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.
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.