second in defense-adjusted yards above replacement. He’s second in quarterback rating, fifth in adjusted net yards per attempt, and fourth in QBR. Wilson is having an incredible season by just about any metric you can think of, which is why he’s one of the two main players currently in contention for the Most Valuable Player award.
Here’s another metric: nobody has completed more deep passes than Russell Wilson this season. Last week’s game in Philadelphia was one of his worst games of the year, but it still featured a few ridiculous deep passes from the dynamic Seahawks quarterback.
Wilson’s passing numbers are good enough to stand by themselves, but he elevates to the highest tier in the quarterback hierarchy when you include what he can do with his legs. He is on pace for 394 rushing yards this season, which would actually land on the lower half of seasonal rushing output in his eight-year career. But one of the important ways Wilson’s game has evolved this season is how he runs. Instead of scrambling to run, Wilson is scrambling to find deep passes more often. In previous seasons, he often evaded pressure by falling deeper into the pocket and evading pass rushers with his elite athleticism. These days he’s moving laterally along the line of scrimmage, which keeps underneath defenders more honest and allows him to find open receivers down field well after the snap.
Of course, if you give Wilson space to run, he’s still going to take it with ease.
To combat the “pick your poison” nature of Wilson’s game, the Vikings will likely be employing a spy on the majority of their defensive snaps. Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune had a great article about how Anthony Barr and the Minnesota defense have prepared for Wilson’s unique skill set. Last year against the Vikings, Wilson had 61 yards rushing while Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny chipped in 134 of their own. The Seahawks still have the same 1-2 punch at running back, but it remains to be seen how their workload will be split. As Kenneth Arthur of Field Gulls explained in his Five Good Questions with Ted, Carson has been the main back but can’t stop putting the ball on the ground lately. That meant Penny saw his most active and productive game of the season last week, including a 58-yard touchdown. The Vikings will have to keep missed tackles to a minimum against Wilson and both of the backs to keep them from making big plays.
While Seattle’s ground game is strong, the Vikings are likely more concerned about big plays through the air by the Seahawks. The defense held Wilson to a career-low 72 yards passing in their 2018 meeting, but It’s hard to imagine the Minnesota pass defense faring nearly as well this time around. DK Metcalf and Josh Gordon have joined Tyler Lockett in the receiving corps, and all three can get big chunks of yards when they’re on the field. It sounds like all three will be available on Monday despite making appearances on the injury report this week. Tight end Luke Willson may return this week as well; if not, Jacob Hollister has proven to be a dangerous red zone target.
The Vikings secondary has developed a nasty habit of making just about everyone on opposing offenses look like dangerous targets. Minnesota’s cornerbacks should be called Back To The Future: Xavier Rhodes is playing with the confidence of George McFly and Trae Waynes defends like he’s slowly fading from existence. The Vikings allowed 41, 43, and 43 passes of 20 or more yards in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively. The 2019 Vikings have already allowed 40 such plays with five games remaining. And now they’re a bit banged up on the back end, with both starting safeties listed as questionable. If Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris aren’t close to full strength, the Vikings defense could be in for another long night.
While the secondary is certainly in rough shape, I don’t think it’s completely beyond repair. Throughout the bye week, Zimmer and members of his defense have explained that they’re often in position to make plays. Unfortunately, opponents are simply making better plays and/or getting a bit fortunate. The Vikings corners have been maddeningly close to breaking up several of the big plays they have allowed this season, but at least they’re close in the first place.
Although both Russell Wilson and the Vikings defense have been associated with big plays this year, there may a blueprint for slowing the Seattle offense down a bit. Eagles writer Fran Duffy illustrated how the Philadelphia defense was able to keep Wilson largely in check last week despite their 17-9 loss to the Seahawks. The Eagles dropped their two outside cornerbacks deep and had their safeties stay shallow on several occasions, which disguised the coverage long enough to cause some mistakes and allow Philadelphia’s pass rush to get home for six sacks. Wilson can escape foul situations better than Andy Dufresne, but he has still been sacked 33 times behind that shaky offensive line.
The #Eagles had a lot of success in their 'Cover 2 Invert' against the #Seahawks, resulting in a lot of big plays. Overall communication and execution have been excellent the last few weeks on the back end in both man and zone coverage, turning into INTs & sacks! #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/DqKO5FIJ7h— Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 25, 2019
The football cliché here would be to say that the only way to ensure Wilson doesn’t hurt you is by keeping him on the sidelines. And yes, grinding out long drives could prove to be a nice perk for the Vikings. But big plays on offense will likely play a more important role than time of possession on Monday. Wilson is going to make at least a few “wow” plays regardless of how long he has the ball, so the Vikings need to counter with some chunk yardage of their own. According to Sharp Football, the Vikings have the second most explosive run plays and the highest explosive pass play rate in the league. It’s a far cry from the dismal offensive performance the Vikings had in Seattle nearly a year ago. As Chad Graff of The Athletic reminds us, the 2018 loss to the Seahawks ended the John DeFilippo era in Minnesota and ushered in Kevin Stefanski as the play caller.
And thank goodness Stefanski and Gary Kubiak are in charge of the offense now. Kirk Cousins is actually ahead of Wilson in a few statistical categories and has the league’s highest quarterback rating. It looks like the offense might be near full strength on Monday; Adam Thielen and Josh Kline appear to be on track to return and Dalvin Cook is good to go after getting dinged up against Denver.
As we touched on earlier, the Legion of Boom is a distant memory for the Seattle defense. However, they have played better as of late. Unsurprisingly, the addition of Jadeveon Clowney has improved what was a fairly mediocre front four. If he and Jarran Reed play on Monday night—both were limited this week and are listed as questionable—they’ll cause problems for the Vikings offensive line. Ezekiel Ansah is coming off his best game as a Seahawk while fellow Detroit transplant Quandre Diggs has helped their back end. Bobby Wagner’s level of play has gone down a bit this season, but mostly because there was nowhere to go but down from the three-year stretch he was coming off of. K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks (aka “the other Kendricks”) have been good in the middle of the defense as well. Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers are a solid corner combo that will make Thielen and Stefon Diggs work for everything they get. While the overall level of defensive talent isn’t what it used to be in Seattle, few coaches are better than Pete Carroll at getting the most out of that side of the ball.
With all the playoff implications on the line between two very good NFC foes, Monday’s game could very well come down to the details. The Vikings are fourth in red zone touchdown percentage on offense and sixth on defense, which is a big reason why they’re in the top seven of both points scored and points allowed. The Seahawks are fifth on offense and twelfth on defense when it comes to scoring and allowing touchdowns in the red zone. Both offenses should be able to move the ball fairly well on Monday; finishing drives with enough touchdowns while holding the opponent to enough field goal attempts could decide the game.
That is, if turnovers don’t decide the game first. The Seahawks have forced 24 turnovers this season, including multiple turnovers in six different games and a whopping eight over the past two contests. Despite committing two turnovers in their nightmare first half in Week 11, the Vikings have actually done well taking care of the ball this season with only twelve total turnovers. The Vikings will have to keep the turnover battle even or in their favor for any chance of pulling off the upset.
There’s a decent chance that this game goes sideways early and Seattle dominates, much like they did in this fixture last season. The Seahawks are 5-0 against the Vikings since Wilson arrived. All four of the regular season matchups with Wilson have been decided by double digits and he has never lost a prime time game in December. Sure, there are a bunch of numbers that suggest Seattle should probably be worse than 9-2 at this point. But as the old Bill Parcells saying goes: you are what your record says you are. And the Seahawks’ record says they’re very good thanks to Wilson and his propensity to keep winning close games. Like most video game bosses, Wilson can kill you with an unblockable move right after it looks like you have him beaten.
But even the toughest foes can be defeated if you exploit their weaknesses and get lucky with a few well-timed attacks. The Vikings should be able to move the ball in Seattle much better than they did a year ago, provided they take care of the ball and execute well. Even with their MVP candidate concocting improbable wins on a weekly basis, the Seahawks are due to regress to the mean a bit. So why can’t that regression be on Monday night? The Vikings appear to be the healthier of the two teams coming off their bye and their offense appears to match up well, especially if Thielen returns. Winning this game would prove once and for all that this team is truly different than the 2018 disappointment, as well as keep them entrenched in the NFC North title race. I think Monday’s game will be a much higher scoring game than last year’s iteration, and I believe the Vikings can go blow for blow with Wilson and pull off the upset.
If I’m wrong and it’s “game over” to the Seahawks yet again, it won’t be the end of the Vikings’ season. They’re still in probable postseason position with a loss on Monday night. But they might be running out of “continues” as we enter the final month of the regular season.
Vikings 30, Seahawks 27
And now for the rest of my Week 13 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Bears over LIONS
COWBOYS over Bills
Saints over FALCONS
Since it was Thanksgiving weekend and this article is a few days later than usual, I got my picks in on Twitter Thursday morning. I whiffed on Dallas but hit on Chicago and New Orleans.
Programming note: no #Vikings at #Seahawks preview article today due to the holiday. It'll post Saturday or Sunday morning. For today's games, I'm picking all the favorites to win (CHI, DAL, NO) and only BUF to cover. So bet against that to start Black Friday with extra cash.— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) November 28, 2019
Jets over BENGALS
I’m not sure if New York’s recent offensive explosion over their three-game win streak is for real, but I’m not sure if that matters against the worst team in football.
Browns over STEELERS
Let’s hope this Cleveland win over Pittsburgh is slightly less eventful than the last one.
Packers over GIANTS
My survivor pool pick of the week, now 11-1 on the year after Cleveland handled Miami last week. As awful as Aaron Rodgers and the Pack looked last week, I don’t think they can out-suck the beat-up G-Men this time around.
Titans over COLTS
I originally had the Colts here. But with T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack out, it looks like Indianapolis may be hitting their tipping point. With Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, it looks like Tennessee may actually be hitting their stride.
Eagles over DOLPHINS
Philadelphia apparently wants no part of winning the NFC East, but their cream puff schedule and the Cowboys refuse to let them fade away.
Buccaneers over JAGUARS
If Florida Man was a football game, this would be it.
PANTHERS over Redskins
The good news for Carolina—I don’t think this one comes down to a Joey Slye kick.
RAVENS over 49ers
Another reason for Vikings fans to hate the Packers: Minnesotans are stuck watching their crap game against the Giants instead of getting this amazing possible Super Bowl preview on FOX Sunday afternoon. (It could be worse though: the Carson Wentz effect means the greater Fargo area is stuck with the Eagles/Dolphins pillow fight.)
Rams over CARDINALS
If the defending NFC champions can’t get their offense going against Arizona, who exactly are they going to score points on down the stretch? Jared Goff needs to rebound from No Touchdown November or else his team is screwed.
Chargers over BRONCOS
Turns out Courtland Sutton can be contained by a good cornerback, which the Chargers have in the form of Casey Hayward. The Vikings should look into getting one of those. Plus Derwin James is coming back and Drew Lock is making his first NFL start. It could get rough for the Broncos, provided the Chargers don’t, well, you know, Charger.
CHIEFS over Raiders
This one feels like a Patrick Mahomes “with all this Wilson and Lamar Jackson talk, you guys forgot just how good I am” game.
Patriots over TEXANS
New England’s offense has been extremely pedestrian lately, but I’m still adhering to the “pick against them at your own risk” policy until they actually start losing a couple games.
This week so far: 2-1
Last week: 8-6
Season so far: 111-67-1