Until this week, I hadn’t watched an entire Minnesota Vikings game this season.
I hadn’t avoided them, exactly, but as I’ve documented in these pages before, I’m more inclined to watch a soccer match — and, to be honest, the last few years of Vikings football haven’t exactly been inspiring, compelling stuff.
But this year’s team entered their Week 10 game against the Oakland Raiders tied for first in the NFC North after a rather unexpected stumble from the formerly first-place Packers.
So I endeavored to sit down and watch the Vikes for a full three hours to see what, exactly, is happening in Minneapolis — and to try and answer a beguiling question that’s been on the mind of many Minnesota sports fans.
Are the Vikings actually good?
An emphatic victory
The Vikings started strong Sunday, as second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater found fullback Rhett Ellison for an 11-yard touchdown four minutes into the first quarter to give the Vikes a 7-0 lead.
It was only Bridgewater’s seventh touchdown pass of the season, tying him with the Rams’ Nick Foles for 29th in the league, one spot behind Peyton Manning; the former just lost his starting gig and the latter looks done as an NFL quarterback.
I was watching the game at the American Legion, as one does when they don’t own a television, and I heard a stray comment from a fan that initially made me laugh — until I realized she was right.
“Bridgewater’s really good at throwing the ball away,” the fan said, as the Vikes’ young QB rolled out once again, surveyed the field and elected to launch the ball into the mass of men on the sideline.
Teddy is really good at throwing the ball away, which, although not the primary trait one seeks in a quarterback, is not the worst strength: though he’s 29th in touchdown passes, he’s also only thrown six interceptions, which puts the Vikings offense at seventh in the NFL in minimizing interceptions.
All told, the Vikings have turned the ball over only nine times this season, good for fourth in the league.
Bridgewater’s also not tasked with doing a whole lot: the Vikes have attempted only 260 passes this season, second-to-fewest in the league, and have ran the ball 274 times, the second-most rushing attempts in the NFL.
And that’s where Adrian Peterson comes in.
One year removed from missing the entire 2014 season for physically abusing his son, Peterson is leading the NFL in rushing and anchoring the league’s top rushing attack.
On Sunday, Peterson reeled off an 80-yard touchdown gallop that sealed the win for the Vikings, 30-14, as the halfback piled up 203 yards on 26 carries.
After the dust settled — and, more importantly, the Lions beat the Packers at Lambeau Field for the first time in 24 years — the Vikings sat atop the division with a 7-2 record and an 83 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN offshoot FiveThirtyEight.
The win was the Vikings’ fifth straight and was much more convincing than the previous four, which they had won by an average of five points.
But I couldn’t seem to shake my incredulity and the nagging feeling that Minnesota’s success thus far has been a mirage.
The little things
I think I remain skeptical about the Vikings because their strengths aren’t particularly exciting.
In an era when teams pass — and score — more than ever, the Vikings don’t really pass or score.
As an occasional football fan, I think I’ve grown to equate a team’s talent with its watchability; this is a high-scoring, high-powered era, so it’s jarring to see a team find success without regularly racking up some passing touchdowns.
The Vikes’ franchise quarterback is most notable for his poise and shrewd, often boring decision-making, not his ability to throw the ball downfield or improvise outside the pocket. He’s really good at throwing the ball away.
We ride a defense that’s allowed the second-fewest points in football but has only forced 11 turnovers, a middling number that puts the Vikes at 22nd in the league.
The defense may force punts and make teams settle for field goals, but that’s a heckuva lot less interesting than turnovers and takeaways.
One of the few statistics that the Vikings do lead the league in is fewest penalties against — another sign of a disciplined, well-coached team, but not exactly something to feature on the team’s promotional materials.
These Minnesota Vikings are a football coach’s dream, and I suspect that many of the fans who find them compelling are old-school, X’s & O’s football nuts — the kind of people who solemnly nod in approval when a quarterback elects for the safer check-down option, or who feel all warm and fuzzy when a defense allows a seven-yard gain on 3rd and 10.
Perhaps it’s unseemly to complain about the Vikings’ watchability as they sit atop the division and continue to win.
But there are a few warning signs that things cold go south for the purple and gold.
So, about that schedule…
The elephant in the room during this Vikes’ discussion is their schedule thus far — and it’s that elephant that may ultimately squash their playoff hopes.
Through their first nine games, the Vikings’ opponents have accumulated a 30-42 record, good for a .416 winning percentage. In their final seven games, the Vikes’ opponents boast a collective 38-26 record, for a .594 winning percentage.
As the Vikes piled up their seven wins, they faced only one team — the Broncos — who have a winning record after Week 10. They played the Broncos well, but ultimately lost 23-20 in Week Four.
The final seven games feature four against teams with winning records: two dates with the Packers and one each against the playoff-bound Cardinals and Falcons. And that’s not to mention their games against the 5-5 Giants or the 4-5 Seahawks, neither of which will be easy.
So far this season, the Vikings have faced the second-easiest schedule in the league; over the final seven games, they’ll face the hardest, according to Football Outsiders.
The Vikes have also managed to recover 73 percent of fumbles this season — including seven of their 10 fumbles on offense — which is remarkably fortunate. Fumbles are basically a toss-up, and, as anyone who has tried to track down a bouncing football can attest, come down more to skill than luck.
Point is, the Vikings have been pretty fortunate thus far: according to Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), the catchall offensive and defensive statistic that aims to gauge a team’s efficiency and true-talent level independent of luck and adjusted for schedule, Minnesota is only the 19th-best team in the league despite being tied for the fourth-best record in the NFL.
Our defense has certainly looked resolute, but it’s also faced the five-worst offenses in the NFL — the Lions (twice), the 49ers, the Rams and the Broncos — in the first nine games.
Yes, the Vikes have prevented points, but the defense has also allowed its fair-share of yards, and eventually those yards pile up until your opponent finds itself in your end zone.
There’s only so much bending you can do before breaking.
OK. Now allow me to shine a sliver of optimism on what’s become an awfully bleak last few paragraphs: the Vikings already have seven wins. Those are in the bank. They do not have to return them.
(Also, as Football Outsiders points out, the Vikings’ DVOA numbers look much better if you erase that Week One debacle against San Franscisco. The numbers back up what anyone watching could have told you: that was one of the worst football games of this or any season.)
Even though the competition may have been weak, the Vikings still managed to win seven of nine.
Now, with seven games remaining, the Vikes simply have to win two or three more games to make the playoffs.
And as any coach worth their salt would tell you, an ugly win is still a win.