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Vikings at Chargers Week 15 Preview: The Other Shoe

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Few teams are have mastered the art of losing winnable games more than the Vikings and Chargers. Which team will avoid disappointment on Sunday?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

As the Vikings travel to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers on Sunday, it feels like a storm is brewing. The forecast is currently 60’s and sunny, but some metaphorical dark clouds may still be lingering over the stadium. As we get closer to kickoff, a squall of self-loathing is starting to form like the clouds of smug from San Francisco and South Park colliding.

Given the history of these two franchises, it’s easy to understand why there might be some gloom overshadowing the sunny Southern California weather. Throughout the years, the Vikings and Chargers have seemingly perfected grasping defeat from the jaws of victory. Many hopeful seasons have been crushed by agonizing losses that linger in the psyches of their fans to this day. No matter what the situation may be, both fan bases live in constant fear of the other shoe dropping. Absolutely nothing is certain until the final whistle has blown.

The Vikings may have an all-time advantage on this week’s opponents when it comes to heartbreakers—and I promise I won’t rehash those foul memories in this article because you’re all painfully aware of those past failures—but the Chargers are lapping the field in that category this season. Despite being top ten on both sides of the ball in yardage and having a +38 point differential, Los Angeles is already eliminated from postseason contention at 5-8. All eight of those defeats were one score games. Half of those losses came in an excruciating, incomprehensible, holy-crap-only-the-Chargers-could-lose-like-this manner. Namely:

  • Week 7 against the Titans. The Chargers had two possible go-ahead touchdowns overturned by replay in the final minute and then Melvin Gordon was ruled to have fumbled at the goal line.
  • Week 10 against the Raiders. The Chargers scored to go up 24-20 with four minutes remaining. Oakland marched right down the field and regained the lead with a ten-play drive, scoring with just over a minute left. But Daniel Carlson missed the extra point, which meant the Chargers needed a field goal to win. Despite getting bailed out by a defensive holding penalty, the only pass Philip Rivers completed in his seven attempts was to Raiders safety Karl Joseph. Game over.
  • Week 11 against the Chiefs. Down a score, the Chargers had two drives to tie the game in the final five minutes. The results: interception, interception, loss.
  • Week 13 against the Broncos, which was truly their magnum opus. The instant they came back to tie Denver early in the fourth quarter, we all knew what was coming. I even live tweeted it:

The Chargers did not disappoint. After scraping back to tie the game with 19 seconds remaining, they still somehow managed to lose in regulation.

And all those losses came within two months of the same season! After the Denver loss, The Ringer’s Danny Heifetz wrote a comprehensive piece about the Chargers’ incredible failures over the past decade-plus. But star wide receiver Keenan Allen may have summed up his team’s woes best in a simple two-word tweet:

Indeed, Keenan. There’s usually some lip service involved when people claim that a team is “better than their record.” In LA’s case, it’s pretty much a fact.

Rivers probably isn’t the main reason the Chargers are considered such a “good” 5-8 team because he isn’t exactly enjoying the greatest season of his storied 16-year career. His 15 interceptions are third most in the league. There have been several stretches of abysmal play from him this season. Much of the recurring nightmare where he keeps losing the same game over and over is his doing. But statistically, he’s still pretty close to his career averages. There’s a good chance he’ll break the 4,000 yard mark on Sunday, which would be the seventh straight season and the tenth time in eleven years he has reached the milestone. Rivers can still sling it with that trademark sidearm motion of his.

Rivers had his most efficient game of the season against the Jaguars last week, going 16 of 22 for 314 yards and three scores before Tyrod Taylor came in for mop-up duty in the blowout. But that was against Jacksonville, a team that has clearly thrown in the towel on the 2019 season. Of the 340 yards passing the Chargers had last week, 232 came after the catch. The Jags left acres of space for the Los Angeles pass catchers throughout the game. Like the Vikings’ win over the Lions last week, it was hard to glean a lot of concrete information when the opponent is so incompetent.

What you can glean from the Chargers offense: Rivers has plenty of talented skill position players at his disposal. We love our 1-2 running back punch of Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison in Minnesota, and rightfully so. LA’s combo might be just as potent. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are hard to stop when their offense is clicking. Despite Gordon holding out for the first four games of the season, the Chargers running back duo has only 169 fewer yards from scrimmage than Cook and Mattison. Ekeler is especially dangerous in the passing game and has shown that he can be effective with the entire running back route tree. He leads the team with eleven touchdowns and has three 100-yard receiving games to his credit this season. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr will have some tough assignments on Sunday.

The Chargers run game has been much better lately as well. After being held under 80 yards rushing for six straight games, Los Angeles has run for 115 or more yards in four of their last five. The Vikings can’t afford a repeat performance of what they allowed in Seattle. Fortunately, they looked a lot better last week against Detroit, and it wasn’t only because the Lions had to abandon the run for most of the second half. Daniel House of Vikings Corner wrote about how the Vikings defense was aligned to its gaps more soundly, which yielded much better results.

Even if the running backs are kept in check, there’s the small matter of covering all-world wide receiver Keenan Allen. The dynamic pass catcher is effective all over the field—he has a near 50/50 split between outside and slot snaps this season. With Xavier Rhodes limited in practice this week and limited in performance for much of the season, one would expect a lot of safety help on Allen to prevent him from making big plays. But if you focus too much on Allen, Mike Williams or Hunter Henry could hurt you elsewhere.

As the Vikings.com writers noted, the team employed a heavier cornerback rotation for the first time last week. Some of it was due to game script and injuries, but Mike Hughes played the second series of the game in place of Rhodes. It will be interesting to see how involved Hughes, Mackensie Alexander, Holton Hill, and even Jayron Kearse will be on Sunday in an attempt to stymie the Chargers’ potent pass catchers.

The best way to stop the Los Angeles passing attack? Make Rivers hurry his throws or prevent him from throwing in the first place. Center Mike Pouncey and guard Forrest Lamp are on Injured Reserve. The Chargers rank 19th in pass block win rate and 30th in team pass blocking grade by Pro Football Focus. Russell Okung has replaced Trent Scott at left tackle, which has helped. However, right tackle Sam Tevi has allowed 34 total pressures and is in the bottom five in pass blocking efficiency of all offensive linemen with at least 300 snaps. Rivers is notoriously static in the pocket, so Danielle Hunter might be in line to set another record or two on Sunday.

The corners aren’t the only group seeing more permutations on the defense. The Star Tribune’s Andrew Krammer covered how the Vikings are successfully employing an eight-man rotation with important contributions from rotational players like Ifeadi Odenigbo and Jaleel Johnson. The Minnesota front line will try to employ an all hands on deck approach to pressuring Rivers and shutting down drives.

The Chargers aren’t the only offensive line that will have their work cut out for them on Sunday. Like Hunter and Everson Griffen on Minnesota, Los Angeles boasts an outstanding edge rusher duo of their own. Joey Bosa leads the team with 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. His rare combination of speed and strength is lethal.

Bosa is frightening enough on his own; throwing Melvin Ingram in the mix is downright terrifying. Bosa and Ingram have a pretty even split between the left and right sides, so Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill will have to prepare themselves for both edge rushers. There may be one saving grace for the Vikings offensive line: the Chargers haven’t created much of a pass rush up the middle to compliment their bludgeoning bookends. Interior pressure has been the most effective way to stop the Vikings offense; hopefully the Vikings can counteract the outside rush enough to keep the chains moving.

One obvious way to keep the pass rush at bay: running the ball effectively. The Chargers are 23rd in rush defense DVOA and 21st in PFF rush defense grade. Thomas Davis is probably their most reliable linebacker, but he’s only a few years away from collecting Social Security. Cook and Mattison should be able to find some running room and keep the offense in favorable downs and distances.

Another obvious way to keep the pass rush at bay: play action. Kirk Cousins remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league out of it. Look for more of the big sets, designed roll outs, and screens that the Vikings have used effectively this season to keep Bosa and Ingram guessing. Last week certainly wasn’t the cleanest performance by the offense, but they still showcased a lot of the elements that have helped make them more effective throughout the year.

The possible return of Adam Thielen would be a gigantic boost to the effectiveness of the Vikings offense on Sunday, because the Chargers have some excellent players in their secondary. Safety Derwin James returned from a foot injury two weeks ago. He was one of the best safeties in the NFL as a rookie last season. Cornerback Casey Hayward is going to make someone’s job very tough on Sunday. If it’s just Stefon Diggs out there with Olabisi Johnson and Laquon Treadwell, it could be tough for Diggs to find much space. If the Vikings have both of their elite wide receivers available at full strength, it would provide a lot more versatility for the passing game.

It’s pretty clear that the Chargers aren’t your typical 5-8 team. They have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. FiveThirtyEight actually gives the Vikings a 6% worse chance of winning this week compared to their showdown with the Packers next week. But with that ginormous clash with Green Bay on the horizon, the famous Vikings fan catch phrase has been popping up throughout the week: trap game!

By my estimate, there have already been five “trap games” this season for the Vikings: the Raiders, the Giants, the Redskins, the Broncos, and the second Lions game. The Vikings won all five, and all but the Denver game were won comfortably by double digits. The Chargers are the most talented team out of the trap game bunch, but the Vikings know what’s at stake with each of the final three games of the regular season. The only way to guarantee a postseason berth is to win out, so they’ll be ready when they step onto ROKiT Field at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday afternoon.

[Seriously, that’s the actual name of the Chargers’ home field. And you thought Mall of America Field at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was a corporate mouthful.]

Could the Vikings head west and lay an egg much like Green Bay did earlier this season? Absolutely. It’s an outdoor game on grass, a situation in which the Vikings are 12-17-1 (a .417 winning percentage) since Zimmer took over. (They’re 45-21 in all other games.) Zimmer’s also 1-6 in games played west of the Central time zone. Again, we’re always ready for that other shoe to drop as Vikings fans.

That said, I still like how the Vikings match up against the Chargers, especially with their pass rush and running game. Minnesota’s offense could run into some hiccups against the talented Los Angeles defense, but I have more faith in Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak making adjustments than Rivers and the Chargers avoiding the crucial mistakes that have derailed their season. The Vikings should be able to get In-N-Out of a soccer stadium that’s sure to have plenty of purple in it with a victory.

If this game is close down the stretch, we’ll gladly let the Chargers take another regular season collapse. We like to save ours for the playoffs anyway. When it comes to soul-crushing losses, the Vikings prefer quality over quantity.

Prediction

Vikings 24, Chargers 20


And now for the rest of my Week 15 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

RAVENS over Jets

It would be sort of funny for the Ravens to lose at home to the Jets after laying waste to the best teams in the NFL for most of the past two months. But let’s stick with things that actually have a chance of happening.

PACKERS over Bears

We could really use a Chicago win here, but I’ll pick the Packers to keep doing what they have been doing for the past couple weeks: eking out ugly wins.

Patriots over BENGALS

The New England Patriots, a proven bastion of truth and equitable practices, involved in a shady operation that might have involved spying on another team?! Well I never!

CHIEFS over Broncos

My survivor pool pick of the week, even though I’m now down to 12-2 on the season due to these very same Denver Broncos winning on the road last week. Hopefully Drew Lock doesn’t provide a “fool me twice, shame on me” moment.

Buccaneers over LIONS

Mike Evans is out and Jameis Winston loves to spot the opposing team an interception or two every week. But we just saw that Lions offense in action. They won’t be able to keep up with Tampa Bay’s scoring.

TITANS over Texans

Ladies and gentlemen, we actually have an interesting AFC South matchup! Houston is certainly capable of putting together a great game, but they’re wildly inconsistent. This Tennessee offense has been extremely efficient since Ryan Tannehill took over, so I have to take them at home in this one.

Dolphins over GIANTS

Do I...have to pick this game? I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m actually picking Miami to win on the road. They already played at MetLife Stadium last week and probably should have won that one; now they’re playing another New York team that’s somehow even worse.

Eagles over REDSKINS

Philadelphia has been an absolute disaster this season. They have about one and a half healthy wide receivers. And they still have an excellent chance at hosting a playoff game because their final four games are against one of the worst divisions in NFL history. Ugh.

Seahawks over PANTHERS

Knowing Seattle, they’ll inexplicably struggle the entire game against the rotting corpse of a Panthers team for three and a half quarters before pulling off the win. Because as Kevin Clark said about the Seahawks:

Browns over CARDINALS

The Kliff Kingsbury Texas Tech Revenge Game! I’m still picking Cleveland here just so I don’t get added to Baker Mayfield’s Burn Book.

RAIDERS over Jaguars

Just put poor Doug Marrone out of his misery already.

49ERS over Falcons

Atlanta has been quietly competent lately and San Francisco is coming off an emotionally draining thriller in New Orleans. I certainly wouldn’t bet on the double-digit spread, but the Niners should still be fully capable of holding onto their top seed.

Rams over COWBOYS

Dallas has been an absolute disaster this season. Their coach appears to be actively trying to get fired. And they still have an excellent chance at hosting a playoff game because their final two games are against one of the worst divisions in NFL history. Ugh.

However, be very careful if you plan to gamble on this one! The Cowboys opened as a favorite, which means this could be a classic “Vegas knows more than you do” game.

Bills over STEELERS

Example #5,981 of why the NFL is fun because it’s so wildly unpredictable: NBC said no to Kirk Cousins and Philip Rivers in favor of Josh Allen and Devlin Hodges. And it was totally the right call! What a world.

SAINTS over Colts

This one probably won’t be much of a contest, so I’m rooting for another bad pass interference call that goes against Sean Payton.

Last week: 13-3
Season so far: 130-77-1