Only the die-hards thought Minnesota was playoff worthy in 2014. I admit, early in the season I was one of them. It was not so much that I thought the Vikings were awesome, rather, I saw possible holes in Chicago, Detroit, and Green Bay. Jay Cutler was shaky. Detroit struggled running the ball and had bad personalities on a good defense. The Packers offensive line was suspect in places, and their defense still not very good.
I was thinking 9-7-0 might be in the hunt for the NFC North title.
Not this year. Both Green Bay and Detroit stayed strong, and now they are both 11-4-0 and fighting this week for a division crown. Each will make the playoffs.
While Minnesota struggled with the loss of Adrian Peterson early in the season, Chicago came out strong with a 2-1 start that featured a win at San Francisco. The Bears offense featured the free-throwing Cutler, Matt Forte as one of the most versatile backs in the game, and two over-sized star receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey.
But it was a Midwestern mirage.
The Bears now are 5-10, one game behind the Vikings in the standings, and the 7th-worst overall record in the NFL. Minnesota, at 6-9, is tied with four others (St. Louis, New Orleans, Atlanta, and New York Giants) for the 8th-worst record. Depending on today's outcomes, it appears we could draft anywhere from 7th to 12th in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Minnesota is 6-4-0 versus the NFL outside of their division. They are 0-5-0 within it.
The Purple will come out eager to avoid being blanked in the NFC North. I confess, I would much rather beat the Bears than be awarded a higher pick in the upcoming draft. Given the lack of recent success of players like Matt Kalil, Cordarrelle Patterson, and other note-worthy early picks it appears we are not as savvy at drafting as first assumed.
Despite losing their last two games, Minnesota has played better offensively. Teddy Bridgewater has brought excitement back to the quarterback position. Now he is only 290 yards away from a 3,000 yard season in which he started as the 3rd-stringer. His passer rating is up to 84.9, which is miles better than either Matt Cassel or Christian Ponder could produce. Of course, it is short of the 94.1 rating opponent's have against Minnesota.
Matt Asiata needs 60 yards to pass Jerrick McKinnon for most rushing yards on the team. It is near certain that the 2014 rushing leader for the Vikings will have less than 600 yards. I wonder what the over/under was for team rushing when the season started with AP in the backfield? 2000?
It is paramount that Minnesota put some effort into securing a running game for 2015. If Bridgewater is to survive a rebuilding offensive line, he will need an alternative to the pass. Adrian Peterson, along with his struggling PR and large contract, would still be an elite running back should he be allowed to play again. But will he ever play for us again?
The loss of Peterson is by far the best excuse for our losing season. He is one of the most productive running backs of all-time. His trouble with the league for mistakes he made has tarnished a great career. Minnesotans are divided on wanting him back. But most of us can sense we are not even going to have that choice... are we?
*Running back Melvin Gordon from Wisconsin is projected by some to be a 8-15 draft selection
Greg Jennings leads in receptions with 56. Most likely he will also be the receiving yardage leader with less than 800 yards. In a land of Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Anthony Carter, Sammy White and so on... that is not good. Charles Johnson has been the most dynamic of the no-name group that supports Jennings. Jarius Wright has his moments. Patterson is now mostly relegated to the bench.
*Wide receiver DeVante Parker of Louisville knows Teddy very well and is expected to be drafted early.
The defense has improved this year, that is clear. It is hard to get too excited about a defense that just surrendered thirty-seven points in their last game. But Minnesota is playing better defensively than they have in a long time.
Linebacker has become a growing concern for the faithful fans. Defensive back Robert Blanton will end up leading the team in tackles. He has 106. The leading linebacker for tackles is Chad Greenway with 93 in 12 games. Jasper Brinkley has 73 tackles in 10 starts. Rookie Anthony Barr has 70 tackles in 12 starts.
*Inside linebacker Bernardrick McKinney of Mississippi State will be available in round one.
Finally, defensive back seems to not be a bad word for the first time in a very long while. Safety Harrison Smith has proven to be a solid anchor to the secondary. It appeared that cornerback Josh Robinson improved. It was evident that cornerback Xavier Rhodes is a keeper. Captain Munnerlyn was up and down. Blanton at minimum makes a lot of tackles.
*Cornerback Trae Waynes of Michigan State might be taken in the mid-first round.
And so we watch the final game hopeful for our first divisional win. We do not like Chicago. We keep an eye on our young players. We prepare to say goodbye to others.
And wait another year.....
2014 started with promise. A 34-6 win over a depleted St. Louis Rams. Adrian Peterson primed to carry Minnesota to a better place. Green Bay in trouble. A new and improved defense. Teddy Bridgewater.
And then reality.
Some things have not changed since Mike Zimmer took over for Leslie Frazier. Minnesota's defense is still surrendering over 40% conversion on third downs. The passing game is woeful, with our starting quarterback possessing a 75.0 passer rating. Minnesota is 0-3 vs. the NFC North, averaging losing by 18 points per game.
Minnesota's offense is 28th in scoring. 30th in yardage. 29th in passing. 12th in rushing.
It is clear that the offensive line is much to blame for the inadequacy of the offense. All three QBs Minnesota has put behind center were beaten and bruised. Matt Cassel was injured early. Christian Ponder pounded into submission. Even rookie Bridgewater has to be thinking his Louisville O-line did a better job protecting him.
It hurts that Adrian Peterson, possibly the best running back to ever wear purple, has been absent since the earliest part of the season. The loss of AP due to child abuse charges has hurt more than a season-ending injury would. It has damaged the faithful fans. How can we have hope for our team without Peterson? How can we cheer for him? The story only has gotten darker and more painful. It has challenged our morals as fans.. something we do not like to do. Sports is supposed to be our escape from all that.
Minnesota's receiving corps is pitiful. Greg Jennings, signed to a large contract in 2013, leads the team with 36 catches in 10 games. His two receiving touchdowns are also tops on the team. Considering the Vikings barely average more than a half of a touchdown pass per game, two is pretty good. Tight end Kyle Rudolph's promising season a mirage. Cordarrelle Patterson has 28 catches and one touchdown, and now can be found on the sideline as often as the field. In fact, Charles Johnson appears to be our best threat at wide receiver. He of 12 catches, 147 yards, and 0 touchdowns.
It is bad. However, there is a few bright lights.
The defense has shown life. If you remove the 42-10 loss to these same Packers in Lambeau, Minnesota has averaged giving up less than 20 points per game. That is a large improvement from 2013. Everson Griffen has 9 sacks, Harrison Smith 4 interceptions, and rookie Anthony Barr among team leaders in tackles and sacks.
The Vikings, while 0-3 and a -54 in point differential vs. North opponents, are 4-3 with a plus 15 versus the rest of the NFL. Only two teams dominated Minnesota: New England and Green Bay. It those two ended up in the Super Bowl few would be surprised.
The Vikes remaining schedule is not too tough. Sure facing the Packers right now is near lethal, but it is at home, where Minnesota overcame a hot Falcons team earlier in the season. And the following two games are also at home; and the Panthers and Jets are teams looking UP at the 4-6 Vikings. After road games at Detroit and Miami, Minnesota finishes at home against the Bears.
To make the playoffs Minnesota would probably have to go 6-0.
To claim respectability, Minnesota might have to go at least 4-2.
To obtain an early draft pick, the Vikings must lose near every game.
If Minnesota were in the NFC South this year, they would be tied for first place with Atlanta and New Orleans. But they are not. Instead, we are three games back of the co-leading Lions and Packers. And with three games remaining versus divisional opponents, resignation that 2014 is another building year is all we have.
Minnesota faces today the team that has thrived off of smart administration, solid coaching, receivers who make plays, and impeccable quarterback play. If fans look close enough, they may see that Green Bay does not have a better defense. They do not have a better offensive line. Special teams are similar. Not much else is different.
Yet we are leagues apart.
Until that changes, fans in purple will remain unhappy.
Minnesota fans who are a bit older remember the glory years of the Purple People Eaters. Even those that do not must understand how good the defense was to even have a nickname. In the modern era of the NFL few teams did. In the 1970s there was the "53" No Name Defense of Miami and the Steel Curtain of Pittsburgh. In the 1980s the 46 blitzing Monsters of the Midway won Chicago a Super Bowl. The Baltimore Ravens had an impressive run resulting in a Super Bowl win in the 2000 NFL season. In that Ray Lewis led season, Baltimore surrendered 23 points in four playoff wins.
But Minnesota might have had the best defense of all-time.
In 1969, the Vikings defense surrendered 133 points in 14 games. Only one opponent scored twenty points or more. Minnesota's defense was first overall in points allowed. They would repeat that feat in 1970 and 1971. Minnesota gave up 143 and 139 points the next two seasons. In fact, Minnesota would go 41 straight games giving up less than 24 points from 1969 to 1971.
After a slip in 1972, Minnesota's defense finished 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd the next four years. During those four years (1973-76) Minnesota went to three Super Bowls. The defense was so opportunistic that Minnesota's offense scored in the top ten each of those years.
Of course no Super Bowl wins.
Since 1976 Minnesota has had only one defense that finished in the top four in the NFL. In 1988 they finished 2nd overall, having improved from 1986 and their 5th place finish. That defense helped Minnesota make it to the Conference Championship in 1987, falling short to Washington. The 1998 Vikings were so good offensively that the '98 defense finished 6th overall. That team lost in OT in the home NFC Conference Championship to Atlanta.
That is it.
Presently the 2014 Vikings defense is 12th overall in points surrendered per game. They have allowed 47 points in the last three games, or 15.6 points per game. The fact that their opponents were a wounded Lions team, and two lesser offenses in Buffalo and Tampa Bay should not deny the idea that Minnesota is starting to improve defensively.
And it is not in just points allowed that our Purple prowess is appearing. Minnesota is 2nd in the NFL in sacks with 25.0. Everson Griffen has had sacks in four straight games and is 3rd overall in the NFL with 8.0. Harrison Smith has three interceptions which ranks him tied for third overall. Linebacker Anthony Barr leads the team with 77 tackles, and had the winning defensive touchdown in overtime last week, a franchise first.
Washington arrives with Robert Griffin III returning to the helm. Washington is also 3-5-0, and is riding the high of knocking of a very good Dallas Cowboys team (in Dallas) and hurting Tony Romo in the process. If a 3-5-0 team can riding high.
Sunday should let one of these two teams know for near certain that they will not be playoff bound in 2014, while the winner can hold on to hope. Minnesota has one of the easiest schedules remaining, and with the defense growing up quickly, could make a run in the second half of the season.
If only we could improve our 29th ranked offense....
These two teams are bad.
Minnesota and their 2-5-0 record travel to 1-5-0 Tampa Bay for an early season basement battle. Both teams have spent the better part of the last five years in their division's cellar. 2014 appears to be no different.
Tampa Bay is in the bottom five in rush offense and pass defense, the bottom ten in pass offense and rush defense. In other words, they stink at everything. Sure, they have had injuries. They are calling up linebackers from the practice squad, and have to start numerous quarterbacks. You know when Mike Glennon and Josh McCown are fighting for your starting quarterback position that times are tough.
Only three teams have worse records: Oakland 0-6, Jacksonville 1-6, and the N.Y.. Jets 1-6.
Minnesota, on the other hand, has much better rankings. Our rush offense, despite missing Adrian Peterson for weeks, is ranked tenth in the league. Our pass defense even higher at ninth. Our run defense has fallen to nineteenth, but I am sure most fans would take the drop given the improvement of the aerial defense.
There is one glaring hole for the Purple. Their passing offense is 32nd. That's right, the worst in the NFL. And with the addition of the high-flying offense of Norv Turner, the drafting of savior Teddy Bridgewater, and a new mentality with head coach Mike Zimmer, this comes as sour news.
We can, like the Bucs, blame injuries, and losses like missing Adrian Peterson, Matt Cassel, Kyle Rudolph, Brandon Fusco and others. Certainly it has played a part.
But dead last in passing? And why is that enough to cripple a team?
The last few games have felt like our defense was the 300, defending against a horde army with insurmountable advantages. Our third down conversion rate is still an awkward forty percent, but that is seven points higher than the Bucs. Josh Robinson, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith have looked good in the defensive secondary. Or at least way better than 2013.
It has become apparent to most that our offensive line is a large part of the problem. Specifically, we have received little from our highly-drafted outside tackles: Phil Loadholt and Matt Kalil. The interior has also been poor, with Fusco out, and center John Sullivan struggling to maintain, and a rotating door of guards who cannot handle hard pass rushes.
Poor Teddy Bridgewater.
At 2-5-0, Minnesota needs a miracle to make the playoffs. And miracles are hard to come by when they need to start with struggling linemen. The remainder of the 2014 season will probably end up being a showcase for the future of Teddy. Or hopefully, the defense rises to the next level, and helps us win games as opposed to lose them closely.
Not really. Our Purple have what it takes. There is talent there. Jerick McKinnon is beginning to display talent worthy of his draft selection. Bridgewater has shown periods of confidence. Even Cordarrelle Patterson scored last week, and might be removed off the back of Minnesota milk cartons.
A win today would go a long way toward a happier season for fans. It would decry that we are not basement dwellers. If this game were a 'toilet bowl', we are at minimum a team that can't be flushed.
And so with our present losing streak we travel to Tampa Bay, to see if the buck stops here.
Or keeps going and going.
What does Andy Dufresne say?
"Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things..."
The chilling 17-3 loss last week left many purple fans without hope for the 2014 season. They never had much to begin with, but Teddy Bridgewater's play has excited them. And despite losing the best running back the franchise has ever had, their only veteran quarterback, and a tight end that was projected to be very good this season, fans had held on to hope.
The loss to a Lions team without Calvin Johnson or Reggie Bush meant no playoff dreams. A home loss to a divisional rival is the proverbial 'nail in the coffin'. Minnesota was now 2-4-0 and looking up at three teams in the NFC North, each presently playing better than our purple.
Or did it?
Hope never dies in the truest of fans. Until mathematical elimination, there always remains hope.
By now three-fourths of the loyal fans have resigned themselves to watching Bridgewater grow up. Their attention turned to an offensive line that was supposed to be one of the few known strengths this team had. After the Lions battered Bridgewater about, it became a realization that this offensive line is going to get someone killed. And while it is important for Bridgewater to show courage, we need him to stay healthy.
Never mind they had allowed Matt Cassel to be battered. Or Christian Ponder before him. When the future of the franchise is getting walloped, people will point fingers very quickly.
And the fingers are pointing all over.
Some are pointing at the two tackles: Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt. Kalil was chosen with the third overall pick in 2012, and after an impressive rookie season, has been suspect. Loadholt, chosen 54th in 2009, is a running game stud, but when Adrian Peterson disappears, so does Loadholt's value. He is presently exposed as a poor outside protector.
Finger are pointing at the guards: Charlie Johnson and Vladmir Ducasse. A lot of blitzes from the interior have resulted in problems for Minnesota. Ducasse is filling in for injured Brandon Fusco, while Johnson starts another year at left guard while 2014 draftee David Yankey observes.
Even center John Sullivan is receiving criticism. Sullivan was drafted with the 187th pick in 2008, and had become a solid starter since 2009.
Whatever fingers are left are finding targets like wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and friends, as difficult as they have been to find. Certainly the loss of AP has changed opponents' approaches to handling the Vikings' offense. Blitzing Minnesota and manhandling the receiving group appears to be a successful strategy.
So why hope?
Because we can.
I see Teddy Bridgewater carving up the Buffalo secondary like Tom Brady did a week ago. Did you know they have the same initials? I see two 1-5-0 teams on the horizon in Tampa Bay and Washington. And us staring at 5-4-0 before the bye.
I know that my my team needs to address offensive line.. but now is not the time. I would point to the great teams of the past being centered around great offensive linemen. From Ron Yary and Ed White, to Randall McDaniel and more. I would hope that Vikings' brass, now having found their savior at quarterback, will spend valuable draft choices on people to protect him.
But all that talk gets in the way of hope.
For those of us left.
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