It’s a week before the start of the 2020-21 NFL regular season, and time for my annual predictions for the Vikings this season.
This will be the fifth season I’ve made a prediction on the Vikings season, going back to 2015. I didn’t make one in 2016 as Teddy Bridgewater went down a week before the season opener, but apart from 2018 I’ve been within a game of getting it right every year. A review:
Prediction: 10-6. Actual: 11-5.
Prediction: 12-4. Actual: 13-3.
Prediction: 13-3. Actual: 8-7-1.
Prediction: 11-5. Actual: 10-6.
Last year was about as close as you could get without being exact, as the Vikings played their 2nd string week 17, resulting in a loss that may otherwise have been a win. In any case, it was nice to be back largely on track after getting it wrong in 2018.
The one area I’ve really been off lately has been the other NFC North teams records. Last year I had the Bears at 10-6, the Lions at 7-9, and the Packers at 6-10. The Bears finished 8-8, the Lions 3-12-1, and the Packers 13-3. Hopefully I can improve on that score this year.
The Season Ahead
As the NFL has made it through training camp without any significant Covid-19 issues, it seems more likely that there will be something close to a full season this year, including playoffs and Super Bowl champion.
As I write this, the over/under on regular season wins for the Vikings is 9. They are a slight favorite over the Packers to win the NFC North (1.75 - 1), 12-1 to win the NFC, and 25-1 to win the Super Bowl.
I’m inclined to take the over bet on the Vikings regular season win total, despite concerns about the interior trenches for the Vikings. Here’s why:
I’m not expecting the Vikings offense to be dramatically improved, but I do think it will be at least slightly better than last season. A few reasons:
- Good scheme fit and now continuity. It was clear last season that Kubiak’s scheme was a good fit for Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense, as the Vikings went from 19th to 8th in points scored from the previous year. And they did that with injuries to key players Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook, who missed a combined 8 games and were limited in a few more. Having their first season of continuity on offense in several years will help players across the board be more fluent in the scheme and allow them to take a step forward in how they perform in it. Coaches will also have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t and can plan accordingly.
- Gary Kubiak as play-caller. There’s no question that Gary Kubiak has a ton more knowledge and experience as an offensive play-caller than Kevin Stefanski did last season, and that should help the offense be a bit more nuanced over the course of a game, and perhaps a bit more proactive as well. Kubiak has seen it all, and he could end up giving the Vikings offense a boost in the way that Pat Shurmur did in 2017.
- No Diggs, but more depth. The Vikings may have lost Stefon Diggs, but they may well replace his production with the added depth they have a receiver this year. Somebody forgot to tell Bisi Johnson that Justin Jefferson is WR2, because he started training camp at WR2 and held it without question. Jefferson also looks like the real deal, and doubtless will have an increasing impact on the offense over the course of the season. And don’t forget about Irv Smith Jr., who should also have more of an impact this year too.
- More Confident Kirk. Kirk Cousins made a lot of progress over the course of last season in getting acclimated to the new scheme (similar to what he ran a few years back in Washington), his role in it, and expectations for him. From the nadir week 2 and his INT in the endzone to Diggs, and the week 4 loss to the Bears, to the comeback against Denver and the OT win over the Saints on the road in the playoffs, Cousins showed progress in overcoming adversity and doing his part to get the win. That had been his focus prior to the season. This year his focus is on being more of a play-maker, whether on the ground or through the air, attempting to break another long-standing criticism that he lacks play-maker skills and isn’t able to “carry” the team on occasion when needed. I doubt he’ll turn into Patrick Mahomes, but he may be in a position with continuity in scheme, coaching, and general situation, where he has the time to improve in that area.
- Offensive line may improve. As I’ve written recently, I don’t think the offensive line as currently constructed is an improvement. It’s probably more of the same and a blown opportunity. But if Garrett Bradbury improves, and the Vikings are ready to bring up guys like Ezra Cleveland and/or Oli Udoh over the course of the season, and/or move Riley Reiff inside to left guard, there is a possibility for improvement over the course of the season.
Better Pass Defense
The addition of Yannick Ngakoue gives the Vikings the missing piece in their pass defense. They already have Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Harris, and Harrison Smith, and with Holton Hill and Cameron Dantzler set to start as outside CBs, and Mike Hughes in the slot, signs are pointing toward a better pass defense than last year- and perhaps one of the very best in the league this year.
Hunter is one of the most productive pass rushers in the league, and Ngakoue is nearly as productive, particularly when including forced fumbles (strip sacks). Armon Watts, Ifeadi Odengibo, and perhaps even Hercules Mata’afa could add to the QB pressure in a more significant way this year.
On the back end, Kendricks, Harris and Smith are all elite pass defenders, which makes throwing over the middle a challenge at best. On the outside, the Vikings will have new starters Holton Hill and Cameron Dantzler. Hill has a track record since entering the league that’s better than Xavier Rhodes’ over the past couple years, while Dantzler, despite being a rookie, looks to be an upgrade over Trae Waynes based not only on his record against top WRs in college, but also how well he’s done in training camp against the Vikings’ starting WRs. It’s not just that he’s had largely good coverage either. You can see that with his length and technique, he’ll be much more dangerous as a interception threat that Waynes ever was.
Run Defense Still Suspect
The Vikings acquired NT Michael Pierce in free agency to replace Linval Joseph, who’s performance had been declining. But Pierce opted-out for the season, leaving a hole in the Vikings run defense. That leaves Shamar Stephen to take his place, and apparently Jaleel Johnson to be more of a base defensive tackle beside him. But players have good size to play inside, but neither have had good run defense grades in recent years. Both Stephen and Johnson had better run defense grades in 2017, although Johnson had only about a game worth of reps that year.
Danielle Hunter has been a good run defender, but Yannick Ngakoue has struggled in run defense at 6’2” 250lbs. He tends to get washed out by bigger linemen moving forward, and hasn’t been as good at shedding them as a run defender. I suspect Ifeadi Odenigbo may get more reps at RE in run situations, although he’s been average as a run defender.
Not having a bona fide run-stuffer in the interior line will likely put more pressure on linebackers and safeties in run defense. Eric Kendricks was an excellent run defender as well last year, but Anthony Barr and Eric Wilson left a little to be desired. Safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris were fine, but even those two could be a bit better.
One wonders if Mike Zimmer may incorporate some of Dom Capers’ run blitzes to help with run defense at times. But Eric Wilson, Eric Kendricks, and Troy Dye are all about 230 lbs., fairly light to be run thumping linebackers.
Outside, Holton Hill has been alright as a run defender, Mike Hughes a little less so. We don’t know yet how well Cameron Dantzler will do in that role, but once again he’s a bit light for a CB in run defense.
Given all that, it wouldn’t be surprising for Vikings’ opponents to try to establish the run and wear down the Vikings defense. We’ll get an idea of that early on, as the Vikings’ first several opponents have a good running game and/or were successful running the ball against the Vikings last season.
Of course run defense isn’t the only factor in how successful an opponent is in running the ball against the Vikings. The other factor is the offense. If the offense gets off to an early lead, particularly a two-score lead, that can influence the opponent’s game plan, and force them to pass more in an attempt to catch-up.
No Division Rivals Stepping-Up
After doing my NFC North Breakdown, it doesn’t appear that any of the Vikings’ division rivals have done much to improve their rosters, after accounting for losses, overall. The Lions will have Matthew Stafford back and healthy, so that alone should lead to some improvement over their 3-12-1 record last year, but that isn’t really saying much either.
Overall, using last season’s PFF stats and projected starting lineups this season, shown below, the Vikings have the highest overall graded roster, edging out the Lions, with the Packers also basically in the same group. But the Bears roster is well behind the rest of the NFC North.
Granted player performance changes every year, and for the Bears last year pretty much all their best players had down years. But what changes? Akiem Hicks was injured last year, so perhaps if he’s 100% healthy this year (he isn’t currently), he could bounce back. Maybe Khalil Mack too. And Kyle Fuller. But even if they do, the Bears have easily the most average and below players on their roster - all but 3 of their 22 starters. They also have the worst QB in the division by a country mile.
The Vikings have the 13th toughest schedule this year, based on the over/under win numbers for their slate of opponents.
In terms of overall efficiency on offense and defense combined, here is how the Vikings performed last season, along with the 2019 overall efficiency ranking of their 2020 opponents:
The charts tend to illustrate what Vikings fans already know about last year: the Vikings beat the mediocre or worse teams, but struggled against the good ones.
Of course that can be said for many teams, but for the Vikings it was even more so. The only playoff team they beat was the Eagles, and that was when they were struggling earlier in the season. Looking at all the relatively efficient teams on their schedule last year, they won 2 and lost 6 of those games.
On the other hand, they beat all the relatively inefficient teams on their schedule - and ones that tended to have mediocre or worse records at the end of the season.
This year, the Vikings look to have about 6 games against mediocre opponents, and once
again I’m going to predict they win those games. Against the more difficult opponents, some just barely above average, they have 10 games. I’m going to predict a slightly better winning percentage against these teams, and predict they’ll win half of them.
All tolled, that leads to a regular season record prediction for the Vikings this year of 11-5. Same as last year. My guess is that will be good enough for the division crown, but it will be close - and could even come down to tie-breakers.
For the rest of the NFC North, my predictions are as follows:
Green Bay Packers: 10-6
Detroit Lions: 8-8
Chicago Bears: 6-10
I’m basically reversing the consensus predictions for the Lions and Bears, based on the factors I outlined above.
Reaching out to the rest of the NFC, I’ll go as far as to predict the division winners:
Dallas Cowboys. It’s really a contest between the Cowboys and Eagles, but the Eagles are getting hit pretty hard by injuries, and so that gives the Cowboys the advantage.
This is a battle between the Saints and the Brady-led Bucs, but I think the Saints will come away on top because they have a better defense. First time in nearly 20 years Brady has to learn a new scheme- and nearly a whole slate of new players and coaches as well.
Toughest division in the NFL, but still comes down to the 49ers and Seahawks. I like the 49ers for the same reason I like the Saints - better defense. It’s close but the 9ers defensive front is just better.
The NFL will start a new playoff format this season, allowing one more playoff team in each conference. They will also take away the bye-week for the 2nd seeded team, leaving only the 1st seed with a bye during the wild card round.
The first four seeds will continue to be the four division champions, based on the existing best record and tie-breaker procedures. The next three teams with the best records, and using existing tie-breaker procedures, will be the 5th through 7th seeds.
Wild card weekend will have three games instead of two, according to this format:
- 1st seed: Bye
- 2nd seed vs. 7th seed
- 3rd seed vs. 6th seed
- 4th seed vs. 5th seed
The division winners will continue to host all the wild card games.
After that, it’s pretty much the same. Highest seed hosts the lowest seed, and higher seed hosts lower seed.
With a lot of competition among the top teams in the NFC, I’d be surprised if the #1 seed had a record better than 12-4. That means if the Vikings come in at 11-5, and beat the Saints again, they could have a shot at it. A few things would have to break for the Vikings to have that happen, but it’s possible.
Overall, I think the playoff teams for the NFC will be the following, not necessarily in this order:
- New Orleans Saints
- San Francisco 49ers
- Dallas Cowboys
- Minnesota Vikings
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Seattle Seahawks
- Green Bay Packers
Way too early to even attempt to pick playoff winners - injuries and Covid could end up having a big impact over the course of the season - so let’s see how the regular season plays out and make predictions in January.
What will the Vikings regular season record be this year?
This poll is closed
12-4 or better
7-9 or worse