At the beginning of December, while the Vikings were still jockeying for a spot in the postseason, many of us were looking ahead at the final slate of games and wondering how everything might pan out. After the loss to the Seahawks kicked the month off, our gaze began to fixate on the Week 17 fixture against the Chicago Bears. What if the Vikings’ playoff fate once again depended upon beating Chicago on the final week of the regular season? Could history cruelly repeat itself to derail a once promising season?
Most of us envisioned a best-case scenario of the Vikings being able to rest their starters because the playoffs were already clinched and the game was meaningless. We wanted no part of another play-in game against the Bears.
File that one under “be careful what you wish for.”
Technically, the Vikings are making the playoffs and Sunday’s regular season finale is meaningless; it just isn’t in the way we had hoped for. Instead of securing a more favorable Wild Card matchup and holding out hope for an NFC North title, Monday night’s embarrassing loss ensured that the Vikings would be bringing up the rear in a loaded NFC playoff field. Sunday’s game is now guaranteed to be the last contest of the season at U.S. Bank Stadium. Week 17 is a de facto bye week before the Vikings take on the role of road warriors until their season comes to an end. The team is reportedly treating it as such and planning to rest the majority of their starters.
There is some sentiment out there that the Vikings shouldn’t go into the postseason on such a sour note, especially because the offense was historically anemic on Monday night. “The starting offense needs at least a few series to prove that they aren’t a complete dumpster fire” is a nice and spicy take but it’s anything but practical. There is literally nothing for the Vikings to “prove” on Sunday. They’ll have to prove it as road underdogs next weekend instead.
Since there’s nothing to prove and nothing to play for on Sunday, there’s nothing for me to actually preview in this week’s article. Posting gifs of Sean Mannion preseason footage isn’t going to benefit anyone. It might be cool to see rookies like Dru Samia, Cam Smith, Oli Udoh, Kris Boyd, and Alexander Hollins get the first major run of their NFL careers. The possibility of a career day from Laquon Treadwell could cause endless wry amusement among the Vikings faithful. But it’s all just window dressing for an inconsequential contest.
Meanwhile, throwing shade at Mitchell Trubisky and Matt Nagy for their shoddy division title defense might be fun, but the Bears’ fate has already been sealed. No need to dance on their grave, especially since the Week 4 loss in Chicago contributed to the lack of significance on Sunday. Instead, let’s briefly cover a few issues that the Vikings will need to address before the stakes get exponentially higher next week.
Offensive, as in abhorrent
If you look up synonyms for the word “offensive” on Thesaurus.com, the first result you get is “abhorrent.” It seems fairly appropriate to swap words for the offensive attack after what we saw against the Packers. Za’Darius Smith is an excellent player, but the Vikings made him look like Tecmo Bowl Lawrence Taylor.
Once again, the left side of the offensive line was the biggest problem. Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, and Garrett Bradbury all struggled mightily. According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers blitzed exactly once, yet still pressured Kirk Cousins on 17 of 36 drop backs. Bradbury posted his second 0.0 pass blocking grade of the season on Monday. It appeared that the rookie center had turned a corner after a rocky start, but PFF has given him two of his worst three pass blocking grades of the season over the past three weeks.
If you’re trying to remain as positive as possible heading into the playoffs, perhaps you can point to how the awful O-line performances haven’t been nearly as common this year. On the whole, the offensive line has made significant strides in 2019. More reliance on play action, roll out passes, and zone blocking in the new-look Kevin Stefanski/Gary Kubiak offense have been the main catalysts for the improvement. But if they’re even close to as poor as they were on Monday night, the Vikings stand no chance in the playoffs.
The most effective way to stop the Minnesota offense this year has been with quick pressure, especially up the middle. It short circuits the possibility of big plays and makes Cousins extremely skittish, even when he isn’t being pressured.
The coaching staff put together a shoddy performance on Monday night as well. The offensive staples that had carried the team throughout large portions of the season were nowhere to be found. Green Bay’s defense had been regressing for weeks until they morphed into the 1985 Bears against a Minnesota offense with zero answers or adjustments. Getting swept by the Packers and losing the division title on your home turf is bad enough; mustering only 2.6 yards per play while doing so is inexplicable and inexcusable.
Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison were out on Monday; Mike Boone led the team in rushing with 28 yards on 11 carries even though the Vikings were within one score until late. Eric Kendricks left with an injury after playing 36 snaps; the Packers immediately enjoyed more success running and passing over the middle in the second half. Adam Thielen has 27 yards on seven targets since returning from his long hamstring injury; he doesn’t look like the same player he was before getting hurt. The Vikings are going to have an uphill battle for the remainder of their campaign. If these star players are out or not at full strength, it’s hard to envision the battle lasting very long. If this week’s “bye” is kind to those respective healing processes, it will give the Vikings a fighting chance come January.
Defense turning over a leaf or leaving it to turnovers?
If all three phases of this team could ever start clicking at the same time, the Vikings could be extremely dangerous. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened much in 2019. The offense and defense have both posted positive expected points added on only four occasions this season. Unsurprisingly, the Vikings are 4-0 in those games with an average differential of 17.5 points per game. The offense pulled a no-show on Monday, but the defense has quietly put together a pretty impressive run over the past three weeks. They certainly did more than enough to earn the victory, grabbing three takeaways and setting up the offense with excellent field position. The Vikings have 30 takeaways, including a whopping 14 over their past four games.
That said, turnovers are one of the most unsustainable statistics in football. Just ask the Bears, who picked off 27 passes a year ago and only eight this season. Does the Vikings defense look better because they’re improving and discovering what works best late in the season, or do they look better only because they’re getting a ton of turnovers? Even if it is the latter, ball security will likely play a huge role in the postseason on both sides of the ball. The Vikings are 1-3 this year when losing the turnover battle, and that one win was the skin-of-their-teeth comeback over Denver.
Maybe that loss to the Packers did us all a favor in the long run. It leveled our hopes before the playoffs actually started. Now anything the Vikings accomplish in the postseason will be an unexpected bonus! Who knows—maybe they’ll don their glass slippers and play the “nobody believed in us” card all the way to Miami! Stranger things have hap—well, I’m not sure about stranger, but things that are nearly that strange have happened.
A deep playoff run could happen...but it probably won’t. I have my doubts that the postseason will last very long for the Vikings. As of right now, the most likely playoff scenario is a trip to New Orleans to take on the Saints for a Minneapolis Miracle Revenge Game. Michael Thomas somehow just caught four passes for 75 yards on Xavier Rhodes just from me bringing up that matchup. The other two feasible possibilities aren’t incredibly intriguing either; the Vikings already went 0-3 against the Packers and Seahawks. (The 49ers could technically be the third seed, but the odds of that happening are minuscule.) If I could personally choose an opponent, I’d take Seattle because they’re so beat up. Even then, my confidence levels wouldn’t exactly be sky-high.
Unless the playoffs conclude with an extremely unlikely Super Bowl title for the Vikings, there will be a faction of fans that will have their pitchforks out for the jobs of Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman. Despite the kind of success that Lions or Browns fans would kill for over the past six seasons, there is a sense that the window of opportunity is about to be sealed shut for this front office, coaching staff, and core group of players. The earlier the postseason exit, the louder these voices will be immediately afterward. It’s understandable to be incredibly frustrated with how tantalizingly close the Vikings have come without getting over the hump under Zimmer. It’s also understandable to be upset with the draft picks that haven’t panned out under Spielman. But before you call for their heads on your favorite social medium to angrily spew your takes, I ask you this: do you have someone better in mind to replace them? And if you do, are those people even remotely realistic? It’s OK to be upset if the season didn’t pan out the way you wanted, but blowing everything up with no plan that would even get you back to the playoffs again doesn’t make sense to me.
While I am already mentally preparing for the 2019 Vikings season to end in an unceremonious thud next weekend, I’m not ready to blow things up yet. Hell, by the time I write my Wild Card preview next week, I might even talk myself into thinking that Monday night’s game against the Packers was an anomaly instead of foreshadowing. I have already done a bunch of research on the 2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers—the only two 6 seeds to ever win the Super Bowl—to see if I can make any desperate, flimsy comparisons to the 2019 Vikings. Either way, I want to see the gang make one last push in 2020. It’s the last year of the Cousins, Zimmer, and Spielman contracts. (For now—don’t be surprised to see one or more extensions signed in the offseason.) Most of the big-name players are signed through at least next season, and some dead weight could be jettisoned in favor of new blood in key areas. I think all parties involved have shown enough to earn at least one more shot, even if things go sideways early in the new year.
But before we can start truly dreading January, we have to finish off December. Going .500 in the division and having an 11-5 record would certainly be nice, but it’s definitely not worth the risk. The Vikings need to get through their unintentional bye week unscathed and then start preparing for what will be a formidable road foe no matter how the rest of Sunday’s slate unfolds.
Bears who cares, Vikings it doesn’t matter
(But since the pick still technically counts and Chicago will be playing their starters, I’ll say 20-13 Bears.)
And now for the rest of my Week 17 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Falcons over BUCCANEERS
Atlanta is bringing Dan Quinn back and Tampa Bay is planning on bringing Jameis Winston back, even though he is reportedly asking for around $30 million per year. I’ll take the Falcons because I really want Jameis to throw two more picks and become the first member of the 30 touchdown/30 interception club.
Jets over BILLS
Like the Vikings, the Bills have their Wild Card seed set in stone regardless of Sunday’s outcomes and a visiting division opponent trying to end a bad season on a good note. I’m guessing Buffalo will enjoy their “bye week” by resting a bunch of starters as well.
Browns over BENGALS
With all the preseason hype surrounding the Browns, their season is still ending in extremely Cleveland fashion: with a losing record and favored by only a field goal over the worst team in football.
Packers over LIONS
A win over the DOA Lions seals a first round bye and possibly the top seed in the NFC. Now if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to go vomit in the nearest trash can.
CHIEFS over Chargers
This game may not end up mattering for the Chiefs, but they’ll be playing all their starters to give them a chance at the bye and finish no worse than the third seed. Even if they weren’t playing all their starters, it probably wouldn’t end up mattering much against the hapless Chargers.
PATRIOTS over Dolphins
That Chiefs game may not end up mattering because the Patriots will probably destroy the Dolphins again to earn a first round bye.
Saints over PANTHERS
New Orleans will be going full throttle to try and get a bye if the Packers or 49ers slip up. The Panthers will be going full throttle on vacation the instant the clock hits 0:00.
COWBOYS over Redskins
At least they’ll send Jason Garrett off with a win. Unless...nahhhhh.
Raiders over BRONCOS
Oakland has that weird superfecta they can hit to make the playoffs. Might as well root for that before I spend the entire offseason forgetting that they’re the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020.
Titans over TEXANS
The Texans are claiming that they’re going all out in this one, but they’ll likely know that they’re locked into the fourth seed well before the game ends. If they know that and they still put Deshaun Watson in harm’s way, that’s playing with fire. I’m banking on the Titans winning this one because they’ll need it so much more. In fact, I’m making it my final survivor pool pick of the year, which is now 14-2 on the season. (Mostly because I have already chosen all the good teams by this point, but still.)
Colts over JAGUARS
Well Indy, it was a fun run, and I like the Colts to finish at a respectable 8-8. But it turns out that having your franchise quarterback abruptly retire right before the season starts is still pretty tough to overcome!
RAMS over Cardinals
I would like to thank the Rams for that blown coverage at the end of the game last Saturday night. If they had pulled off the win over San Francisco, I would have spent my entire Christmas stress eating over the possibility of the Vikings missing the playoffs. Instead, I was able to eat way too much without the stress!
Eagles over GIANTS
The Eagles are extremely beat up. They needed overtime to beat this Giants team at home just three weeks ago. A Cowboys win earlier in the day would make this a win-or-go-home game for Philly. Could they actually...nahhhhh.
Steelers over RAVENS
Baltimore is already chilling with the top spot in the AFC while Pittsburgh needs a win with some help to make the postseason. I could still see Robert Griffin III out-dueling Devlin Hodges, but again, I’ll go with the team that has something to play for.
49ers over SEAHAWKS
In all likelihood, this will be the game that defines the Vikings’ Wild Card opponent. As I stated earlier, I’d probably prefer a Seahawks win here, but the 49ers have looked like the better team for most of the year. I think San Francisco will clinch the top seed and send the Vikings to New Orleans this week.
But what do I know?
Last week: 11-5
Season so far: 151-88-1