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.

Jets in the playoffs? It’s not as crazy as it sounds

History tells us one of six very bad teams from last year will make it to the 2015-16 NFL Playoffs. But can we trust it?

When thinking about the playoffs, some teams just seem like a lock even before the season starts. Betting on the Patriots, Packers, Colts, or Seahawks won’t lose you any money this year. But I’ll be keeping a close eye on a small handful of teams that seem like a lock to miss the playoffs, because a recent trend suggests one (maybe even two) of them will shock the NFL.

The teams we’re talking about here are the Jets, Redskins, Jaguars, Raiders, Titans, and Buccaneers. Six teams with one thing in common: they’re bad. Or at least, they were bad in 2014-15. They all won four games or less. And if you watched them play, you don’t need me to tell how bad they actually looked.

Going back to the 2005-06 season, at least one very bad team (4-12 record or worse) made it to the playoffs the next year. Except for one time, which we’ll get to later. That leaves eight of the last nine seasons where a team or two made an incredible turnaround. In five of those eight seasons, two teams made it back, including 2010 through 2012.

In 2010-11, the Broncos and Bengals each won four games but clinched the playoffs in 2011-12 with records of 8-8 and 9-7, respectively. In 11-12, it was the Vikings (3-13) and Colts (2-14) who turned it around to finish with records of 10-6 and 11-5. And in 2012-13, the Eagles (4-12) and Chiefs (2-14) did the same, going 10-6 and 11-5 the very next season. The Eagles even won the NFC East.

So is this trend reliable? Eight out of nine years seems like a strong indicator. If we look back beyond the 2005-06 season, we see this turnaround only occur twice in six years (2003 and 1999). So are those eight years an interesting coincidence or indicative of a new “era” in the NFL, where the draft and free agency helps struggling teams right the ship? What makes this question even more intriguing this year than any other is when we consider that one time (remember from earlier?) out of the last nine where the trend didn’t occur. That was last year.

Will "Gang Green" be the next 4-12 team to make the following year's playoffs?

Will “Gang Green” be the next 4-12 team to make the following year’s playoffs? Photo credit: ESPN.com

The 2013-14 season saw a staggering seven teams go 4-12 or worse (most since 2005), and yet not one of them made it to the playoffs in 2014-15. The Texans (9-7) and Falcons (6-10) came closest. Even at 6-10, Atlanta was just one tiebreaker win away from actually clinching the abysmal NFC South, which Carolina won at 7-8-1. So again we have to ask, was last year a return to the difficulties that “bad” teams had from 1999-2004, or a blip in a new trend of eight straight years of miraculous turnarounds? On the surface, I’m inclined to believe last year was an anomaly in the last decade of the NFL where one-year turnarounds are becoming less and less surprising. Either way, let’s take a quick look at the four most recent teams to be a part of that trend to see if their turnaround came out of nowhere or was a result of some major personnel or system change.

2012-13 Philadelphia Eagles
2012-13 record: 4-12
2013-14 record: 10-6
Result: +6 wins, won division, lost in wildcard playoffs

If you’re having trouble remembering the Eagles around this time, “dream team” may help jog your memory. The hopeful “dream team” was formed in 2011 but instead lived a nightmare on their way to an 8-8 season, then 4-12 the next year. This 4-12 season was the first year we saw Nick Foles play as a rookie after Michael Vick got taken out mid-season due to a concussion. Andy Reid was fired after the season and replaced with now-former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. Vick remained the starting QB, but led Philly to a 1-3 start. In what was perhaps a blessing in disguise for the Eagles, Vick was injured again and replaced with Foles. In 11 games he started*, Foles went 9-2 and led the Eagles to a 10-6 record and the NFC East title. Philadelphia’s return to the top exceeded expectations, but wasn’t completely unprecedented given the offensive overhaul under new coach Chip Kelly. What we couldn’t have seen coming was the early switch to Foles, who thrived under Kelly’s fast-paced passing offense.

*Foles would have started 12, but was replaced by Matt Barkley due to an injury suffered the week prior

2012-13 Kansas City Chiefs
2012-13 record: 2-14
2013-14 record: 11-5
Result: +9 wins, second place in division, lost in wildcard playoffs

The Chiefs were the worst team in 2012, earning the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft (drafted OT Eric Fisher). Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn shared duties at QB, but neither could find success, each earning one win in their eight games. Kansas City fired head coach Todd Haley with three games remaining and was replaced with interim coach Romeo Crennel who finished out the season. Two major offseason additions are generally attributed with the sudden success KC found the very next season. Remember Andy Reid? After being fired from the Eagles (see above), Reid was hired by KC and given a brand new QB to work with in Alex Smith from the 49ers. The Reid-Smith duo clicked immediately, as the Chiefs jumped out to nine straight wins. With a much-improved defense to go with it*, the Chiefs finished with a solid 11-5 record. Much like Philly that year, KC found a solid new head coach and a QB that thrived in his system. The difference is we knew Smith was the guy in KC, so many predicted an improvement. Far less could have predicted they would win nine more games and compete in the playoffs. Nevertheless, there were some distinct changes (including defensive coordinator) from year to year that helped KC turn it around.

*The Kansas City defense shaved off 7.5 points allowed per game from 2012 to 2013 with new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton

2011-12 Minnesota Vikings
2011-12 record: 3-13
2012-13 record: 10-6
Result: +7 wins, second in division, lost in wildcard playoffs

The 2011 Vikings had QB and defensive issues in 2011. Despite Jared Allen setting a franchise record for sacks in a season (22), the Minnesota defense allowed the second most points of any team. The Vikings benched Donovan McNabb after an abysmal 1-5 start and handed the reigns over to rookie Christian Ponder. Ponder didn’t fare much better, winning only one game in eight starts. It didn’t help that 10 games in, Ponder’s 4th start, Adrian Peterson got injured and was virtually unavailable for the rest of the season. It was head coach Leslie Frazier’s first year as coach of the Vikings and kept the job in 2012. In that second try for Frazier, Ponder had a solid season (2935 yards/18 TDs on 62.1% passing) and the defense improved, finishing around the middle of the pack for both points and yardage allowed. But what explains the seven win improvement more than anything was Adrian Peterson’s astounding MVP season, picking up 2,097 yards on the ground, just nine yards away from the NFL record. To say Peterson carried this team would discredit solid contributions from the rest of the team, but it is fair to say he propelled the team to an incredible turnaround season as the heart and soul of the Vikings. Who could have seen such an incredible performance coming? And even if they did, who could have predicted it would launch the 3-win Vikings to seven more wins the following year? A running back can seemingly only do so much for a team, but Adrian Peterson raised the ceiling on just how much a team can improve with an MVP performance. If you were high on Peterson to start the season, you may have expected to see a jump for Minnesota as long as Peterson stayed healthy. But for the most part, this kind of turnaround came out of nowhere.

2011-12 Indianapolis Colts
2011-12 record: 2-14
2012-13 record: 11-5
Result: +9 wins, second in division, lost in wildcard round

I’m not gonna spend a lot of time on this one because we know the story: Andrew Luck. The 2011-12 season for the Colts was a “transition” year, with Peyton Manning sitting out after neck surgery. Pretty much everything fell apart in his absence and after their 2-14 record assured them the first pick in the NFL draft, Indianapolis released Manning and started a new era of Colts football with Andrew Luck. Head coach Jim Caldwell was also let go and replaced with Chuck Pagano. Luck turned out to be as good as advertised and led the Colts to a 11-5 record in his rookie season. With all the hype surrounding Luck around draft time, it wasn’t exactly surprising the Colts improved in a big way. But like many of these turnarounds, a nine-win improvement likely surpassed even the most hopeful of fans’ predictions.

Although this is a small sample, we can see that the turnarounds of these four teams were largely the result of major changes, or in the Vikings’ case a major breakthrough from an elite player. If we went back further, we’d see similar changes in some teams (ex. rookie Andy Dalton leading Bengals to playoffs in 2011, Crennel as DC of Chiefs in 2010, Chad Pennington as new QB for Dolphins in 2008, etc.).

That brings us back to today. Will we see the ninth year in a decade where a “4-wins-or-less” team make it to the playoffs? Seems hard to believe when you just look at the names. Raiders in the playoffs? Titans? Jaguars? My mind has trouble even processing that information.

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will try to lead their respective squads to improbable turnarounds.

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will try to lead their respective squads to improbable turnarounds. Photo credit: TBO.com

Let’s break it down here. Four of these teams have relatively new QBs, either in their rookie or sophomore season. Can rookies Jameis Winston (Bucs) and Marcus Mariota (Titans) have an Andrew Luck-esque breakthrough? They may turn out to be solid players at some point in their career, but I’d personally be shocked if either one could manage to bring their 2-win squads to the playoffs. Many expected the Bucs to be fairly good last season with improved personnel, so perhaps some of those improvements will come to fruition this year. Even so, Winston’s potential success as a rookie is one of the bigger question marks this year.

Sophomores Derek Carr (Raiders) and Blake Bortles (Jaguars) showed flashes of greatness throughout their rookie seasons, but weren’t nearly the caliber QB to carry their talent-deficient teams to a decent record. Jack Del Rio will be the new coach for Oakland, but based on his lackluster history (68-71, 3 playoff appearances), I doubt he can have an Andy Reid-type debut and put the Raiders in the postseason.

That leaves us with the Jets and Redskins, who each went 4-12 last year. Washington is sticking with new coach Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III at QB, though Griffin’s leash seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Griffin hasn’t looked close to as good as he did in his rookie season–largely due to his ACL tear–and more injury issues have seem to set him back further. At the risk of sounding like an overly hopeful (delusional?) Redskins fan, I’ll say that if RGIII can play at a somewhat similar level as his rookie season, I could conceivably see the Redskins having a decent year. They have some good talent in Alfred Morris at running back and an improving defense with LOLB Ryan Kerrigan and sophomore ROLB Trent Murphy. But playoffs? They’d have to beat out a competitive NFC wildcard field that saw the 10-6 Eagles left out of the playoffs last year.

The Jets went through a major overhaul in the front office this offseason, firing GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan, and hiring a new DC and OC. Will new management in GM Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles usher in a successful era of Jets football? And if so, will it start this year with a playoff berth? Again, hard to imagine based on classic Jets luck (or lack thereof), but they did pick up fantastic WR Brandon Marshall from the Bears and reclaimed CB Darrelle Revis from the Pats.

Perhaps an egregious locker room scuffle, sending Geno Smith to the bench with a broken jaw for 6-10 weeks, was the last piece of a bizarre puzzle for the New York Jets. A blessing in disguise, much like when Vick went out to be replaced by Foles? Ryan Fitzpatrick will handle the QB duties for New York for likely the first three weeks of the season. Fitzpatrick is a seasoned veteran, with varying success on five different teams. His best run came in 2011-13, throwing for 3,000+ yards and 23+ TDs for the Bills. In 11 games for Tennessee and 12 for Houston, Fitzpatrick kept his completion percentage above a respectable 62% and his QBR above 50, the best of his career when playing more than four games. He’s not spectacular and he may not win you a Super Bowl ever, but he can play. And after 11 seasons, his football IQ is higher than most. The job is expected to be handed back to Geno when he’s able to return, but I could realistically see a scenario where Fitzpatrick is kept in after a 3-0 start, or even 2-1 if that loss comes in a close game at Indianapolis.

Geno Smith hasn't impressed in two seasons and will look to improve in his third, if given the chance.

Geno Smith hasn’t impressed in two seasons and will look to improve in his third, if given the chance. Photo credit: ESPN.com

It sounds crazy, but if I was forced to choose one of these six teams to make the playoffs this year, it may very well be the Jets. They’ve completely overhauled their coaching staff and management and will see a different QB start the first three weeks, not to mention a new star wide receiver and the return of an elite cornerback. It sounds like they would fit in perfectly with those turnaround teams from above. Big changes, surprising success.

If you are looking to win big money, you may want to place a risky wager on one of these teams you feel confident in. But I wouldn’t advise placing any Super Bowl bets on these teams. Of all 15 teams since 1999 that have completed this particular turnaround season, none have went on to appear in a Super Bowl.

Perhaps you may want to bet against recent history and say none of these six teams will make the playoffs. Let me know if you do, I may just join you.