Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
There are two movie quotes that come to mind when looking at the Minnesota Vikings’ current playoff probabilities.
“Never tell me the odds.”
“So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
Following their loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings have a 17% chance of making the postseason, according to Football Outsiders. In the NFC, only the Washington Football Team, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons have lower playoff odds heading into Week 6.
But are the Vikings really that bad?
What we have seen from the Vikings over the last three weeks would not suggest the Vikings are a bottom dweller. They have two one-point losses to undefeated teams -- one of which took a field goal from 50-plus and the other needed two fourth-down conversions on the final drive in order to take home wins against the Vikings.
“I think we have to play out a whole season to kind of see what kind of a team we truly have, but we certainly feel like we’ve been in a lot of games against good football teams,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said on Wednesday. “I think that’s the NFL….you are a play away from losing to Houston and you feel like you’re a play away from beating some really good teams who are undefeated. So the top of the league and the bottom of the league, as a player, just doesn’t feel like there’s that big of a difference.”
Against Tennessee, Houston and Seattle, the Vikings’ offense has completely turned things around from a miserable start. In those three contests, Cousins racked up 760 yards passing on 8.6 yards per pass attempt and grades as PFF’s seventh best quarterback. Receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen rank second and ninth, respectively, by PFF over the past trio of games and Dalvin Cook has 106 more rushing yards than the next best running back since Week 3 (and Alexander Mattison has tacked on another 156 yards on the ground in that span).
The Vikings’ defense has still had its share of tough times but they have shown improvement in terms of rushing the passer in recent weeks. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo has the fifth most QB pressures since Week 3 and Yannick Ngakoue has three sacks.
If you want to talk yourself into a turnaround, have a look at the upcoming home schedule. After facing a rough slate of teams with a combined record of 17-6, they will match up against winless Atlanta this week and then struggling Detroit, Dak Prescott-less Dallas, Carolina, Jacksonville and Chicago at US Bank Stadium.
That’s pretty much where the optimism stops...
Not only does the road schedule provide lots of potential roadblocks for a team that needs to go at least 8-3 down the stretch in order to have a shot at the postseason, the bigger picture numbers do not suggest that type of turnaround is on the way.
Despite the solid offensive output in recent weeks, the Vikings still rank 23rd in the percentage of drives in which they produce points at 39.3%. Offense around the league has gone bananas to the point that the average team is scoring on 42.2% of drives. Five years ago that mark would have been good enough for seventh best in the league and the average was 35.6%. On defense, they are allowing points on 55.6% of drives.
The gap between those two numbers would have to drastically change in order to believe the Vikings could make a magical run. In the last three games, they are 15-for-36 on offense (41.6%) and allowed 17-for-34 (50%) on defense.
Part of the reason for their struggles to produce points has been turnovers. The Vikings have the sixth highest percentage of drives ending in a turnover and rank 28th at taking the ball away from opponents. The domino effect of turnovers on offense and lack thereof on defense is that the Vikings have the worst starting field position for and against in the NFL.
Mike Zimmer’s defense also has a long way to go toward slowing down opposing passing games’ efficiency. The Vikings are 27th in yards per pass attempt allowed when adjusting for sacks.
If the Vikings truly were a new team over the last three weeks, maybe we could toss some of those stats but that isn’t really the case. The same areas that haunted them in Weeks 1 and 2 have played a role in the Week 3 and 5 losses -- they just were in more dramatic fashion.
For example: Over the last three weeks, guards Dakota Dozier and Dru Samia rank 60th and 72nd out of 72 guards by PFF grades. They have combined to allow 16 QB pressures since Week 3, which is as many as former guard Alex Boone allowed in the 2016 season.
The Vikings’ cornerbacks rank 46th (Jeff Gladney), 50th (Holton Hill) and 82nd (Cam Dantzler) out of 113 by PFF over the last three weeks.
And aside from Odenigbo and Ngakoue, pressure has been non-existent. In the last three games, starting defensive tackles Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson have combined for three QB pressures -- 17 pressures behind the league leader at their position.
So while there is plenty of evidence to show improvement, like spreading the ball around to the likes of Irv Smith Jr. and Chad Beebe, hitting on screens and succeeding on third downs defensively, the idea that the issues with the roster won’t continue to crop up in big games appears dubious.
What can we conclude from the last three games? Well, for starters, the Vikings could have a lot of really entertaining games. They still match up with good quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. They still will have chances for strong offensive output against poor defenses like Atlanta, Jacksonville and Detroit. The ride might still be rocky and the playoffs will be very difficult to reach but it could be a fascinating season to see which areas improve and how things set up for the future.