Can the Vikings really survive this season?

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Are we about to see Sam Bradford’s career defining year?

The past month has been a roller coaster for the Minnesota Vikings. Coming off an impressive NFC North title over their dominant rivals from Wisconsin, the Vikings and their fans had nothing but optimism heading into the 2016 season.

Adrian Peterson, 31, showed no signs of slowing down, despite the feared ceiling of 30-year-old running backs. The 2013 MVP led the NFL in rushing yards last year (1485 yds) and he cracked 10 rushing TDs for the eighth straight healthy year (11 TDs). Coach Mike Zimmer took over in 2014 and quickly delivered results. Minnesota improved upon their 5-10-1 record in 2013 with a 7-9 campaign in 2014. They turned this modest improvement into a huge leap in 2015, going 11-5 and winning the division. Zimmer emits an intelligence and resolve that has Vikings fans appropriately hopeful for the future.

Nobody, however, is more important to the Vikings’ immediate future than Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater didn’t show overwhelming signs of greatness in his sophomore season, but he showed encouraging signs of growth. Even with Peterson aging, he has time to grow and make the team his. Heading into 2016, it wasn’t unreasonable to think a greatly improved year by Bridgewater could lead the Vikes to do something special. And that’s why his season-ending injury in the offseason cast a dark cloud over the fans’ sunny optimism for the next five months.

What followed made things even cloudier, but not immediately darker. Minnesota traded for Sam Bradford, an enigma of a starting QB. Bradford, known for his injury woes, has started a full season twice in his budding career and has thrown for over 20 passing TDs only once. And yet, in the past three years, he’s seen two different teams (Eagles, Vikings) trade quite a haul to bring him in. Minnesota gave up a first-round pick in 2017 and another conditional pick in 2018, causing fans and the media to wonder why Minnesota was putting their bright future at risk for such an unproven QB. Like all questions in sports, this one has been quickly put to rest because of winning (for now).

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Peterson didn’t have a great rushing start to the season, but his injury still leaves a huge hole to fill.

The Vikings won their season opener without Bradford (who was still picking up the playbook), but then thrust him into the challenging role of beating Green Bay. They asked not only he win over their hated rival, but that he do it in the first game of their brand new stadium, a structure as symbolic of Minnesota’s bright future as anything or anyone.

He won that game and played great while doing so. He looked as good (likely better) as he ever had in St. Louis or Philly. Adrian Peterson was injured during the game, but for a brief time, things looked great for the Vikings again. That optimism has once again been put on hold after news on Wednesday confirming a torn meniscus for Peterson, an injury that will require surgery and put him out for 3-4 months.

Peterson is out and Bridgewater is gone. Even without just those two, the team looks and feels very different from the one Minnesota fans expected this season. Yet so far, the results have been perfect. Other pieces of the team like the defense and Zimmer have held steady on this wild roller coaster. How long can Minnesota continue to survive?

It feels as if the darkness is still coming, even if beating Green Bay feels like a Super Bowl win. A lot of it rests on the shoulders of Bradford and the defense, but nobody has a tougher job than Mike Zimmer. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to find out a lot about who he is, who this team is, and who they might become down the road.

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A lot can change in seven weeks: A quick look back, then ahead

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Green Bay used to be the team to beat. Now they’re being beat and will have to fight for a division that looked locked up. Photo credit: ESPN.com

One of my favorite things about every NFL season is how we form a framework of the league in our heads, using what we watch and our own preconceptions to position teams. Power rankings are a perfect example of this. The standings reflect wins and losses, but power rankings try to explain who these teams really are based on what we’ve seen. Nobody in the history of the league has ever agreed on one Power Ranking list. Our frameworks are all different and they change all the time.

My absolute favorite part about all this is how soon these beliefs become deeply entrenched. After just five weeks, we think we know who these teams are. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong. I wish we had the ability to show our Week 5 selves what we’re saying now. Take, for example, the conversation I overheard today between a couple of guys about the Green Bay Packers:

“How about the Packers? Wow.”

“Yeah they’re awful now. No chance against Minnesota.”

Imagine telling that to somebody after Week 5! Green Bay was arguably the best team in the league at that point and looked poised to meet the Patriots in the Super Bowl after cruising to a 13-3 regular season. Now they’re “awful.” Now, that’s obviously a bit of an overreaction but it still illustrates how quick things can change. That may sound obvious, but just think about how confident you are in some teams right now. What if I told you the division-leading Vikings would miss the playoffs completely? Last year, the 7-2 NFC East leading Eagles were in the same position and ended up falling short of the postseason.

The season moves so fast and we’re unable to appreciate some of the trends and changes that form the league. Here at the start of Week 11, I think this is a good place to take a quick look back at where we were in Week 5 and then see where we might be in Week 17.

Seven weeks ago…

Real Clear Sports does a good job of gathering all the different Power Rankings from major sports sites and creating an aggregate list. This smooths out some outliers and gives us a good idea of what the public generally thinks of the league. Click here if you want to view the full Week 5 rankings yourself. Some things I noticed:

To me, the Patriots and Packers were clearly the two top dogs. They were hardly the only undefeated teams–there were six–but they were dominating opponents consistently, had two of the best QBs in the league, and performed as elite teams consistently throughout the decade. We were used to these guys being on top and they were on top again.

With Green Bay dropping three straight and relinquishing their division lead to the Vikings, who are the top dogs now? New England sure seems to have a stranglehold on the league’s top spot. While I’d agree that Carolina owns that second spot, I don’t think they’ve quite yet reached the caliber that Green Bay and New England appeared to have in those opening weeks. Green Bay is still a solid team, but their recent tumble has left the Patriots all alone.

On the other side of things, you may remember a few teams getting off to rocky starts. Chicago dropped three straight to begin the season on the way to 2-3. They were getting blown out in their losses and Cutler even got knocked out in the second week to make things look really grim. But pay attention to who some teams lose to because it could tell us something. Chicago lost to the Packers (6-3), Cards (7-2), and Seahawks (4-5), a pretty tough opening slate if you ask me. Against some easier competition, the Bears have figured some things out and have an outside shot at the playoffs at 4-5.

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All looked lost when Jamaal Charles went down for the year. Instead, Kansas City has won three straight and put themselves in contention for a playoff spot. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Minnesota and Kansas City are a couple teams in a similar position. They started slow (Vikings 2-2, Chiefs 1-4), but have strung together some wins to put themselves in contention. Minnesota is obviously in much better shape, now atop the NFC North at 7-2. But the Chiefs are quietly competing in that large pack of AFC teams gunning for a wildcard spot. They looked dreadful to start the season, but now sit at 4-5, a game out of that sixth spot.

It’s important to note that despite all these changes, most things have remained the same. Carolina, Cincy, and Arizona are still flying high while Seattle and Indy are surprisingly struggling. The NFC East was thrown into chaos with early injuries to Romo and Dez and somehow it seems like we’re dealing with even more questions today. We can expect a lot to stay the same in the next seven weeks of the season, but what has the potential to flip the script?

Seven weeks from now…

It’s all about playoffs. Seven weeks from now will be Week 17, right on the brink of deciding the final playoff spots.

Are five of the six NFC spots pretty much decided? Arizona (1) and Carolina (2) look to be well on their way to division titles, while Minnesota (3) and Green Bay (4) look to have the NFC North and first wildcard spot locked up. Atlanta (5) is two games ahead of any other NFC team for that final wildcard spot. They’ve struggled lately, but still look far more promising than the other NFC wildcard contenders. That leaves the last spot to be decided by how the NFC East shakes out. The teams in that division are so dysfunctional, there’s plenty of people suggesting that the return of Romo can propel the Cowboys to run the table and steal the division. They’re 2-7 right now and would be the first of their kind to ever clinch a playoff spot. Could we see a major change in that division? Will two teams emerge in a couple weeks or will it remain the jumble it is now by Week 17? Also, don’t count Atlanta in quite yet. I’m interested to see how Seattle competes down the stretch. They had a great second half in 2014 and another good run could launch them right back into the playoffs despite their 4-5 start. They are certainly capable of stringing together some wins.

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I’m personally most interested in the Arizona-Seattle dynamic. Has Arizona officially replaced Seattle or are we just being tricked? Photo credit: ESPN.com

In the AFC, there’s a major win equality crisis. Three teams (Cincy, Denver, New England), own 90% of the conference’s wins while the rest share the remaining 10%. Ok so it’s not quite that bad, but those teams look to have their division just about wrapped up. The fourth division, the AFC South, is in flux much like the NFCE is. The Colts, Texans, and Jags are all right there at four wins. The last two wildcard spots are where things get messy. The Steelers and Bills own them for now, but expect that to change with every passing week. There’s a pack of six other teams just one game out of that sixth spot. I’m really interested to see how this race shakes out. I expect three or four teams will remain afloat long enough to have a shot in their final game. The question is, who will it be? Keep an eye on Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Kansas City.

Every week we see a little bit more and adjust our image of the league. The playoffs are great, but try and appreciate these next few weeks of football. The race is heating up and we’re in for the best part of the NFL. Anything can change.

Four very different teams left, but they all have one thing in common

Seattle likes to punish you with the run and swarms to the ball on defense. Green Bay relies on hanging large numbers on the scoreboard, using their top-scoring offense (30.3 points/game). New England will beat you in any way possible using the veteran leadership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. And Indianapolis doesn’t have a whole bunch of playmakers, but they have one guy who leads the top passing offense in the NFL. They are the last four teams left in the NFL Playoffs. Despite their differences, they all have one thing in common and it’s a huge reason why they’re here: they have a great QB.

Quarterbacks run the NFL and it's why you see four great ones left.

Quarterbacks run the NFL and it’s why you see four great ones left.

To win meaningful games in the NFL, you need to be great at the QB position. You can fly through the regular season just fine without a great one, just look at Philadelphia or Cincinnati. But if you want to be a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl, a great QB is an absolute must. Or at the very least, a great playoff QB. And it’s been that way for about the past decade. Here is a quick list of the past eleven Super Bowl QBs:

Tom Brady (2)
Ben Roethlisberger (2)
Eli Manning (2)
Peyton Manning
Drew Brees
Aaron Rodgers
Joe Flacco
Russell Wilson

Most of those are unquestionably elite QBs. The only ones who may not amaze at first glance are Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson. But if you take a look at those three guys’ playoff performance, you’ll see why they were invaluable to their team. Flacco threw 11 TDs and 0 INTs on the way to winning Super Bowl 47. An absolute tear. Wilson’s numbers won’t jump out at you (524 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs in three games), but his ability to extend a play with his feet and make the smart decision just doesn’t show up on paper. You have to watch him to see just how important he is to Seattle. As for Eli, he’s never been a spectacular regular season QB. But once again, much like Flacco, he lights it up in the postseason. In his two playoff runs, Manning threw 15 TDs and only 2 INTs. That’s quite a feat for a guy considered to be an “interception machine” in the regular season. It’s worth noting that Manning dealt with the worst ranked rushing offense in 2011 and Flacco had an average defense (17th) behind him in 2012. If your QB isn’t one of the best, he better play like it when it counts. And that’s exactly what these three guys did.

No matter what happens, this won't be the last time Wilson or Rodgers sees the playoffs.

No matter what happens, this won’t be the last time Wilson or Rodgers sees the playoffs.

The other names on the list are just consistently outstanding performers. And what happened to the guys that weren’t good enough? Andy Dalton. Done in round 1. Matt Stafford. Done in round 1. Ryan Lindley. Done in round 1. See a pattern? They all lost to QBs better than them. The only exception would be Flacco over Roethlisberger in the first round, though even in that game Big Ben was outplayed.

So now here we are. Luck vs. Brady, Wilson vs. Rodgers. With great QBs at the helm for all four teams, it’s now the time to see who has the best team. Last year, I don’t think anyone would have taken Wilson over the MVP Peyton Manning, but Seattle was clearly the better team. It’s a team sport. Probably the biggest team sport out of the major four. Yes, you need a great QB to win the Super Bowl, but that’s because you need a great QB to even give you a chance first.

Sunday’s games, which I think will be fantastic, will give us the best indication so far as to who is solid all around. Indianapolis looks to be at a disadvantage at first glance, relying on Andrew Luck nearly all season to carry a below-average rushing attack and average defense this far. A much more rounded New England team should win that one, but does Luck have the magic? Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the league right now by my estimation, but can he handle the noise of Seattle or, more importantly, their vicious defense? I had the Pats and Hawks in the big game before the postseason began and nothing’s really changed for me. Those look like the best teams in the NFL, but we’ll find out the true story Sunday.

May the best team win.