Tag Archives: Minnesota Vikings

The Mistake Green Bay Can’t Afford to Make

Yes, the game was pretty much decided by the time the Minnesota Vikings broke their huddle to line up for a third-and-one on the San Francisco 40-yard line.  There was only 2:53 left in the game, and the Viking were on the short end of the 27-10 score (which would be the final) (gamebook) (summary).  The next three snaps would be a kind of microcosm of their day.

The last time they had run the ball – and I grant that it had been awhile (since the 11:00 mark of the quarter) – they ran underneath Pro-Bowl defensive end Nick Bosa.  Modest as it was, the six yards gained on that run were the most they would have on any running play that afternoon.  Now, on third-and-one, they decided that they would run at Bosa again.  The difference here, of course, was that on third-and-one Nick was looking for the run, and easily stood tackle Riley Reiff up and dumped running back Dalvin Cook for no gain.

Quickly racing to the line on fourth-and-one, Minnesota tried the quarterback sneak – which was also stuffed.  The Vikings would get another shot, though, as San Fran had used a timeout just before the play.  On their second fourth-and-one, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw deep up the left sideline for receiver Stefon Diggs, who maneuvered around cornerback Emmanuel Moseley just enough to get his hands on the ball at about the 6-yard line before it slipped out of his arms. A second later, safety Jimmie Ward drove him to the ground.

That would be Minnesota’s last offensive play of the season, as the 49ers would consume the rest of the clock.

Enjoying the best season of his career, Cousins – whose 107.4 passer rating was the fourth best in football – led Minnesota to an excellent offensive season.  Their 407 points scored were the eighth most in the NFL, and the passing success was linked to a revived running game behind Cook, who with 1135 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, also had his best year.  Minnesota finished as the sixth-best running team (averaging 133.3 yards per game) and were fourth in rushing attempts with 476.  Counting the playoffs, they finished with 20 or more points scored in 12 of their 18 games, including 5 games where they scored over 30 points, highlighted by a 42-30 battering of Detroit in Week Seven.

I point all of this out, because you certainly wouldn’t have suspected any of this by watching them play last Saturday.  It is rare in the playoffs that a team is dominated to the extent that San Francisco obliterated the Viking offense.

For the game, Minnesota managed just 7 first downs (none of them rushing), and went 2 for 12 on third down (0-for-6 in the second half).  They were also 0-for-1 in the red zone, on their way to just 147 total yards.  They managed just 21:33 of clock time, with only 9:25 of that happening in the second half.  They were out-rushed by San Francisco 186 yards to 21.

Cousins and the passing game managed just 172 yards and an 84.3 rating while absorbing 6 sacks and numerous other pressures.

Surprisingly, though (or, perhaps not), this was the second time in four weeks that the Viking offense had been similarly dominated in a critical game.  Their Week 16 loss at home to Green Bay (with the NFC North Division title on the line) played out eerily similar (a 23-10 Viking loss).

In that game they were also held to just 7 first downs (1 of them running), went 4-15 (just 2-7 in the second half) on third down, 0-for-2 on fourth down, and 0-for-1 in the red zone on their way to 139 total yards.  They controlled the ball for only 22:28 against Green Bay – including just 11:47 of the second half, as the Packers outrushed them, 184-57.

Cousins was sacked 5 times in that game, throwing for 122 yards with a 58.8 rating.

The underlying cause in both of these batterings was the same.  Minnesota stopped running the ball.  They had only 16 running plays against the Packers (just 5 in the second half).  They ran only 10 times against San Fran (just 3 of those after halftime).

The 49ers, of course, gave Minnesota every reason to think that they couldn’t run the ball against them.  Favorite plays that the Vikings had run all season returned little in San Fran.

Earlier in the game (before the third-down-run attempt), Minnesota had tried a couple of quick running plays that ran away from Nick Bosa.  These were plays on which Bosa wasn’t even blocked, as the Vikings expected Cook to be well gone by the time Bosa could make an appearance from the other side of the formation.

But Nick made both of those tackles after a total of one yard gained.  Minnesota hadn’t fully accounted for left defensive tackle Sheldon Day.

A former fourth-round draft choice of Jacksonville in 2016, Sheldon fell to San Francisco about midway through the 2017 season.  Not as large as some interior linemen – Sheldon is “only” listed as 294 – Day brings an above-average quickness to the interior line while maintaining sufficient lower body strength to get under double-teams.  Since the injury to starter D.J. Jones, Day has quietly carved out a larger niche for himself in the 49er defensive scheme.  Sheldon has started each of the last three games, seeing the field for about half the defensive snaps.

Last Saturday, he was a significant deterrent to what little running game Minnesota attempted.  It was Day clogging up the point of attack in both of the earlier runs that sent Cook back toward the middle where Bosa could claim him.

Mental errors by tight ends also hampered the running game.

On the game’s second play, left guard Pat Elflein left DeForest Buckner to penetrate into the Viking backfield while he hunted up a linebacker.  Buckner was supposed to be trapped by Kyle Rudolph, who ran right by him.  After Kyle had finished running the complete distance behind the line of scrimmage without blocking anyone, he glanced back over shoulder with the look of a man who knew he’d forgotten something fairly important.  Buckner, of course, tackled Cook in the backfield for a one-yard loss.

Now, at the 9:25 mark of the first quarter, with a first-and-ten at their own 21, the Vikings tried an off-tackle run.  Josh Kline pulled right-to-left from his right guard position.  Imagine his surprise when he arrived at the point of attack to find that tight end Irv Smith Jr. was also pulling (left-to-right) from his position on the end of the line.  Both would-be blockers – heading for the same point of attack – collided, allowing an easy tackle on the part of 49er linebacker Fred Warner.

By any assessment, this was not a banner offensive day for Minnesota.  Still, at the end of the day, the team with football’s fourth-most rushing attempts finished with just 10.

So dependent on the run all season, Minnesota surprisingly showed no commitment at all to the running game, even though they weren’t seriously behind until the fourth quarter.  Only twice in the contest did Minnesota run on consecutive plays.  They ran on their first two offensive plays of the game.

Then, on their first possession of the second quarter, after Cousins was sacked at the Viking 4-yard line, Minnesota called two safe running plays to avoid an end zone disaster and set up to punt.

And that was it.

This is the mistake that Green Bay simply cannot make.  They cannot afford to abandon the run and become one-dimensional.  The 49er pass rush will have them for desert.

And teams have run against San Francisco from time to time.  Three times they allowed more than 140 rushing yards in a game – losing two of those – while they finished just seventeenth in the league against the run (allowing 112.3 yards a game) and twenty-third in average yards per attempt (yielding 4.5 yards per).  In fact, the 10 rushes by the Vikings were the fewest rushing attempts any team has made against San Francisco this season.

Even if the Packers (who averaged a healthy 4.4 yards per rush this season) don’t enjoy great early success on the ground against San Fran they have to keep trying.

The Packers, themselves, never really established a true offensive identity.  On their way to placing eighteenth in total offense, Green Bay finished seventeenth passing and fifteenth rushing.  Their approach saw them generally sticking with whatever was working that day.  They had 5 games in 2019 where they ran for more than 140 yards.  But they also had 6 games when they ran the ball fewer than 25 times.

In all honesty, whatever their approach the Packers will be hard pressed to sustain much offense against the refreshed 49er defense.  Their only significant advantage on offense stems from the fact that San Francisco’s all-world cornerback Richard Sherman doesn’t change sides of the field.  He will camp the entire game on the offensive right side – meaning that the Packers can avoid having Sherman shut down their only reliable receiver (Davante Adams) by simply lining him up on the other side of the formation.

This will allow Green Bay a few shot plays, but won’t keep them on the field or keep San Francisco’s offense on the sideline.

For that, they will need their running game.

And a healthy dose of luck.

Road Teams Advance in NFC

About five and a half minutes.

The Philadelphia Eagles seemed to be playoff longshots through Week 13.  Coming off their Week 10 bye, the Eagles lost three in a row – the last to the Miami Dolphins.  At that point they sat at 5-7 for the season, but still only one game behind their division rivals from Dallas.  Since one of Dallas’ six wins was a 37-10 clobbering of Philadelphia in Week Seven, Dallas’ lead was really two games with four games left.

To that point, the Cowboys were also 4-0 in the division, and held that tie-breaker as well (the Eagles were 1-1).

Philadelphia’s one ace in the hole was that their Week 16 re-match would be in Philadelphia, but in reality they knew that they would have to win out – including the Dallas game – and the Cowboys would have to drop a winnable game somewhere in these last four contests.

Other than Dallas (and perhaps including the Cowboys), the Eagles’ closing schedule wasn’t all that formidable – two games against the Giants and one against the Redskins.  But Dallas’ remaining schedule was also a little soft.  In addition to the Eagles, Dallas had the Bears, Rams and Redskins.

But a Week 14 loss to Chicago completed Dallas’ own three-game losing streak, and put the division clearly on the line in Philadelphia three days before Christmas.  The game wasn’t necessarily an artistic success, but the defense rose to the occasion, closing down Dallas’ running game and sending the Eagles on to the playoffs with a 17-9 victory (a curiously recurring score for the Eagles this year).

And so, three days into the new year, the improbable Eagles were hosting a playoff game.  After all the sound and fury of the chase, their opportunity to advance more-or-less evaporated about five and a half minutes into the game.

The Injury

Beginning their second series on their own 25 with 9:41 left in the first quarter, quarterback Carson Wentz play-faked to running back Miles Sanders and dropped back into the pocket.  But none of his receivers managed any early separation, and as the pocket began to crumble, Carson rolled to his right.  Seeing the movement, cornerback Bradley McDougald came crashing down on Wentz.

Realizing he wouldn’t have time to throw this pass, Carson pulled the ball back down and tried to duck inside of McDougald (taking a step back toward the rush).  Bradley didn’t miss the tackle, tripping Carson up while he was trying to get by him.  As Wentz began to go down, Jadeveon Clowney – in pursuit – was leaving his feet (also trying to bring Wentz down).  Clowney would tumble over Wentz in what appeared to be a harmless contact.  Chris and Al – calling the game on NBC – cut away to show a replay of the field goal attempt that Philadelphia had just blocked.  Meanwhile Wentz finished out the series, gaining a first down and moving Philly as far as their own 36-yard line before they were compelled to punt the ball away.

The Eagles have been in the playoffs, now, for three consecutive seasons – winning it all two seasons ago.  In both of the previous two years, Wentz could only watch from the sidelines.  Finally, Carson (Philly’s franchise quarterback) was making his playoff debut.  And after two series, it was over.  On the play in question, Clowney’s helmet collided with the back of Wentz’ helmet, driving his head forward into the turf.

And just like that, the Eagles were playing playoff football again with their backup quarterback.  This time, though, it wasn’t Nick Foles (who had gone 4-1 in the previous two playoff runs).  Nick had moved on to Jacksonville.  The season now belonged to 40-year-old Josh McCown (who was also making his playoff debut).  In his seventeenth season – mostly as a backup – Josh brought a 23-53 record as a starter, along with a 79.7 career passer rating into the contest.

The Attrition Bowl

If you were going to predict that an injury would play a critical part in any of the wildcard games, you might have expected it would be this one.  Seattle came into the contest missing – among others – all of their top three running backs, two starting offensive linemen, and a starting linebacker.

The Eagles also were missing two starting offensive linemen, and all of their playmaking wide receivers (DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor).  Starting running back Jordan Howard dressed for the game, but never saw the field.

Whoever would walk away from this one, would go limping into the division round.  And, although they were mostly outplayed by Philadelphia, that team – thanks mostly to Wentz’ injury – will be Seattle.

McCown

It’s difficult to pin this defeat on Josh, who came off the bench and did better than anyone could have expected.  McCown was 12 for 15 in the second half, throwing for 147 yards.  He looked as good throwing the ball as the numbers suggest, and brought the home crowd to its feet with an 11-yard first-down scramble in the first half.  His passer rating for that second half was 109.6 – arguably as much as they might have expected from Wentz.

Behind Josh in the second half, the Eagles chewed up 195 yards of offense and 13 first downs.  They controlled the ball for 19:13.

At the same time, though, they were 1-5 on third down, 0-2 on fourth down, and 0-3 in the red zone.  They also turned the ball over on downs just outside of the red zone on their next to last possession.  McCown played admirably.  It is, however, reasonable to expect that Carson would have coped better on third and fourth downs and in the red zone.  On Philly’s last offensive play of the season, McCown saw a clear rushing lane to the end zone (by the way, he has 13 career rushing touchdowns).  But at 40 years old, McCown couldn’t navigate those last 10 yards.

In a one-score game, all Philly would have needed was one play from Carson.

That score – by the way – was 17-9, the same score they beat Dallas by, and the same score they lost to Seattle by the first time these two teams met (gamebook) (summary).

For the Eagles, it was a frustrating end to a difficult season.  It seems they have spent the last two seasons paying for the good fortune of 2017.  They will take some positives into the offseason – particularly their defense.  After finishing the season tenth overall and third against the run, the Eagles mostly dominated the Seattle offense – especially the running game.

Seattle came into the game just behind the Ravens, 49ers and Titans in rushing yards.  The final numbers (64 yards on 26 rushes) don’t begin to tell the story.  Forty of those yards came on two long scrambles from quarterback Russell Wilson.  Subtract those, and Seattle’s other 24 running plays totaled 24 yards.

Seahawk Issues

It’s difficult to say that the missing running backs were much of an issue, as Travis Homer and recently re-signed Marshawn Lynch were barely able to take the hand-off before they encountered Eagle defenders.  The yards-before-contact for each tell a decisive story.  Homer managed -3 yards for the night before contact.  Lynch had it even worse at -5.

Defensive lineman supreme Fletcher Cox was the most un-blockable of the Eagle front seven, but all of them had a hand in abusing Seattle’s offensive line.  This might have been the worst performance ever by an offensive line for a team that won a playoff game.  This battered line will now travel into Green Bay where they might expect similar treatment at the hands of the Packers’ Za’Darious Smith, who has been nearly untouchable over the season’s last few weeks.

If that isn’t enough of a concern, the Hawks also fly to Green Bay saddled with the leakiest defense of any team left in the playoffs after having given up 398 points during the season.  They have allowed more points this season than Houston has scored.  Ranked twenty-second against the run, they gave another 120 to the Eagles. From time to time, the Packers have been a running team, so that will interest them.  And when Aaron Rodgers wants to throw the ball, he will undoubtedly target Tre Flowers – like everyone else has.

On Sunday evening, Seattle was flagged for 11 penalties, costing them 114 yards.  Mostly these were two pass interference penalties against Flowers and multiple holding penalties by various offensive linemen trying to keep Cox out of their backfield.

As much as any team out there, the Seahawks are a team that finds a way – usually getting just enough magic out of Russell Wilson to squeak by.  But they will be going into Green Bay with significant concerns.

Defense Undoes Saints

Statistically, the Saints finished the 2019 regular season in about the middle of the pack defensively – they were eleventh over-all and thirteenth in points allowed.  They profited significantly from playing in a division of mostly offensively challenged teams.  When matched against quality offenses, they didn’t perform nearly as well.

They allowed more than 20 points 9 times, including giving 31 to Carolina in Week 12, and 48 to San Francisco in Week 14.  They also allowed six passer ratings of over 100, and allowed more than 140 rushing yards on four other occasions – two of them in the last 4 weeks of the season.  This includes a game where Tennessee piled up 149 yards without Derrick Henry in the lineup.

The Minnesota Vikings were a fairly average offense in 2019 – they ranked sixteenth.  They were eighth in scoring – principally thanks to a defense that provided them 31 takeaways.  And they ranked sixth rushing the football – averaging 133.3 yards per game.

Against New Orleans, the Vikings put up 106 rushing yards by halftime, and quarterback Kirk Cousins averaged 12.74 yards per completed pass against them.  He put the dagger in the Saints’ season with a 43-yard chuck to Adam Thielen in overtime that set Minnesota up at the two-yard line.  In a situation where they just needed to keep the Vikings from reaching the end zone, Minnesota moved 75 yards in 9 plays to end New Orleans 26-20 (gamebook) (summary).

The Vikings have shown some vulnerability against the run this year.  They have allowed 140 or more yards five time – including three games allowing more than 150 – all of those over their last five games of the season.

But New Orleans could never get a running game going and had difficulty keeping ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen off of Drew Brees’ back.  For all of this, though, the Saints had every opportunity to win this game.  They made a few mistakes, but made them at the worst possible times.

Mistakes, Big and Small

The Vikings had just closed to 10-6 on a field goal with 2:54 left in the first half.  Starting on their own 24, the Saints faced a third-and-six from their twenty-eight, with still 2:18 left in the half.  They also had all of their time outs.

So patient all year, Brees suddenly got impatient and floated up a deep pass to a double-covered Ted Ginn.  With help over the top, Anthony Harris undercut the route and picked the pass, bringing it all the way back to the Saint 45.

One minute and forty seconds later, Dalvin Cook sliced through the middle of the Saint line for the touchdown that gave Minnesota the lead.

But the Saints would get a golden opportunity to tie the game before the half when electric kick returner Deonte Harris brought the ensuing kickoff back 54 yards to the Viking 45 with still 12 seconds (and two timeouts) left.

A 20-yard shot to Michael Thomas gave the almost automatic Wil Lutz a shot at a 43-yarder.  But Lutz punched the ball wide right, and New Orleans went into the locker room with a 13-10 deficit.

Fast forward to the third quarter, Vikings now ahead 20-10.  With 2:08 left in the quarter, the Saints faced a fourth-and-three from their own 35 and sent the punting unit out to the field.

But it was a fake.  The irrepressible Taysom Hill took the direct snap and plowed forward for the first down.  All for naught, though.  The play was stopped for a false start called on Josh Hill.

Moving forward to the fourth quarter.  The Saints have pulled to within 20-17.  There are four and a half minutes left in the game.  Again the momentum maker is Taysom Hill, whose 28-yard burst up the sideline brought the Superdome crowd to its feet and left New Orleans with a first-and-ten from the Viking 20-yard line.

On the very next play, Hunter stripped the ball away from Brees and the drive abruptly ended.  It was Drew’s only fumble of the entire season.

The Vikings played one of their best games of the season, and will advance to San Francisco on Saturday.  The Saints will start to look toward next season.  For the third straight season they have been ousted from the playoffs under agonizing circumstances.

The Vikings will be underdogs again against the 49ers.  San Francisco, of course, has precious little playoff experience among their young roster, and have seen their defense slip a bit over the last few weeks of the season.  So you never know.

About This Hill Guy

Here were New Orleans four longest plays of the game:

1 – A fifty yard pass from Taysom Hill to Deonte Harris that set up the Saint’s first touchdown of the day.

2 – Taysom Hill runs 28 yards around left end – an electrifying run during which Hill shook off would-be tacklers like so many rag dolls.

3 – Drew Brees throws 20 yards to Thomas to set up the missed field goal at the half.

4 – Drew Brees throws a 20-yard touchdown pass to Taysom Hill, cutting the Viking lead to 20-17 in the fourth.

To this point, Taysom has been an appendage to the Saint offense – a kind of change of pace, brought in mostly to run for a first down on third and short – which he does very well, by the way.  He was on the field for only 41% of the New Orleans offensive plays.

The Saints in 2020 may look fairly different than they did this season.  I will make one bold prediction for them.  Mr. Hill – on the heels of his dynamic performance in this game – will begin to be a regular feature of the offense.  This can only be good news for those of us who watch the Saints on a regular basis.

Sizing Up Da Bears

Last Sunday afternoon in US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis Minnesota, the last real piece of business deciding the NFC side of the playoffs played out.

The suddenly re-invigorated Philadelphia Eagles would be playing against an injury-ravaged Washington team, so the Vikings had little hope that the Eagle season would perish quietly in the nation’s capital.  That left them with the imperative of winning their last game of the season – at home against division rival Chicago.

The Vikings had put themselves in “win-and-you’re-in” territory with consecutive solid wins against Miami and in Detroit.  On the one hand, they piled up 61 points in the two wins.  On the other hand, those two teams finished the season 7-9 and 6-10 respectively.  Would the recent success – which included 320 rushing yards in the two games – continue against this tougher opponent?

By the time the first half ended, it was more than apparent that it would not.  The Vikings hit the locker room trailing 13-3 with 18 rushing yards, and just 49 offensive yards in total.  They had no play gain more than 9 yards, were 1-7 on third down, punted 5 times and never made it into the red zone.

More than just being dominated by the Bear defense, Minnesota played tight, nervous football – none of them tighter or more nervous than quarterback Kirk Cousins – although, as Troy Aikman frequently pointed out, the Viking defense didn’t bring their best game either.

Trailing just 7-0 early in the second quarter, Minnesota surrendered a 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that ate 5:39 off the clock, and set the Bear victory in motion.  Crucial to the drive were two key third downs.

On third-and-11 from his own 24, Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky overthrew his receiver up the left sideline.  Instead of bringing up fourth down, however, Chicago found themselves with a first-and-10 at their own 39, courtesy of a roughing the passer call against Stephen Weatherly.  The push to the ground was comparatively gentle, but he did take that extra step after the pass was thrown.

Five plays later, the Bears were in third down again – third-and-7 on the Viking 41.  This time Trubisky made the critical completion finding Taylor Gabriel up the left sideline for 40 yards.  Cornerback Holton Hill – filling in for the injured Xavier Rhodes – made an enticing target all night.  Chicago scored on the next play.

Minnesota made some small attempts to creep back into the game in the second half, but on this afternoon it was evident early that Chicago was the better team.  So, in the aftermath of their convincing 24-10 victory (gamebook) (summary), the only real question to come out of this game is about Chicago.  Are the Bears “playoff ready?”

Super Bowl Shuffle II?

Defensively, the Bears have looked ready for most of the season.  After the Vikings finished just 1-11 on third downs, amassing just 164 yards of offense, Chicago finished the season as statistically dominant as any defense in recent years.  They finished first in interceptions (27), in percentage of passes intercepted (4.40), in lowest passer rating against (72.9), fewest points allowed (283), and fewest rush yards allowed per game (80.0).  They finished second in yards allowed per completed pass (10.2).  While ranking third in total defense by yards allowed, they also finished third in lowest percentage of pass completions allowed (61.3) and fewest yards per attempted pass (6.27).  Additionally, they were fourth in average yards allowed per rush (3.8) and lowest percentage of third downs converted (34.2).  They finished fifth in fewest percentage of passes going for touchdowns (3.6) and lowest red zone touchdown percentage (50.0).

What these numbers represent is a defense with no visible weaknesses.  They have demonstrated themselves as elite against both the run and the pass, while handling the situational moments (third down, red zone) as well as any other unit in football.

They reached their peak during their Week 14 dismantling of the high-powered Los Angeles Rams.  In that 15-6 victory, they limited Los Angeles to 14 first downs and 214 yards while taking the ball away 4 times (Chicago’s 36 takeaways also led the league).

Certainly any offensive coordinator faced with scoring against this unit will be challenged.  My best council for any team facing Chicago – beginning with Philadelphia this Sunday – is to preach ball security.  Throwing the ball away on third down and punting isn’t always the worst decision.

You see, while the Bear defense has established themselves as one of the elite NFL units, Chicago’s offense is less accomplished.  They finished the season ranked just twenty-first in total yardage and passing yardage.  While not one of the Neanderthal teams that I wrote about last week, Chicago is still quite reliant on its running game.  After watching young Mr Trubisky come down the stretch, I am of the opinion that if Chicago needed to rely on his arm to win a playoff game this year, they might be in trouble.

Mitch was just OK against Minnesota on Sunday.  While he completed 18 of 26 (69.2%), he threw for just 163 yards (just 9.06 per completion). Almost without exception, Trubisky’s best passing performances this season have come in games where he throws fewer than 30 passes.

Six times this year, Mitch has had the luxury of throwing fewer than 30 passes in the game.  Chicago won all six of them.  His passer rating was over 100 in four of those games.  His passer rating in those games combined was 118.5, with a 12-1 touchdown to interception ratio.

In his other eight games, Mitch threw the ball at least 30 times.  The Bears were 5-3 in those games.  His rating surpassed 100 only twice in those games, while he had five games under 80.  His rating in those games was a modest 82.2 with a 12-11 touchdown to interception ratio.

Offensively, the Bears turned the ball over 24 times themselves.

So, the game plan looks to me to be the following:  Take care of the ball.  Don’t give them any easy scores.  Take away the Chicago running game, and make Mitch throw to beat you.

By next year (as Trubisky matures) this strategy may not work anymore.  But I’m not sure that this year Trubisky is a consistent enough reader of defenses and thrower of accurate passes to put this team on his shoulders and carry them to a title.

Mike Nagy’s Interesting Dilemma

Going into the game, Mike Nagy confessed to Misters Buck and Aikman that he was at something of a loss on how to proceed coaching a game that might quickly become meaningless – at least to his team.  Whether he would rest key players, whether he would keep fighting to win the game – all of these were decisions that he would make at the time.

As things turned out, this game was, indeed, quickly rendered meaningless to his Chicago Bears – and just as quickly turned all-important to the team he was facing.  As the Rams and Eagles moved quickly in front of their opponents – on their ways to easy victories – it was obvious by halftime that the Bears, whether they would win or lose, would be unable to improve their playoff position.

However, going in at the half ahead by just 10 points, they were in a position to determine their opponent in the wildcard round.  It’s a point worth making.  At this point, it was quite clear that the Bears were better than the Vikings.  The Eagles, making a late season run that was at least reminiscent of their championship run of last year, present something of an unknown quantity.  With thirty minutes of football remaining, the Bears had it within their power to eliminate Philadelphia before they could even set foot in the playoffs.  An uninspiring second half that would coax the Vikings to victory would set up the rematch between these two teams next weekend, and leave Nick Foles and the Eagles watching on television.

It’s unknown whether this thought crossed Nagy’s mind – and if it did, it is very unlikely that Mike would bend that way.  The basic integrity of the NFL is stronger than people might suspect.  Nagy and the Bears did the thing they came to Minnesota to do.  They beat the Vikings, eliminating them from the playoffs.

Depending on what happens Sunday afternoon against the defending champions, that may be an opportunity that could haunt them through the offseason.

Tennessee’s Tumbling Playoff Chances

One week ago we were lauding the Tennessee Titans after their decisive conquest of the Patriots.  One week later, those same Titans were eaten alive by the Indianapolis Colts, 38-10 (gamebook) (box score).

The list of distressing elements of this one – if you are Tennessee – is long and hard to prioritize.  But let’s begin with the defense.  The game started with Tennessee as the league’s top scoring defense, having allowed just 151 points.  Further, they had allowed the fewest touchdown passes – just 11 through the first 9 games.  They came in ranked sixth overall in yardage, and sixth against the pass, as they held opposing passers to just an 89.5 rating.  Additionally, they were tenth against the run – allowing just 99.8 yards a game and 3.9 yards a carry.

But, quietly rebuilding after a 1-5 start, the Indianapolis Colts have undergone a kind of re-birth, and the centerpiece has been the offense.  Even when they were losing games early, they still scored points.  They had scored 260 (nearly 30 per game) as the game began.  And in the middle was Andrew Luck.

Andrew Luck burst on the scene back in 2012 as the heir to Peyton Manning.  He led the Colts to three consecutive 11-5 seasons and three consecutive playoff berths his first three seasons in the league.

His rising start was interrupted by an injury plagued 2015, and he then missed all of 2017 with arm miseries.  The promising career that was Andrew Luck – and the resurgence in Indianapolis – both seemed to have ended before they had truly begun.  With the 1-5 start – even with Luck back and starting to look healthy again – 2018 looked like it would be yet another lost year in Indianapolis.

Quietly, the Colts started figuring things out, but it was easy to dismiss the early stages of the turnaround.  Victories over the Bills and Raiders (teams that are a combined 5-15) didn’t generate tremendous attention.  A tight 29-26 win over Jacksonville made it seem more real – but last years’ division champs have been fading as well.  Now 4-5, Indy needed a statement win before they could really be taken seriously.  Their dismantling of this Tennessee team more or less qualifies for that.

During the route, Luck completed 11 of 12 second half passes (91.7%) and tossed 2 of the 3 touchdowns passes he had for the game.  He finished 23 of 29 for 297 yards and with 143.8 passer rating.  He was 9-for-9 throwing to T.Y. Hilton for 155 yards and 2 of the touchdowns.

As I start to sour on the Titans playoff chances, it’s not so much because they lost this game.  Even with this loss, their soft remaining schedule still gives them a strong chance.  It was a couple of other elements arising from this loss that makes me wonder about the Titans going forward.

One of the elements is the team they lost to.  It’s hard not to be convinced by the Colts the way they’ve played their last four games.  Their ending schedule is also manageable.  The Colts, though, if they earn that final playoff spot will have to do so on the road (they are 2-3 on the road, so far).  Their final three road games will be against the division.  Before all is said and done, they will go into Jacksonville, into Houston and into Tennessee (for the season’s last game).  They will have to earn it.

For that reason, I might still lean toward Tennessee.  But here’s the other thing.  On a fairly routine sack at the end of the first half, quarterback Marcus Mariota’s day ended.  It was a mild re-occurrence of the elbow issue he had earlier in the year and seemed to be over.  He is officially listed as questionable for Monday night in Houston.

The injury is sobering, because it means that this is a shadow that will hang over the Titans and their quarterback at least all the rest of this season.  Even if Mariota comes back, any random hit – and Marcus is one of those QBs that run an awful lot – could send him to the sidelines and bring in Blaine Gabbert.

As I look at the Titans now, I am not convinced that they will have Mariota on the field enough to make this happen for them.

More Flux in the NFC East

Every week in the NFC East a new front-runner emerges.  Two weeks ago, when I first projected the division, I backed the defending champion Eagles to eventually emerge.  They have lost two straight games since then, and seem to be in considerable disarray.  So last week, I conceded that Washington was probably the team that would enter the playoffs from this division.  They not only lost their last game, but their starting quarterback for the rest of the season.

Who’s left?  Could it be Dallas?  The Cowboy team that was left for dead all those weeks ago?

Don’t look now, but the Cowboys have pulled off back-to-back, must win games against the Eagles and the Falcons.  Now, tomorrow the Redskins limp into Irving with first place on the line.  Suddenly, everything is before the Cowboys.

Minnesota’s Blueprint?

Down 14-0 at the half and 22-6 with about half the fourth quarter left, the Minnesota Viking made a spirited comeback against the Chicago Bears.  They fell short, but made a game of it, 25-20 (gamebook) (box score).  The Vikings found success in their hurry-up offense, throwing underneath the Chicago coverage.  When they tried to get greedy, they suffered (Eddie Jackson’s crushing 27-yard interception return coming on one of Kirk Cousins’ last attempted long passes).

After passing for just 57 yards in the first half, Cousins completed 23 of 33 in the second half (69.7%), but for just 205 yards.  But he kept moving the chains.  Receiver Stefon Diggs was targeted 15 times in the second half alone.  He caught 11 of the passes for 93 yards and one of the two second half touchdown passes.  Adam Thielen was targeted 7 times in that half, catching 5 for 48 yards.

Whether it’s a blueprint remains to be seen.  But for 30 minutes last Monday night, the Bears’ defense seemed to be on its heels a lot.

Yes, Actually, That Will Be Nick Foles in the Super Bowl

There was 1:25 left in the first half.  The Eagles held a modest 14-7 lead, but had second-and-ten on their own 47-yard line.  With a pass rush coming from his right, quarterback Nick Foles took a couple of steps to his left.  But there was more trouble coming from there as Everson Griffen came roaring unabated toward him.  Before he was hit, Foles flung the ball up the left sideline in the general direction of Mack Hollins.  And then Griffen buried him.

The blow looked worse than it was.  Foles bounced right back up.  That pass was not to be his last pass of the game.

But it would be his last incompletion.

To that point in the contest, Nicky’s numbers were modest.  He was now 11 for 18 (61.11%), but for just 95 yards (just 8.64 yards per completed pass).  Only 7 of those 11 completions had earned first downs, and he carried a 75.00 passer rating as he went to the turf.  In short, he was Nick Foles.

But when he got back up off the turf, he was Joe Montana.

Foles in a Frenzy

On the next play, receiver Alshon Jeffery put a double-move on cornerback Terence Newman.  Alshon veered slightly towards the middle of the field.  Newman followed along, only to be surprised when Jeffery cut back underneath him and broke free down the right side-line.  Foles was undergoing another very close call in the pocket as Griffen and Emmanuel Lamur almost got their hands on him.  But Nick was slick enough to elude their grasp.  He lofted an arching rainbow toward the goal line that Jeffery ran under, and suddenly Philly was up 21-7.

For Foles, it was the first of what would grow to be 15 consecutive pass completions – a streak that would take him through the rest of the game.  Four of those final 15 completions went for 36 yards or more, and all fifteen together totaled 257 yards (an average of 17.13 yards per).  Twelve of his final 15 completions went for first downs, including 3 for touchdowns.

Philadelphia cruised past the Vikings 38-7 (gamebook) to earn a berth in Sunday’s Super Bowl opposite Tom Brady and the Patriots.  Foles’ impressive evening included going 10 of 11 on third down for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns (with 9 of his 10 completions gaining first downs), on his way to a 352-yard, 141.41 passer rating performance.

There is little I can say – even after studying the film – that can explain the greatest game of Nick Foles’ career.  It was, essentially, four huge passes (totaling 172 yards) and a whole bunch of shorter passes (totaling 180 yards).  He was 19 for 20 on passes that were less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage.  He took what the Viking defense gave him, and took advantage of his deep opportunities when they arose.

Vikings Fading

Hearkening back to their Divisional Round game against New Orleans, perhaps this melt-down is more revealing of the state of the Viking defense at the close of the season than it is the skills of the Philadelphia offense.  In the second halves of their last two games, the Vikings allowed Drew Brees and Nick Foles to complete 28 of 33 passes (84.85%) for 321 yards (9.73 yards per attempted pass).  They allowed the two QBs to throw for 20 first downs, including 5 touchdowns.  Minnesota failed to record a sack in either second half.  The Saints (as you recall) almost came back from a 17-0 halftime deficit against the Vikings.

In retrospect, perhaps they should have played more basic man coverage.  It was the most effective defense they threw at Foles the whole game.  They rarely played zone against Nick (only 6 times) and they paid for that decision almost every time.  Nick stung them for 5 completions in those six throws for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Blitzing Nicky was just as catastrophic.  He completed 11 of the 12 passes he threw against the Viking blitzes (91.67%) for 157 yards (13.08 per attempted pass).  Eight of the 11 completions went for first downs, including one for a touchdown – yielding a passer rating of 146.53 against the blitz.

But 16 different times, they simply challenged Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and the other Eagle receivers to win against man coverage, with no blitz to dilute the coverage.  Nick was a good, but not remarkable 10 of 15 (66.67%) for 115 yards (7.67 per) with the only sack he endured on the evening.  He threw no touchdown passes against this straight man coverage, and finished with an 89.58 passer rating against this defense.

But even had Minnesota played more man coverages – and even if they had continued successful – winning this game would have been difficult with only 7 points put on the board.

Keenum Fading as Well

If the performance by the one Cinderella quarterback (Foles) was astonishing, the performance of the other (Case Keenum) was less than surprising.  A career backup, Keenum was tossed into the spotlight this season after Minnesota lost their first two quarterbacks to injuries.  Behind a strong running game, an elite defense, and the emergence of rookie receiver Adam Thielen, Keenum had the year of his life.

But the question always lingered.  What would happen if Minnesota ran into an opponent that would force Case to throw them to victory.  That opponent was almost New Orleans in the Divisional Round.  On his way to what would have been an uninspiring second half, Minnesota won the game on a last-second miracle pass from Keenum to Stefan Diggs (made possible by a missed tackle).  He was last seen standing on the sidelines leading his home crowd in the “Skoal” chant.  He was dressed in his pointy-hooded warm-up jacket, looking for all the world like a purple garden gnome.

Sunday in Philadelphia, the miracles ran out.  Forced to throw 48 times, Case finished with 28 completions (58.33%) for just 271 yards (only 9.68 per completion).  He did manage a touchdown pass, but also threw 2 interceptions.  His passer rating on the evening was an exceedingly modest 63.80.

While Foles excelled on third down, Keenum was just 6 for 10 for 57 yards and an interception.  Throw in his 0-for-2 on fourth down, and Keenum’s passer rating on third and fourth down was a miniscule 28.82.

Even worse – if such a thing were possible – was his adventures in the red zone, where Case completed only 2 of 10 passes for 15 yards with one interception – an uncommon 0.00 rating.  He also fumbled away another red zone opportunity on a sack.

Well, there was only one glass slipper, after all.  So it would have to strike midnight for one of them.  It is perhaps unfair, but the truth is that the best season of Case Keenum’s career failed to truly answer the questions about him.

Turning Toward Sunday

As to Foles going forward, the same perception of Keenum applies to him.  If someone (New England) can make Nick win the game with his arm, it would seem to diminish Philadelphia’s chances.

It is extremely hard to pick Philadelphia in the upcoming Super Bowl.  Foles vs Brady seems – on the surface of it – an unconscionable mismatch.  But understand this.  Philadelphia was always more than just their quarterback.  There are a lot of championship pieces on this Philadelphia team.  Not the least of these is the coach.  Philadelphia doesn’t get a lot of press for this, but they are an exceedingly well-coached team.

In New England – perhaps the best-coached team in recent memory – Philadelphia faces an enormous challenge.  But Sunday evening, they will get their chance.  In spite of the odds-makers, in spite of the Patriots’ mystique and overwhelming playoff experience – in spite of the disbelieving press – the Philadelphia Eagles will get their moment on the big stage with a chance to write their own ending to what has been something of a fairy-tale season.

And that, after all, is all that anyone could ask for.

Miracle in Minnesota

Up until there were ten seconds left in the fourth and final playoff game last weekend, the New Orleans Saints were fashioning the greatest come-from-behind story in their history.

The first half couldn’t have been worse.  After allowing a touchdown to the Vikings on their opening drive, New Orleans cornerback Ken Crawley was flagged for two questionable pass interference penalties against the Vikings Stefon Diggs.  These penalties were part of a 6 penalty first half that cost the Saints 92 yards and handed Minnesota 4 first downs.  They led to a second-drive field goal and a 10-0 Viking lead.  Before the half would end, Minnesota would turn an interception into another short-field touchdown to give them 17 points.

Offensively, the first half had been just as disastrous.  The first quarter saw New Orleans run 12 plays for 33 yards.  They earned as many first downs (1) as they threw interceptions (also 1).  But the second quarter was even more frustrating.  Finally finding a little rhythm, the Saints put together to long drives.  In the two drives, the Saints combined to run 20 plays for 117 yards and 8 first downs.  And no points.  The drives ended with a red zone interception (off a deflection) and a missed field goal (the miss – it should be pointed out – was from 58-yards, so it was hardly automatic).

So, New Orleans went into the locker room at the half, trailing the best defense in football on their home field, 17-0.  Not terribly encouraging.

And then, in the second half, New Orleans erased the entire deficit.

Second Half Heroics

Star quarterback Drew Brees – who completed 72% of his passes this season and fashioned a 103.9 passer rating in 2017 – was dominated by the Viking defense through the first two quarters.  He was just 8 for 18 with 2 interceptions.  His passer rating for the half was a stunning 26.6.  In the second half, Drew was Drew again.  He completed 17 of his last 22 passes (77.3%) for 177 yards.  Against a Viking defense that had surrendered only 13 touchdown passes through 16 regular season games, Brees tossed three in his spectacular second half – leading to a passer rating of 139.6.

When Will Lutz drilled a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the game – putting New Orleans ahead 24-23 – it looked like the remarkable comeback was complete.  Fifteen second later, when Minnesota broke the huddle for the game’s last play, they faced third-and-ten, still about 25-yards away from field goal range.  At this point, a Viking win seemed remote.

Ten seconds later, Diggs was standing in the end zone holding the football.  There was no time left on the clock.  The Vikings had won the game 29-24 (gamebook).

Diggs spent the next five minutes or so striking his go-to pose – standing with his arms crossed in front of him with a god-like, worship-me look on his face – while thousands of cameras flashed in his direction.  Stefon had caught the desperation pass from Case Keenum and transported it over the goal line.  But the story of the last play belongs to New Orleans’ rookie defensive back Marcus Williams.  Coming off an impressive rookie season that included an interception of Keenum earlier in the game that provided a crucial turning point, Williams had the play in front of him.  He missed the tackle.  And that was it.  It handed Minnesota its only second-half touchdown – but it was enough to send the Vikings on and send the Saints home.

What Happed to New Orleans?

At their height, New Orleans was a dominant running team.  From Week Six through Week 13 (an eight-week span), the Saints averaged 166.9 yards on the ground.  Not co-incidentally, they averaged 32.5 points per game and won seven of the eight games.

Over their last six games – including their two playoff games this year – the running game struggled noticeably.  Over those games, they averaged just 80 rushing yards a game, and scored just 25 points per game.  They lost three of those six. As the season progressed, it became fairly evident that the dominant running game was the element that transformed New Orleans into one of the elite teams in football.  When the running game fell off, the Saints became merely a good team.

Atlanta Goes Down, Too

This dynamic was also generally true for Atlanta.  When they ran the ball effectively, they very much resembled the Atlanta team that marched to last year’s Super Bowl.  But when the running game stuck in neutral, the entire offense was beset with inconsistency.

Against Philadelphia, the Falcon running game was nearly thrown into reverse.  Running back Devonta Freeman – who scorched New England for 75 yards on only 11 carries in last year’s Super Bowl – was held to 7 yards on 10 carries.  His 4 second half carries netted a loss of one yard.

The Falcons finished with only 86 rushing yards in a game in which they were mostly dominated on offense.  Winners of 7 of their previous 9 games, Atlanta never did drive the field against Philadelphia.  Their lone touchdown came after an 18-yard drive set up by a muffed punt mid-way through the second quarter.  They finished with just 281-yards of total offense.  They had been held under 300 yards only twice through their first 17 games.

While Foles Leads the Offense

Meanwhile, Nick Foles – playing in the very large shadow of the injured Carson Wentz – kept on keeping on.  Nick threw the ball only 30 times in the victory – with only 3 of those passes travelling 15-or-more yards in the air.  He missed on all 3 of those passes.  But when throwing the shorter passes, Foles completed 23 of 27.  Throughout the second half, Foles completed 12 of 15 passes against the Falcons (a cool 80%).  It all added up to just enough to push Philly past the Falcons, 15-10 (gamebook).

All year (here for instance) I have been reminding you that Philadelphia was more than just Wentz.  I’ve documented the strong running game and top-shelf defense.  Both of those other aspects were very much in evidence in the win.  Even though the running game wasn’t remotely prolific (the Eagles averaged only 3.0 yards per rush), it was relentless.  Thirty-two times the Eagles ran the ball against the Falcons.  In the second half, their 16 rushes managed only 19 yards (1.2 yards per rush).  None of those second-half running plays gained more than 7 yards.  But they kept at it.

Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that Philadelphia was trying to – if not hide their quarterback, at least make sure they didn’t depend on Foles to win the game for them.

Minnesota in Philadelphia

So the NFC Championship is set for Sunday afternoon, as the Cinderella rides of Keenum and Foles continue on.  Midnight will strike for one of them in a few days, but one of these two unheralded and much-given-up-on quarterbacks will lead his team into the Super Bowl while fabled quarterbacks Brees and Matt Ryan will be home planning for next year.

Some years the NFL is an easy read.  Some years it seems that anything can happen.  This year is one of the latter.

Vikings Look Ready

Discussions of the Minnesota Vikings in the upcoming playoffs keep drifting back to quarterback Case Keenum – only playing because the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart have been injured for most of the year.

On the heels of their 23-10 conquest of Chicago (gamebook) – a win that gave them a 13-3 record and the second seed in the NFC playoffs – we have to concede (to some extent) that the strengths of the Vikings substantially outweigh the perceived weakness at quarterback.  Remember, guys like Trent Dilfer have won Super Bowls before.  The Vikings consistently run the ball well and boast an elite defense.

It was this defense (and the 147 rushing yards on 36 carries) that was the difference – again – in the Viking win.

One of the important things to keep in mind when discussing this game is that the Bears are not a bad running team at all.  They entered play Sunday afternoon averaging a healthy 117.2 rush yards per game – averaging 4.3 yards per carry.  The centerpiece of the attack – the surprising Jordan Howard – finished the season with 1122 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns.  But – running behind a makeshift offensive line – Howard and the Bears’ running game were no match at all for the aroused Viking defense.

Especially in the decisive first half.

While possessing the ball for only 9:42 of the game’s first half, the Bears managed just 1 first down, and averaged just 2.9 yards per offensive play.  Most telling, Chicago went into the locker room at the half having run just 6 running plays for a net loss of one yard.  Chicago ended the game going 1 for 12 on third down and scoring no offensive touchdowns.  Howard ended his breakout season with just 9 yards on 9 carries – none of them longer than 4 yards.  The Bears finished with just 30 rushing yards on 15 carries.

If you have watched Minnesota play defense – especially run defense – you might have noticed a definite “old school” style.

For one thing, their defensive ends – especially Everson Griffen – don’t over-commit to the pass.  Almost everywhere else in football, the defensive ends (who are really just pass-rushing linebackers) head immediately up field on almost every snap.  Against many teams, run-blocking against these ends is excruciatingly easy.  You let them bolt into the backfield and then give them a strong push in the direction they were already headed, while the running back cuts easily into the void he’d left behind.

The Viking ends – in contrast – leave very little daylight around the ends.  In fact, the run discipline of their ends combined with the excellent speed of their fast-flow linebackers makes turning the corner against Minnesota one of the most consistently difficult tasks in the game.

Additionally, as the league in general moves to smaller, quicker, pass rushing defensive linemen, the ancient concept of nose-tackle is alive and well in Minnesota.  Unsung in this contest, but one of the true heroes of the game, was Linval Joseph.  Joseph repeatedly repelled the double-team blocks of Chicago’s center (Hroniss Grasu) and guards Cody Whitehair and Tom Compton).  This action not only turned the line of scrimmage into an impassible scrum, but allowed the speedy linebackers to roam at will.

And, as important as any of the others, this game belonged to Andrew Sendejo.  With the predominance of the three-wide-receiver offense, almost every defense in football has adopted the hybrid-linebacker.  This is a defensive back that plays more like a linebacker than a safety.  Sendejo is Minnesota’s version of this semi-linebacker, and his quickness into the backfield was one of the elements Chicago was least able to cope with.  Center Grasu endured a painfully long day, spending half his time fruitlessly trying to push Joseph off the line of scrimmage, and the other half trying in vain to cut off Sendejo before he could cross the line of scrimmage.

It was an impressive show by the Vikings – and something for their future opponents to think about.

I still can’t embrace Minnesota as a Super Bowl contender.  I keep thinking that at some point someone will force Keenum to win the game for them.

But putting the Vikings in that situation will quite the challenge.

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.

Are the Falcons Really the Falcons Again?

Perhaps your memory of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons is similar to mine.  As they hit their peak last year, they came out of the locker room ready to play.  On their playoff run, they developed a “shock-and-awe” meme that served them very well.

On the final game of the regular season (January 1 of this year), Matt Ryan tossed 4 touchdown passes, and the running game provided 88 yards and another touchdown.  And that was just the first half, as the Falcons jumped to a 35-13 lead (scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions) on their way to a 38-32 conquest of New Orleans.

Against Seattle, in the Divisional Round, it did take them a few possessions to solve the league’s third-ranked scoring defense, but the Falcons punched through with 19 second-quarter points, on their way to a 36-20 win.  In the Championship Game against the Packers, they were ahead 10-0 after the first quarter and 24-0 at the half, scoring touchdowns after both Green Bay turnovers.  They eventually built a 37-7 lead, and went on to win that one 44-21.

And then in the Super Bowl, Atlanta raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead.  Halfway through the third quarter, they led 28-3 – again scoring two touchdowns on turnovers.  In all three phases (as the familiar cliché goes), the Falcons put you on the defensive from the very beginning.  It almost gave them an aura of invincibility.

This Year’s Falcons a Work in Progress

For a variety of reasons, that aspect of the Falcons has been kind of hit and miss this season.  Even during their 3-0 start, they were sometimes that team and sometimes not.  Some of this has been due to stubbornness on offense.

Last year’s passing attack was uncommonly explosive.  Trigger man Matt Ryan tossed 38 touchdown passes and averaged a league-best 13.3 yards per completed pass.  Un-coverable receiver Julio Jones was a huge cog in the machine.  He finished 2016 with 1409 yards on 83 catches even though he missed two games.

For most of the season, the Falcons have been struggling to regain that trademark deep strike attack against defenses geared to prevent just that sort of thing.

Over the last two games, though, Atlanta has started to adjust.  Their last two games (a 27-7 win over Dallas two weeks ago and last week’s 34-31 victory over Seattle in Seattle – gamebook) showed a similar pattern.

Crucial Wins

Both games played closely for a half.  The Falcons led Dallas 10-7 after thirty minutes, and then went into the locker room ahead of Seattle 24-17.

Both games saw a resurgence of the running game in the second half.  In the Dallas game, Atlanta managed 41 first half rushing yards (just 3.2 yards per carry).  The first half running was even worse against Seattle – 12 yards on 14 carries.  But 16 second half carries against the Seahawks produced 77 yards (4.8 per), one week after the Falcons racked up 91 yards on 21 second half carries against the Cowboys (4.3 yards per).  So, over the last two games, Atlanta is a combined 27 rushes for 53 yards in the first halves of those games (1.96 yards per), and a combined 37 rushes for 168 yards (4.5 per) in the two second halves.

Off of that resurgent running game, Ryan and the Falcons have layered a more patient passing attack – one less reliant on big plays and more willing to take what the defense is offering.  Against Dallas, Ryan began 11 of 17 for just 94 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  After the half, he riddled the Cowboy pass defense to the tune of 11 of 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Similarly, he went into halftime against Seattle just 9 of 15 for 98 yards and 1 touchdown.  Thereafter, he was 10 of 12 for 97 yards and another touchdown.

So – again combining the halves of the two games – Matty is 20 of 32 (62.5%) for 192 yards (6.00 per attempt and 9.60 per completion) with 1 touchdown pass and 1 interception in the two first halves – a very pedestrian 76.6 passer rating.  In his last two second halves, Ryan is 21 for 24 (87.5%) for 218 yards (9.08 yards per pass and 10.4 per completion), with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  This adds up to a passer rating of 144.1.

Looking Like Last Year’s Falcons

Against the Seahawks, Atlanta took the opening kickoff and marched 52 yards for a touchdown.  The defense contributed a quick interception, setting the offense up again for a short-field touchdown.  It was 14-0 Falcons after just 7 minutes of play.  When the Falcons returned a fumble for a touchdown early in the second quarter, their lead swelled to 21-3 after less than 16 minutes of play – very reminiscent of the shock-and-awe Falcons at the end of the 2016 season.

With these two crucial victories, the Falcons have pushed their way – temporarily – into the playoff picture.  But it will be an almost weekly grind for this Atlanta team.  Now 6-4, their last 6 games will feature two games against the 4-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The rest of the schedule will be two games against the 8-2 New Orleans Saints, and games against the 9-2 Minnesota Viking and the 7-3 Carolina Panthers.

The up-and-down Falcons cannot afford to take any more weeks off – even against Tampa Bay.  The path before them is very daunting.

Seattle Footnote

The Seahawks have now lost two consecutive home games and barely survived Houston the game before.  None of these teams seemed overly disturbed by the intense noise generated by the crowd.  This was especially true of the Falcons – who have now been exposed to it several times over the last few years.

Don’t Look Now

The Falcon’s opponents in that last Super Bowl have been on a roll of their own.  After losing two of their first four games, the New England Patriot’s secured their sixth straight victory with a 33-8 domination of the Oakland Raiders (gamebook).

Part of this was fairly expected.  Pass defense has been an inviting Raider weakness all season.  They entered the game allowing opposing passer’s a devastating 110.5 rating against them.  Not an encouraging situation when facing Tom Brady and the heralded Patriot passing attack.  Brady flayed them to the tune of 30 of 37 for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Of course, he threw no interceptions – leading to a 131.9 passer rating.  New England started the game 5 of 6 on third down, and then averaged 8 yards per offensive play in the second half.

The Patriots’ Pass Defense is a Thing

But the thing to take strong notice of with the Patriots is the defense – especially the pass defense.  Mostly disorganized and something of a mess early in the season, New England’s first four opponents exploited the Patriots’ re-constructed pass defense.  They completed 69.7% of their passes against them, averaging 13.5 yards per completed pass.  In those first four, New England allowed 11 touchdown passed while intercepting just 3 passes.  It all added up to a distressing 116.5 passer rating against.

Over the next three games, the pass defense started to show improvement.  The completion percentage dropped to 63.5%.  The yards per catch also diminished to 11.5.  Over those next three games, New England allowed just 4 touchdown passes, with their 2 interceptions bringing them to a more normal 89.4 passer rating against.  (NFL averages are currently 62.5% completions, 11.3 yards per completion, and an 88.2 passer rating.)

Over their last three games, Patriot opponents have now completed just 56.3% of their passes, gaining just 10.6 yards per completion.  The touchdowns and interceptions have been equal at 3 each.  The passer rating against them over those games has been just 71.7.  While one of those contests was against Brock Osweiler and the struggling Denver offense, the other two have been against the Chargers and Raiders with dangerous quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Derek Carr.  Rivers entered that game with an 89.9 passer rating.  Carr’s was 91.8.  They combined for a 71.1 rating in their games against New England.

Especially in these last three games, the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders played very well for most of the game.  But every time they had a little lapse, they paid for it.  And every one who plays New England understands that this is how it is when you play the Patriots.  They will make you pay for all of your mistakes.

Just like last year.

The AFC Playoff Picture

With Kansas City’s surprising loss, the Chiefs – once 5-0 on the season – are starting to slip behind the crowd fighting for the number one seed.  The Week 15 contest between New England and Pittsburgh still looks like it will decide the AFC’s top seed.  Jacksonville now pushes ahead of the Chiefs for the number 3 spot.  Tennessee currently leads Baltimore for the fifth wildcard spot, but as the teams come down the stretch, I’m expecting the Ravens to swap places with the Titans.  Baltimore still looks out of sync on offense, but Tennessee has three road games in their next four, and when they finally come home they will have the Rams and the Jaguars to face them – too tough for a team that I don’t really believe in yet.

Speaking of the Rams

In one of the season’s more anticipated games, the Los Angeles Rams (then 7-2) visited the Minnesota Vikings (then also 7-2).  Most anticipated was the clash between the Ram offense – leading the NFL in scoring at 296 points, while ranking third in total offense, fifth in rushing (128.8 yards per game) and sixth in passing (led by hot second-year quarterback Jared Goff and his 101.5 rating) – and the Minnesota defense – ranked third against the run (just 81.3 yards per game), fifth in total yardage, and tenth in allowing fewest points (just 165).  Opposing passers struggled to an 80.8 rating against Minnesota – the eighth lowest rating in the NFL.

For as anticipated as the matchup was, the result was disappointingly one-sided.  The impressive Viking defense smothered the Rams’ running game.  Todd Gurley ended the day with just 37 yards on 15 carries, never gaining more than 8 yards on any run.  They also eliminated the big-play passing attack.  The Rams had no completion over 23 yards.  In the game’s second half, they had no play longer than 15 yards.  Goff completed 12 second half passes for only 107 yards (8.92 per completion).  He finished the game with a very modest 79.2 rating.

Meanwhile, the Vikings capably exploited Los Angeles’ defensive weakness against the run.  The Rams came in allowing 118 rushing yards a game (ranked twenty-fourth).  Minnesota pounded then to the tune of 171 yards – running the clock for 20:06 of the second half – on their way to a convincing 24-7 win (gamebook).

More about Minnesota next week.

Next Up New Orleans

For the Rams, this is a sobering dash of cold water one week before one of the defining games in the NFC this season.  The Rams have some issues to address before facing the New Orleans Saints – currently riding an eight-game winning streak and boasting the top offense (by yards) in the NFL and the third best running attack (144 yards per game).  At 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, the Saints have the most explosive running game in the league.  After last week’s pounding, the Rams are now twenty-seventh in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt (4.5) and twenty-eighth in rushing yards allowed per game (123.3).

In a contest that will significantly impact home field advantage in the playoffs, the Rams have this game at home.  But they will have to find some way of stopping the New Orleans running attack without leaving themselves too vulnerable to Drew Brees and that passing attack.

It will be a tall order.

What’s Wrong With the Vikings and the Seahawks?

The Minnesota Vikings carried a 5-0 record into their Week 7 contest against the then 3-2 Philadelphia Eagles.  They were convincingly thumped by Philadelphia, 21-10.

That evening, the Seattle Seahawks carried their 4-1 record into Arizona to play the 3-3 Cardinals.  Seventy-five excruciating minutes later the two teams staggered off the field with a 6-6 tie.

Both the Vikings and the Seahawks have done some very good things through the first half of the season, but last Sunday they shared a common flaw – one that casts a significant shadow over their futures.  Both have offensive lines that are liabilities.

Minnesota Vikings

Offensive tackle wasn’t a position of great strength even as the season began.  It became a pronounced liability when starting left tackle (and one-time Pro Bowl selection) Matt Kalil went on season-ending injured reserve with a torn labrum in his hip after the season’s second game.

The right tackle spot was manned by Andre Smith – a former first-round pick by the Bengals who made 73 starts in Cincinnati before signing with Minnesota.  He lasted six plays into the fourth game of the season before a triceps injury sent him to IR as well.

Now what?

Well, against Philadelphia they tried varying combinations of T.J. Clemmings (a fourth round pick from the 2015 draft who was last year’s starting right tackle – the position they wanted to upgrade), Jeremiah Sirles (an undrafted free agent who made just his third start in three years last week), and Jake Long (signed before last week’s game, the 31-year-old Long was a former Pro-Bowl caliber tackle in Miami before injuries compromised his career).

As you might guess, this didn’t work very well for the Vikings (although it did make for some highlight reel footage for Eagle defensive ends Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham).  As the game progressed, the Eagles also found that they could blitz pretty much at will as Minnesota’s offense could do little to counter it.

Quarterback Sam Bradford ended up taking a beating.  With little running game and less protection, it’s difficult to imagine anything more Bradford could have done to win the game.  That being said, with the Vikings still 5-1 and leading their division it’s time we begin a discussion about Sam Bradford and his ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs.

Bradford

This is my Sam Bradford moment:

It is Week Two of 2015.  Bradford’s Eagles are hosting the Dallas Cowboys.  The Eagles are having significant difficulty with the Dallas defense (they go 2 for 11 on third down and are shutout until the first minute of the fourth quarter).  I don’t remember the precise moment or play, but during one of the failed third down plays, the camera caught Bradford’s reaction (maybe to a dropped pass?).

I don’t remember the play, but Sam’s reaction has stuck with me.  His shoulders slumped, he bowed his head, and crept quietly to his sideline.

Is this a big deal?  It kind of is.  This moment iconifies my lingering feeling about Bradford.  I think Sam is a quality NFL passer.  He reads defenses well, makes good decisions, and throws with plus accuracy.  But if I were to describe him as a leader the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “meek.”  There is a pervasive meekness in Bradford’s game.  In a Biblical sense, this is probably a very good thing as the meek will inherit the earth (and Sam certainly inherited a lot of it last Sunday).  But it’s not a great demeanor for the leader of your football team to have.

By this, I don’t mean that Sam should be yelling at receivers who drop passes or linemen who get penalties.  And I certainly don’t mean to say that he should worship himself the way that Cam Newton does.  But the quarterback of an NFL team can’t retire quietly to the bench and sit and wait for the next time his team gets the ball.  Watch any of the Minnesota games this year that Bradford has started.  When the Vikings don’t have the ball and the camera finds Bradford on the sidelines, he’s never standing and talking to anyone.  He is always sitting, quiet and alone, on the bench – sometimes with his head down.

You never see this with the top quarterbacks.  Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Newton, etc – they are always with somebody – the offensive coordinator, his O-line, some defensive player.  They are always discussing something – or putting their arm around the shoulder of a receiver who dropped the ball.  Quarterbacking a team extends beyond what happens once the ball is in your hands.  There is a leadership imperative that everyone can’t necessarily embrace.  It certainly helps to have a certain amount of charisma going for you.

This doesn’t mean that Bradford can never win a Super Bowl.  But I don’t think of him as that quarterback who can raise the level of the team he plays for.  The Bradys of the world can lift a good team to a great team.  Sam Bradford will need to have a great team around him.

And that will have to include an offensive line that can keep him upright and healthy.

Seattle

As for Seattle, this was the number four offense in the league last year – both for yards and for points.  They were held under 20 points only five times all of last year, and scored 30 or more seven times.  In six games this year, they have been held under 13 points three times already (something that only happened once all of last year) and have managed 30 points just once (they scored 37 against the mostly hapless 49ers).

Marshawn Lynch, of course, is gone and Thomas Rawls – so impressive in his seven starts last year as Lynch’s replacement – is injured.  Also injured is quarterback Russell Wilson, who’s legs accounted for 553 rushing yards last year.  Russell is playing, but staying in the pocket while he nurses knee and ankle injuries.  So the running game isn’t a particular strength at the moment.

Like the Vikings, though, the problem runs deeper than lack of name players to carry the ball.  The Seahawks, too, are less than proficient along the offensive line.

From last year’s offense to the 2016 edition that currently ranks twenty-second in yards and twenty-eighth in points, only one offensive lineman remains in the same place – right tackle Garry GilliamJustin Britt – who started at left tackle last year is also still in the mix, but he has now been moved to center.  The other three who started for this team last year are gone.

Russell Okung, last year’s starting left tackle (a former Pro Bowler) took the money and went to Denver.  Patrick Lewis, last year’s starting center, is now in Buffalo (where he is nursing a knee injury).  And J.R. Sweezy, last year’s right guard, is now in Tampa Bay (and suffering from a back injury that has kept him off the field so far).

In their place, Seattle has stitched together the offensive line with Bradley Sowell (an undrafted free-agent with his third team in his five-year career) at left tackle, Mark Glowinski (a fourth-round pick of the Hawks in 2015 who made one start last year), and this year’s first-round pick, Germain Ifedi at right guard.

They have been pushed around a little bit so far this season, helping in no little degree to hamper the offense.  Some of these players don’t have high pedigrees, but that means less than some people imagine.  Every year the Pro Bowl teams are populated with several players who began their careers as undrafted free agents, cut by more than one team.  This may yet develop into an effective unit.

But they aren’t there yet.