From the same person who brought you a piece on how the Vikings could be bracing for their worst start in more than a half-century now comes, less than two weeks later … a different post on how they shouldn’t be counted out of the playoff race?
Yes, that’s me. And yes, this is the volatile and wildly unpredictable NFL — even more so than ever in 2020. But it’s also a function of what we’ve seen in the last two weeks, what we know about the Vikings under Mike Zimmer and other factors. Here are five reasons the Vikings are in the playoff mix with a quarter of the season in the books, even at 1-3.
*With seven teams instead of six now making the playoffs in each conference, the Vikings are really just one game back of a wild card spot.
Take a look at the NFC. Can you imagine two teams (or even one team) from the East finishing above .500? Beyond that, are you sold on the Bears, Rams, 49ers or Saints as foolproof 9-7 or 10-6 teams? I’m not.
Football Outsiders gives the Vikings about a 20% chance to make the playoffs at this moment. That seems fair — a long shot, but a number that nearly doubled from a week ago with just one win over the Texans on Sunday and could climb as the season progresses. I still tend to think they would at least need to go 9-7 to get there. But even that is within reach (more on that in a minute).
*The second half of their schedule looks a lot easier than the first half.
The Vikings will play the Packers (twice), the Colts and Seahawks by the time the first half of the year is over. That’s four games against teams in Football Outsiders’ Top 10 in DVOA (including the Colts at No. 1 entering this week).
In the back half, though, the Vikings have the Lions and Bears twice each, along with the Panthers and Jaguars (plus challenging games against Tampa and New Orleans). But if — a big if — the Vikings play more like they did Sunday than they did in their first two games against that second-half schedule, you can see them stacking up some wins.
*The Vikings might have played their two worst games of the year already.
Teams have clunkers pretty much every season. In a unique and limited offseason, with several new defensive players in the fold, it’s possible the Vikings’ two biggest clunkers came in the first and second games of the season — making them look far worse than they actually are.
I realize that’s being generous in treating 50% of their games so far as outliers, but it does feel like these last two weeks were more indicative of how this team will play much of the rest of the season.
*Mike Zimmer teams tend to get better as the year goes on.
Even when I wrote that piece a couple weeks ago after their 0-2 start, I was cautious because Zimmer’s teams tend to start slow and improve as the season goes on. It’s dangerous to judge his teams too harshly after four games.
Here we find a much larger sample size to suggest this is true and that the outlier — 2016, when they started 4-0 and went 4-8 the rest of the way — to back up the claim. In his five other seasons as Vikings head coach, Minnesota went a combined 9-10-1 in the first four games of seasons (and were never better than 2-2, even in all three of their playoff seasons).
In the final 12 games, they went a combined 40-20 — an average of 8-4 each year. If (again, big if) they went 8-4 this season in the final 12, they would finish 9-7 and be in the hunt for a playoff spot.
*They seem to have found something of a blueprint for how they need to win, at least in the short-term.
Vikings beat writer Ben Goessling addressed this in his morning after post today (always a must-read), suggesting that the offense is finding its rhythm but will need more help from the defense as time goes on.
The bottom line is they have reached 30 points in three of four weeks and could have (should have?) won each of the last two weeks. They are getting enough offense to win. If they can get even a little more defense, which with Zimmer at the helm seems plausible, there is room for improvement.
In the end, the most likely scenario is that the Vikings just aren’t all that good and still have too much ground to make up — and that they will look back on that Week 3 loss to Tennessee that was right there for them to take as one that kept them from being a real threat.
They have very tough games (at Seattle, at Green Bay) in two of the next three weeks, and even betting to the halfway point at 3-5 seems like a challenge. But you can at least squint and see how this season isn’t a lost cause yet — and certainly shouldn’t descend into worst-ever territory.