Vikings Continue to Scramble NFC Playoffs

Sunday began with the Minnesota Vikings winning their eighth consecutive game – and the third in a row against playoff contending teams.  Still with Case Keenum at quarterback, the Vikings have conquered the 9-3 Los Angeles Rams 24-7; the 6-6 Detroit Lions in Detroit 30-23; and now the 7-5 Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta 14-9.  It has been a stunning performance to say the least.

Left for the Vikings is another difficult road game in Carolina, and a Week 16 matchup in Green Bay against a Packer team that might or might not have Aaron Rodgers back.  The other two games will be home games against Cincinnati and Chicago.

With Seattle pulling off a season-saving 24-10 win over the previously untouchable Philadelphia Eagles, Week 13 scrambled the NFC picture a bit.  If the playoffs began today, it would be the Vikings going in as the NFC’s top seeded team (based on strength of victory over the Eagles).

If the Vikings stub their toe either in Carolina or in Green Bay, they would probably yield the top seed to New Orleans whose strength of victory (if they win out) would eclipse Minnesota’s.  Either way, the Vikings are in excellent position to finish with the first or second seed in the conference.

The Eagle’s loss pulls them back into the scrum with a tough road game coming up in Los Angeles against the Rams.  LA’s loss to Minnesota would really sting in this situation, since it would give the Vikings the head-to-head tie breaker, and would also toss them a game behind the other teams in conference record.  Philadelphia and LA are currently second and third in the conference.  They could easily slide to third and fourth.

The Seahawks’ upset win and the Falcons’ upset loss could very send the Falcons’ playoff position to Seattle.  That’s how things currently sit.  Both face daunting finishes to the regular season.  The Falcons’ last four games include two against New Orleans and one against Carolina.  The Seahawks’ last four include Jacksonville, the Rams and Dallas.  This last NFC playoff spot could shift back and forth several more times before the season ends.

Re-Thinking the Last AFC Spot

Last week, I think I read too much into Buffalo’s win over Kansas City.  It seemed big at the time – the win that they needed to get their hands on that last playoff spot.  But as I watched them fold meekly against the Patriots last week – and as I watched Miami show a significant pulse against Denver, I am increasingly doubtful that the Bills can go into Miami on the last day of the season and beat the Dolphins – which will make it very unlikely that they will make the playoffs.  Increasingly it looks like the Tennessee Titans (a team I still don’t have great confidence in) will slip into the playoffs – probably as the fifth seed, as they have an earlier victory over Baltimore.

At this point, Tennessee in the playoffs is the most likely scenario – but I still don’t expect them to hang around long.

Minnesota Rising

Two weeks ago, when I contemplated the playoff teams, I relegated the Minnesota Vikings – 7-2 at that point – to a wild card spot.  Even from the vantage, now, of hind-sight, that is still the sensible call – given what we knew at that point.

Minnesota had reached 7-2 on the strength of a five-game winning streak – mostly against sub-.500 teams.  They beat Chicago (currently 3-8), Green Bay (5-6) in the game Aaron Rodgers was injured, Baltimore (6-5), Cleveland (0-11) and Washington (5-7).

The Vikings are also playing through the season with a back-up quarterback.  The final stop on back-up quarterback week is Minnesota and the emerging Case Keenum.  Previously, we have spent time with Tom Savage in Houston and Brett Hundley in Green Bay.

So it was that – at 7-2 – the Vikings faced the toughest part of their schedule.  In successive weeks they would face the Rams, Lions, Falcons and Panthers.  These were all games that I expected them to lose.  Instead they have won the first two games of this impressive gauntlet and now stand at 9-2, with a three-game lead in their division.  They have all but clinched their division title and must be part of the conversation about the best in the conference.

So, how good are the Vikings?  And how realistic are their chances with Keenum at the helm?

The Viking Defense

All season, Minnesota’s calling card has been their defense.  They currently rank fifth overall and fifth in fewest points allowed.  They are especially dominant against the run, where they rank second in yards per game (75.5) and third in yards per carry (3.4).  Against the pass, only 3.0% of the passes thrown against them result in touchdowns (the third lowest percentage in the league) and they rank sixth in yards per pass (6.51) and yards per completion (10.6).  The pass rush has generated 30 sacks – the ninth highest total in the league, and the passer rating against them is just 81.2 – the tenth best total in the league.

They have held the Saints to just 19 points and the Rams to just 7 – although they have also given up 30 points to Washington and 23 to Detroit,  The game against Los Angeles was particularly impressive.  They inhaled Los Angeles’ very potent running attack (Todd Gurley finished the game with just 37 yards on 15 carries), while the pass defense eliminated the big plays from the Ram passing game.  Jared Goff finished with 23 completions, but for only 225 yards.

By all measures, I think you have to concede that the defense is a legitimate top five defense.

And the Running Attack

Possibly the least recognized aspect of the Viking success story is the running attack, which now ranks sixth in the NFL , averaging 124.5 yards per game.  This figure has gone up appreciably after the Vikings pounded the Rams and Lions for a combined 307 yards in the last two games.

Here, though, it is worthwhile to note that Detroit ranks twenty-second against the run, and Los Angeles checks in at twenty-sixth.  To date, Minnesota has played only two teams that rank defensively in the top ten against the run.  They would be Pittsburgh at #6, and Cleveland at #8.  The Vikings managed 91 rushing yards against Pittsburgh and 88 against Cleveland.

I think there is a legitimate question about how well the Viking running game would do against a top defense in the playoffs.

The Puzzling Case of Case

And then, of course, there is Keenum.  His numbers so far this season have been all that anyone could hope for.  He has completed 66.1% of his passes, has chucked 14 touchdown passes against just 5 interceptions, and holds a 96.2 passer rating.  And watching him play confirms that those numbers aren’t flukes.  On Thanksgiving Day, he made excellent decisions, and threw with great accuracy and better confidence.  But, of course, he was throwing with a lead, a dominating running game, ample pass protection, and an excellent defense at his back.

In four prior seasons, Case’s record as a starter was 9-15.  He entered the season with a career 20-24 touchdown to interception ratio, and never managed a passer rating above 87.7.  He has no fourth-quarter comebacks this year and only 2 in his 33 start career.  Pardon me if I am still skeptical.

What Los Angeles and Detroit were unable to do was to force Keenum to win the game.  With all the other pieces operating efficiently, Case was at liberty to make plays, both with his arm and with his feet.

I take nothing away from Case Keenum.  He has played very, very well.  But in my mind he is still a caretaker quarterback until he takes this team on his shoulders and wins an “adversity game” against a quality opponent.

Speaking of the Rams

In, perhaps, the most intriguing game of Week Twelve, the Rams bounced back from their disappointing loss to Minnesota the week before and ended New Orleans’ eight-game winning streak, 26-20 (gamebook).  After the Viking loss, I had some question whether this would be the beginning of the end for this young LA team.  Their win was something of a statement victory and kept them in the conversation for the top seed in the NFC.

Detroit Fading

While Minnesota is rising, their division rivals in Detroit are fading.  Never a great running team, the gulf between their rush offense and rush defense is widening.  Over the last three games, the Lions have totaled 222 rushing yards, while allowing 559.  They have now fallen a full game behind the suddenly resurgent Falcons.

The Lions have great heart, but are one-dimensional on offense and mediocre on defense.  Even though Atlanta’s remaining schedule is significantly harder, it is hard to see the Lions catching them from behind.

Two weeks ago, this team looked like a probable division champ.  But they have regressed and will now probably be watching the playoffs on TV.

Pack Not Quite Back

The Sunday before, Packer quarterback Brett Hundley melted down on his home turf, tossing 3 interceptions and taking 6 sacks in a disappointing 23-0 loss to Baltimore.  Now there was about 4:25 left in the game as Hundley and the Packers broke the huddle.  The visiting Pack was facing off against one of the best and hottest teams in the NFL, Green Bay stood first-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 16, trailing just 28-21.

Green Bay is the middle stop on what I have called “back-up quarterback week”. (On Thursday we dropped in on Houston and Tom Savage).  Off to a 4-1 start with Aaron Rodgers behind center, the Packer season tilted suddenly in Week Six when a broken collarbone removed Rodgers from the equation – possibly for the season.

Into the breach stepped Hundley – a fifth-round pick out of UCLA in 2015.  Having thrown just 11 career passes before that fateful game, Brett was tossed into the middle of what has turned out to be a fairly brutal schedule.  After Minnesota (currently 9-2), Hundley’s first two career starts were against New Orleans (8-3) and Detroit (6-5).  After facing the 3-8 Bears in Week Ten, Hundley’s education tour led him against Baltimore (6-5) and now Pittsburgh (who started the day 8-2).

Of the teams he has faced so far, three of the six boast top-five total defenses – and Baltimore and Pittsburgh are numbers two and three in pass defense. But Hundley is a confident kid.  After being a bit overwhelmed by the Vikings and Saints, he rebounded nicely in his next two games.  He completed just 30 of 58 passes in those first two games (51.7%) for just 244 yards – an average of just 4.21 yards per pass and 8.1 per completion.  His 1 touchdown pass in those games was more than offset by 4 early interceptions, and his 39.7 passer rating was a concern.

But in his games against softer defenses in Detroit and Chicago, Brett was 44 of 63 (69.8%).  While this was much better, the down-field attack was still lagging.  He totaled just 457 yards in the two games – an average of just 7.25 yards per attempted pass, and only 10.4 per completion.  He threw no interceptions in those two games, but also threw just 1 touchdown pass.  Still, for someone making just his second and third career starts, his 95.8 passer rating was encouraging.

And then came the Baltimore game.

Understandably, few fans or pundits expected much from Hundley against the elite Steeler defense.

The Game of His Life

The Steelers opened the game with a 59-yard, 12-play, 6:46 touchdown drive to take a 6-0 lead (the extra-point was missed).

Now it was Hundley’s turn to answer.  After two running plays gave Green Bay a first-down on the Steeler 48, Brett threw his first pass of the game – a five-yard out to Davante Adams.

The drive seemed to stall immediately, as a running play gained nothing and Hundley seemed to take his eighteenth sack in just 178 drop-backs.  But Pittsburgh cornerback Artie Burns was flagged for a penalty that gave Green Bay a first down on the Steeler 38.

Two plays later – with the Packers facing a second-and-11 – Pittsburgh dropped into a cover-three zone.  At least 10 of the Steelers dropped into cover-three.  Cornerback Burns trumped his earlier mistake by chasing Adams back over the middle, leaving his deep third of the field uncovered.  Hundley looked up to find receiver Randall Cobb running all alone up the left sideline.  Seconds later, Hundley had tossed a 39-yard touchdown pass, and the Packers had a 7-6 lead.

After an interception gave the Packers the ball back at their own 45, a one-yard run and an incompletion put Green Bay at third-and-9.  The Steelers faked a blitz.  Five defenders started toward the line at the snap, but linebacker Ryan Shazier fell almost immediately back into coverage, looking for the running back he was supposed to cover.  But that first step in would prove fatal.  That running back – rookie Jamaal Williams – already had three or four steps on Shazier.  Shortly after Hundley flipped Williams the ball, center Corey Linsley peeled back and picked off Shazier.  Jamaal then found an alley and bolted the rest of the way for a 54-yard touchdown.  There was 1:22 left in the first quarter and Hundley had already thrown for 98 yards and two touchdowns (on only 3 completions).  The Steelers ended the quarter with 10:41 of possession, but trailing 14-6.

But Brett was not done.

The rest of the first half would pass uneventfully, and Green Bay’s first possession of the second half came down to a third-and-3 at their own 45.  The Packers defeated Pittsburgh’s single-high coverage with outside vertical routes from Jordy Nelson on the left and Adams on the right – the twin vertical routes preventing safety Mike Mitchell from committing to either side.  Adams shed cornerback Coty Sensabaugh with a slick stop-and-go, and Brett hit him in stride up the sideline.  From there, Davante eluded the late-arriving Mitchell and outran the rest of the defense for the 55-yard touchdown.

The game was 32 minutes and 54 seconds old, and the Packers had stunned the Pittsburgh defense for 3 touchdown passes of at least 39 yards – two of them over 50 yards.

To that point of the season, Green Bay had produced no touchdown passes of 35 yards or more, and only 2 over 30 yards.  In Brett’s first 158 passes, he had managed just 2 touchdowns and only 4 completions of more than 30 yards, none longer than 46 yards.  Through his first 12 passes against the Steelers, Brett already had 3 touchdown passes and 170 yards on 9 completions.

Back Come the Steelers

At that point, though, the game turned decisively in the favor of the Steelers – and especially their defense.  Reverting to simple man coverages and basic zones, the Steelers stopped trying to confuse the rookie, opting instead to force him to hold the ball long enough for the Steeler pass rush (second best in the NFL at the start of the night) to get home.  The strategy worked as well as could be hoped.  The next 8 times Brett dropped back he went 0 for 5 with 3 sacks.  Over their next three series, Green Bay ran a total of 13 plays netting 0 yards.  During this stretch, the Steelers never reverted to blitzing, finding ample pressure with simple line stunts that Green Bay struggled to adjust to.

So now, there are just less than nine minutes left in the game.  The Packers are seven points down, and are starting on their own 23.  But now their approach has changed.  Instead of giving the pass rush a shot to disrupt him, Hundley would line up in the pistol and fire at the first receiver that broke open.  This approach would depend on Hundley’s ability to quickly recognize and accurately react to what the Steller defense would present him.

As exciting as the earlier big plays had been, if I were a Packer fan I would be even more excited by Hundley’s performance in this last drive.

On first down, Pittsburgh got cute again.  They brought cornerback Mike Hilton off the corner.  The defense became a zone-blitz, with four rushers coming from Hundley’s left and the presumed rushers on his right dropping into coverage.  But the rushers from his left gave tight end Richard Rodgers a brief opening.  Hundley saw it immediately and had the ball in Rodgers’ hands before Shazier could slide over and close the window.  That play picked up 25 yards and put the ball on the Packer 48.

Now the Steelers dialed up one of their rare blitzes, but wanted to play zone behind it.  With Bud Dupree coming untouched from the edge, Hundley rolled away from the pressure and noted that Hilton – responsible for the right flat – was slow getting into his zone.  He tossed the ball to a wide-open Cobb for 12 more yards. And suddenly Green Bay was on the Steeler 40 with 7:28 left.

A one yard run left Brett with a second-and-9.  From a single-high man look, the Steelers dropped into zone coverage.  Again, Hundley saw it immediately.  With a quick glance to his left, Brett caused Shazier to take a step in that direction, widening the gap between him and Dupree (who had the right flat) just enough open a seam in the zone for Davante Adams to pop through for a 12-yard reception.  First-and-10 Packers on the Pittsburgh 27.

With both corners lined up 12 yards off the receivers, Hundley picked up 7 easy yards on a quick toss to Nelson lined up wide left.  A run and another short pass to Nelson (with Jordy stretching for the chains) picked up the first down at the Steeler 16 with still more than four minutes to go.

But here the Steelers would make their stand.  A running play was buried in the backfield for a 2-yard loss.  Hundley’s second-down pass flew over the head of a well-covered Adams.  On third-and-12, a dump pass to Cobb got half of the yardage.  Now it was fourth-and-6 with the clock spinning under three minutes to play.  The Packers decided to go for it, but spent their second time out when they didn’t like the defense that they saw.

Now down to one time out, still trailing by seven with 2:50 left, The Packers came out with an empty backfield, with Nelson, Geronimo Allison, and Rodgers lined up to the right of the formation, and Adams stacked behind Cobb to the left.  Pittsburgh played man coverage across with two high safeties.  This allowed Adams a one-on-one opportunity against William Gay, who he beat quickly with an inside-outside move.  Hundley delivered the ball perfectly, and the Packers had first and goal at the Pittsburgh 4.  Seconds later, Jamaal Williams soared over the goal line, and the game was tied.

No Joy in Green Bay

The game wouldn’t finish in story-book fashion though.  Green Bay would get one more possession starting on their own 18 with 1:20 left and just the one time out.  After a first-down sack, the Pack went conservative – a short pass and a run – and punted, playing for overtime.  With 17 seconds left, Pittsburgh moved from their own 30 to Green Bay’s 33 on two sideline throws to Antonio Brown (who finished with 169 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches for the day).  One play later, Chris Boswell ended the evening with a 53-yard field goal.

After controlling the ball for 19:05 of the first half, after going 3-for-4 on third down in the second half, and after Le’Veon Bell racked up 114 yards from scrimmage (53 rushing and 61 receiving) in the second half alone, Pittsburgh still needed a long field goal as time expired to subdue the Packers (gamebook).

Aftermath

For the Steelers, they are now 9-2 and three games ahead in their conference with five to play.  They currently hold the top seed in the conference – getting a strength of victory nod over the Patriots.  Those two will meet in a significant contest in a couple of weeks.

Green Bay is now 5-6 and has four teams ahead of them for the final playoff spot in the NFC.  A 9-7 mark will probably not get you in on the NFC side, so the Pack – as they had to last year – will pretty much have to win out to stand a chance.

For the next two weeks they will face the 4-7 Buccaneers and then the 0-10 Browns.  After that, the schedule gets nasty, again.  They go into Carolina to play the 8-3 Panthers, then face the 9-2 Vikings at home, before ending the season on the road in Detroit (6-5).

The intriguing thing about this concluding schedule is that Aaron Rodgers – who was throwing the football prior to the game – will work out tomorrow (Friday) to see if he could return to the practice field Saturday.  If healthy, Aaron would be eligible to come off IR in time for those last three games.

So, if the improving Brett Hundley can keep this team alive with wins against two lesser opponents, this Green Bay team may well have playoff hope.  It’s still a very long shot, and the Pack has no margin for error anymore.  But the pieces are there, at least, for another fantastic finish.