In Week 1, the Arizona Cardinals went into Tennessee and absolutely obliterated the defending AFC South champion Titans by 25 points. The Cardinals outgained the Titans by 168 yards and had a +2 turnover margin. Kyler Murray made plays that looked like they were straight out of NFL Blitz. DeAndre Hopkins found the end zone twice before Tennessee crossed midfield. Chandler Jones was in the Titans’ backfield so often that he now has to file taxes as a Tennessee resident. The Cardinals showed up in Nashville and gave the Titans an Old Testament smiting.
Meanwhile, approximately 278 miles northeast, the Minnesota Vikings went into Cincinnati and absolutely obliterated...themselves. The run-first Vikings ended up with 49 more penalty yards than rushing yards, taking a whopping 20 offensive snaps with more than 10 yards to go for a first down. The offensive line answered the age-old question of “they can’t possibly get any worse, can it?” with a resounding “yes.” They allowed two Joe Burrow touchdowns in a 72-second span to flip their early seven-point lead into a deficit right before the half. Yet despite emptying an extended clip’s worth of bullets into their own feet for most of the afternoon, they were still able to claw back and tie the game at the end of regulation...only to kick their fans in the collective groin one last time with a Dalvin Cook fumble (well, “fumble”) sealing their fate in overtime.
While their games took place only a four-hour drive apart, the moods of the Cardinals and Vikings fan bases are separated by light years after Week 1. At first glance, it looks like the Vikings could be walking into a buzz saw in Arizona on Sunday.
I’m not so sure that’s the case. Sure, the Cards looked great in their win, and a win wasn’t in the cards for the Vikings. There are plenty of reasons why the Cardinals could shove the Vikings into an 0-2 shallow grave this weekend. However, there is still some rationale behind thinking that the outcome could go Minnesota’s way on Sunday.
Let’s start with an obvious talking point:
Point: Kyler Murray is really hard to defend.
I have already compared Kyler Murray to an unrealistic video game, and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson agrees:
To me, watching the tape, he looks like a video game. You know, he’s not real tall, and he doesn’t have long legs, and his feet are moving so fast, he looks like somebody hit the button. He just looks like a different speed than everybody else. To me, that’s the element that makes him different.
Absolutely. In fact, Murray’s diminutive size, incredible speed, and red outfit are very reminiscent of a certain famous video game character. Watch and listen for yourself:
I mean, what are you supposed to do against that? If you’re the opposing defense, not much—you just throw your hands up in frustration and hope Murray doesn’t do it as often as he did against the Titans last week.
To make matters worse, Murray is the reigning NVP! As we all know, the Vikings are 2-5 all-time against NVPs. (What’s that? You aren’t aware of the super-prestigious award bestowed by Nickelodeon, and that up until last week, Mitch Trubisky was the only other NVP? Well now you know. Consider yourselves warned.)
Counterpoint: The Vikings have players that can get after Murray.
If you’re tasked with trying to contain Murray’s scrambling ability, it’s always nice to have someone like Danielle Hunter to do the job. Michael Pierce picked up two sacks in his impressive Vikings debut; he should be able to cause some problems against Rodney Hudson, Josh Jones, and Justin Pugh in the middle of the Cardinals line. Sam Ekstrom from Purple Insider illustrated how the Vikings showed a lot of different looks with their defensive front line, which led to pressuring Burrow on about a third of his dropbacks. Throw in some well-timed blitzes from Harrison Smith, and Murray could be relying on his legs more than he’d like to on Sunday.
Point: The Cardinals are a better team than the the one the Vikings just lost to, and they’re loaded at wide receiver.
If Murray was throwing to a bunch of replacement level players, that would be hard enough. But if you cringed at how the Bengals receivers gave the Bashaud Breeland and the Vikings secondary trouble, watch out for the Cardinals. Last week, Hopkins picked up right where he left off in 2020: making his trade from the Texans look incredibly dumb on Houston’s part, to the tune of six catches for 83 yards and two scores. Nuk can nuke even the best defensive plans and coverages. A.J. Green certainly isn’t what he used to be, but he can still keep defenses honest if they focus too much on Hopkins. Personally, I think the Vikings need to worry more Christian Kirk out of the slot. The Vikings blitzed an usually high amount last week—on 13 of Burrow’s 32 dropbacks according to Pro Football Focus—and they may try it again to force Murray into quick decisions. Kirk could be the safety valve, which means Mackensie Alexander could be in for a busy day.
Even Football Outsiders would say that you shouldn’t put too much credence into DVOA after just one week, but the Cardinals are 4th after the season opener. In fact, the entire NFC West is in the top six. If the Vikings can’t beat the team that’s generally considered the weakest in that loaded division, playing the other three teams should be lots of fun, right?
Counterpoint: The Vikings are a better team than what they showed last week, and they’re pretty solid at wide receiver too.
Despite consistently putting themselves in terrible positions, the Vikings offense moved the ball pretty well last week through the air after a slow start. Adam Thielen had nine catches for 92 yards and two scores of his own. Justin Jefferson had 71 yards on what most would consider kind of an “off day” for him. And it looks like the Vikings may finally have a reliable third option at wideout in KJ Osborn, who caught 7 of 9 targets for 76 yards in his first real action with the Vikings offense. The Cardinals have a versatile and dangerous safety in Budda Baker on the back end, but the rest of their secondary isn’t incredibly daunting. Of course, Arizona’s secondary isn’t what most of us are worried about when the Vikings have the ball...
Point: Chandler Jones is on pace for 85 sacks after one week. He might be on pace for 300 after facing the Vikings offensive line.
Jones laid waste to everything the Titans put in front of him last Sunday, racking up six hits, five sacks, and two forced fumbles. Rashod Hill’s performance against the Bengals didn’t exactly instill a lot of confidence that he’ll be able to stop Arizona’s wrecking ball off the edge either. The game film could end up looking like this gif: Jones easily getting past the left tackle on a loop.
And as if Jones wasn’t enough to worry about, there’s still that J.J. Watt guy on the other side of the line, who can also slide inside and make Garrett Bradbury look like an even worse investment of a first round pick. Since Kirk Cousins usually handles pressure as well as a balloon handles sharp objects, Arizona’s pass rush could spell disaster for the Vikings.
Counterpoint: If the Vikings can stay out of their own way, they can do a better job of hiding their offensive weaknesses.
The Vikings play action on only eight of Cousins’ 52 dropbacks in Week 1, which is about half the rate they have utilized it over the past few years. Although Vikings fans will argue about nearly every aspect of Cousins’ play until they’re blue in the fingers, there is little debate that he performs better out of play action. While there was lots of disdain toward the play calling in Klint Kubiak’s debut as offensive coordinator, I would argue that it’s pretty tough to sell the run when it’s second and a mile or third and an acre for most of the afternoon.
There has already been some talk in certain corners of Vikings coverage about installing a Kellen Mond package similar to what the Bears and 49ers did with Justin Fields and Trey Lance. But do you mind if we see the “third and less than 15” package a few times before we throw the raw rookie quarterback into the mix? Plus, it’s not like Cousins was at the top of the list of reasons why they lost to the Bengals. Sure, he threw behind his target on a couple of throws and one would hope that he at least tried a few more shots downfield. But he still finished with his typical solid final stats and was the highest graded player on the offense by PFF. If the Vikings can avoid such daunting down and distance by avoiding penalties and negative plays—and the refs can avoid calling phantom false starts—they’ll be able to use the play action and rollouts that give Cousins a better chance to succeed.
Point: The Vikings can’t do the little things necessary to beat good teams on the road.
Hard to argue with this one after what we saw in Cincinnati. This team has an uncanny ability to max out the difficulty sliders on themselves far too often, especially away from home. The Vikings are capable of beating themselves more than even the most dedicated onanist.
Counterpoint: The Vikings did one “little thing” well last week—special teams!
The special teams play wasn’t just good against the Bengals last week; it was pretty Ficken great! Somehow they were the most reliable unit on the team! Greg Joseph made a clutch 53-yard field goal and all his extra points! Jordan Berry averaged over 50 yards per punt! The coverage and tackling was very good on both punts and kickoffs! I can’t stop using exclamation points because this was so unexpected and I’m very worried that I’ll never be able to sing the special teams’ praises like this again!
Hopefully the special teams keeps it going, because if they’re going to pull off the upset in the desert, they can’t afford a dip back to...well, the standard we have grown so accustomed to.
While decompressing after the loss last Sunday night, I shared this thought that eventually transformed into the theme of this preview:
Easy to assume that the Vikings get rolled in AZ after how each team played today.— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) September 13, 2021
But don't underestimate the "Vikings pull off an impressive road win to pull us back in, and then lose to Russ in excruciating fashion yet again to break our hearts" potential here.
Five days later, I still really want to believe this. (Well, at least the part about the Arizona game. We’ll worry about Russ next week.) I want to remain positive and get pulled back in on Sunday, only to get my hopes crushed later on. After all, it’s the Vikings way. We have kind of become accustomed to it at this point. If past games in Glendale are any indication, there should be a ton of purple in the stands among the Red Sea. I truly believe that the Vikings can bounce back, follow a much more favorable game script, and make just enough stops on defense to pull off the upset. I’ll say Vikings 27, Cardinals 23.
Wait...[holds finger to earpiece]...I’m getting some late-breaking news...
...Eric Kendricks and Everson Griffen are both at risk of missing the game?! They may have to try and stop Murray, Hopkins, and everyone else with backup linebackers and fewer pass rush options?
Sorry, but my optimism has limits.
Cardinals 31, Vikings 23
And now for the rest of my Week 2 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
I followed up a terrible Week 1 performance in my picks with a very, very, very improbable win on Thursday night, thanks to former special teams coach Joe Judge’s Giants committing an inexcusable special teams blunder. Our old pal Taylor Heinicke did an AMAZING Ryan Fitzpatrick impression, by the way. You never knew what was coming next.
Bengals over BEARS
Is this pick to convince myself that the Bengals are actually better than we thought, or is this pick a reflection of how terrible the Bears are until they give Justin Fields the reins full-time? Yes.
BROWNS over Texans
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, 1-0 on the year after the Rams were one of the few picks I got right last week. This putrid Houston team simply cannot go 2-0 to start the season. I refuse to believe it.
Rams over COLTS
Week 1 of Matthew Stafford on the Rams was like the lead actress in a rom-com getting out of an abusive relationship and finding the man of her dreams in the first ten minutes of the movie.
Bills over DOLPHINS
If the Bills keep losing, this cover of Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs on Sports Illustrated Kids’ “The BFF Issue” is going to age worse than seafood takeout left in a hot car. But I think they’ll get back on track this week in Miami.
Patriots over JETS
The Pats should have won last week, and the Jets...should be relegated. Poor Zach Wilson.
49ers over EAGLES
C’mon, football gods. If the Vikings aren’t going to be very good this year, I can’t have the Eagles being unexpectedly good on top of it.
STEELERS over Raiders
Both teams had impressive wins in Week 1. I’m trusting the Steelers defense a little more than Derek Carr...for now.
Saints over PANTHERS
Jameis Winston is on pace for 85 touchdowns and 0 interceptions while passing for only 2,516 yards! I think Carolina will have some trouble adjusting to an actual NFL opponent after their cupcake game against an FCS team last week.
Broncos over JAGUARS
gloves wins! So is Urban Meyer going to leave the Jaguars later this season “for health reasons” or for USC?
BUCCANEERS over Falcons
Vita Vea might swallow Matt Ryan whole during the course of this game.
CHARGERS over Cowboys
I literally switched my pick in this game about 5 times before submitting, and felt equally bad every time I selected each team’s check box. So I did what any great football analyst would do: flipped a coin. No, seriously. If I get this pick wrong, blame it on Tails.
SEAHAWKS over Titans
We saw what Tennessee couldn’t do against a mobile, dynamic, NFC West quarterback last week. I don’t think it’ll change that much this time around.
Chiefs over RAVENS
I might have to start calling the Ravens the Rembrandts. Because it hasn’t been their day, their week, their month, or maybe even their year.
PACKERS over Lions
I’m sure Green Bay will bounce back and destroy the lowly Lions on Monday, so let’s really savor these last few days of the Packers being the worst team in the NFL by almost every metric.
Week 2 so far: 1-0
Last week: 6-10 (yeesh)
Season so far: 7-10