Well that was...something, wasn’t it?
Three days ago, the Dallas Cowboys came to town and served so much humble pie to the previously one-loss Minnesota Vikings that I can’t imagine they’ll have any room left for pumpkin, pecan, or French silk over the holiday. It was an ass kicking of literally historic proportions. Prior to Sunday, the Cowboys had played a grand total of 503 road games as a franchise. They had never won by 37 or more points on the road until they drubbed the Vikings 40-3 at US Bank Stadium. Prior to Sunday, the Vikings had played 494 home games as a franchise. They had lost by 37 or more points only once before they forgot how to football in front of a stunned crowd and a national audience. But if you’ve been around a television, radio, or computer over the last 72 hours, you probably knew these fun facts already. Few things in sports are noisier than a team that was previously riding a jet stream of good fortune suddenly crash landing in horrific fashion.
Before we could even utter our collective “WTFs” after the final whistle mercifully ended our day of suffering, another f-word started circulating that was even more biting and acerbic: frauds. The Vikings are still perched high atop the NFC North standings and highly ranked in the playoff seedings, but they have now been outscored by their opponents this season. The DVOA and EPA rankings that had the team punching well below their weight for most of the year were finally justified with a gigantic market correction. For seven straight games, the Vikings were football’s “He can’t keep getting away with it!” meme from Breaking Bad. On Sunday, they didn’t get away with a damn thing.
Look, I’m not here to shovel more fertilizer on last week’s shit show. The loss to the Cowboys stunk and it was completely irredeemable—a lot like your weird aunt’s “fun take on green bean casserole” that you’ll see this weekend. And just like the casserole, it’s better for everyone if you just quietly throw it out and forget about it before everyone starts projectile vomiting. Instead (if the title of the article and the flimsy analogy to start this paragraph weren’t enough of a hint), I’m going to share what I’m thankful for in regards to the Vikings as the New England Patriots come to town for a Very Special Thanksgiving Episode.
First and foremost, I have to give thanks that embarrassing losses to NFC East teams in front of huge television audiences still count as only one loss. Being 8-2 with a -2 point differential has literally never happened before in the NFL, but wins and losses are more important than point differential until you get to the seventh official NFL tiebreaking procedure. It’s OK to win a whole bunch of close games and then lose a couple by a million in the regular season. I’m also thankful that the Vikings haven’t tried to sugar-coat the ass-kicking. From Kevin O’Connell to Justin Jefferson to Kirk Cousins to everyone on the defense that talked into a microphone since Sunday afternoon, the message was clear: everyone needs to do better. Nobody tried to deflect blame or make excuses. Of course, everyone deserved at least some blame and there weren’t really any excuses to make, but still.
Speaking of Cousins, we should give thanks that he has proven to be as indestructible as someone that just injected a vial of Compound V. Cousins is the physical embodiment of the “best ability is availability” cliché; he has taken some huge hits over the course of this season and his career and just keeps popping back up. However, Week 11 felt like the Vikings were really tempting fate. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins was pressured on a whopping 60% of his dropbacks (18 of 30) despite being blitzed on only four of them. A lot of those pressures came “the defense called your play in Tecmo Super Bowl” fast too. (Yes, Kirk anti-stans, there were also a few that Cousins should have got rid of before the pressure came. But let’s not pick nits here. Again, everyone was bad last Sunday.) The Dallas defense has been very good all year, but as former Vikings and current Patriots beat writer for The Athletic Chad Graff illustrates, the New England defensive unit is incredibly formidable as well.
The Patriots' defense ranks:— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) November 21, 2022
No. 1 in EPA/play
No. 1 in success rate
No. 2 in points allowed
No. 2 in yards allowed/play
No. 2 in pressure rate
No. 2 in sacks
No. 4 in turnovers forced
Micah Parsons will likely haunt the dreams of every Vikings offensive lineman for weeks to come, but Matthew Judon might be the Jason Voorhees to Parsons’ Freddy Krueger. In fact, Judon and fellow edge rusher Deatrich Wise Jr.’s combined total pressures (85) trails only Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith (96) when it comes to NFL pass rushing duos this season. Even though New England’s pressure could cause all sorts of trouble, I’m thankful that the Vikings are being cautious with Christian Darrisaw and ruled him out right away right after he had to leave the game with concussion symptoms for the second straight week. His long-term health is much more important than scrambling for a win on a short turnaround. Blake Brandel lining up against Judon and Wise isn’t ideal, but it’s a hell of a lot better than jeopardizing the season and career of someone that has shown the potential to be a perennial Pro Bowl tackle.
While New England comes to town armed with one of the best defenses in the league, I’m thankful that they aren’t nearly as loaded on the offensive side of the ball. Mac Jones has been enduring a sizeable sophomore slump, ranking dead last out of 30 qualifying QBs that have played at least half their team’s snaps in PFF grade and 29th out of 31 qualifiers in total QBR. On paper, the Patriots have a pretty solid group of pass catchers, even if none of them are putting up huge numbers. Jakobi Meyers, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, DeVante Parker, and Nelson Agholor are a veritable who’s who of “I definitely had at least a few of those guys on my fantasy teams over the years.” However, nobody on New England has as many catches as Adam Thielen this year, and Irv Smith Jr. still has more receptions than either Patriots tight end. Only Meyers and running back Rhamondre Stevenson have over 20 receptions. It looks like the Vikings might be extremely banged up at cornerback on Thursday, so we should be thankful that they aren’t going up against a more formidable unit. If the defense can force Jones into some mistakes and prevent the Pats from grinding out long drives with favorable third down distances—you know, like the exact opposite of what they did last week—they should be able to keep it close even if the offense isn’t lighting up the scoreboard.
I had a really hard time picking this game, but I just keep coming back to Bill Belichick. The last Vikings coach to beat him was Denny Green back in 2000, Belichick’s first year at the helm in New England. A hallmark of any Belichick team is that they take away what you like to do best and force you into what you like to do least. I think the Patriots will throw everything they have at Jefferson and Cousins, pick on the depleted Vikings secondary with low-risk passes, and grind out a low-scoring win. Although I’m picking the Patriots to win, I’m thankful that I have got the last two Vikings games wrong after picking all but one of the first eight games correctly. I will gladly keep my prediction losing streak alive if it means the Vikings don’t start a losing streak of their own.
Even if the Vikings do drop their second straight home game, there’s one final thing I’m thankful for: that the current biggest threat to their NFC North title hopes is the 4-6 Lions, who have to take on their own daunting AFC East foe earlier in the day Thursday. I’m also thankful that the Bears are busy wasting one of the cheap years of Justin Fields, and I’m extremely thankful that the Packers have scuffled to a 4-7 record with no clear long-term solutions in sight. The Vikings are fresh off getting badly exposed and in the middle of a tough stretch of their schedule, but things will have to go sideways for another month before we have to start getting really nervous.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy the games, and watch out for that “fun take on green bean casserole.”
Patriots 17, Vikings 13
And now for the rest of my Week 12 NFL picks (for which I’m thankful there are no bye weeks this week):
Last week: 10-4
Season so far: 102-61-1