Are the Minnesota Vikings a Playoff Team?
The Minnesota Vikings have become an internet meme. After losing their star running back in one of the strangest fashions imaginable and having their starting quarterback go down for the year with broken bones in his foot, the Vikings have seen some stuff (this is a family site).
Despite all of the "stuff," the Vikings still find themselves a game behind Detroit in the NFC North with a huge game tonight against the Packers. The defense has decided that, yes, tackling is a good thing, and Teddy Bridgewater is already the second coming of Fran Tarkenton. Does this mean the purple people eaters have a shot at the playoffs?
To evaluate this, we'll use numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) data. This is a measure of efficiency based on the number of expected points added to a drive on each play. You can read more about NEP in our glossary. These numbers will show that the question may not be as outlandish as it seemed before the season.
Credence to Bridgewater's Revival
For the first two-and-a-half games, the Vikings' passing game had gone full-on drunk puppy mode. This is a mode you should attempt to avoid unless you are averse to happiness.
Prior to his injury, Matt Cassel had a Total NEP (which takes into account all drop backs and rushing attempts) of -7.72. Among quarterbacks with at least 75 drop backs, Cassel had the third-worst Passing NEP per play at -0.09, ahead of only Derek Carr and Chad Henne. This mark was also worse than Christian Ponder's -0.06 Passing NEP per play last year, and brudduh couldn't even buy a snap in the preseason. It was time to unleash the kraken.
When Cassel came up gimpy after being stopped short while trying to rush for a first down, the Vikings' sideline shook. Players, coaches and trainers looked at each other with concerned expressions, wondering what was causing the disturbance. Then, from the (artificial Superdome) Earth beneath them emerged a man wearing a long cloak and a calm expression. As the man shed the cloak, a number five started glowing on the front and back of his clean, white jersey.
Midnight had struck on Teddy Time.
What Bridgewater has done since then has been nothing short of googly-eye-inspiring. In just a game and a half, Bridgewater has tacked on a Total NEP of 22.47. That's nutso, homies. Among quarterbacks that have attempted at least 50 passes, Bridgewater ranks fourth in Passing NEP per play behind Derek Anderson, Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers. All of this with those skinny legs that made him undraftable.
Not only was Teddy forced to make his first NFL start without Peterson, but he was also lacking tight end Kyle Rudolph after sports hernia surgery. His top target was Jarius Wright, who isn't quite Jerry Rice Part II. Give Teddy more time to develop a rapport with Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and a healthy Rudolph, and this offense could really click.
The question now becomes whether or not Bridgewater can sustain an above-average pace for the rest of the season. He doesn't need to be as good as he was against the Falcons, and he shouldn't be expected to be. However, based on what we knew about Bridgewater even before Sunday should indicate that that game was no fluke.
numberFire's Brandon Gdula took an in-depth look at Teddy's rest-of-season projections and concluded that success was to be expected. So it looks like Teddy Two Gloves could be here to stay, assuming his ankle injury doesn't nag too long.
So with the passing issues possibly improved for the Vikings, that certainly makes their playoff prospects more promising. But what about the rest of the team? Can they help elevate a team with a rookie signal-caller into the playoffs?
The Post-Peterson Ground Game
Losing Adrian Peterson was a pretty big blow for the Vikings. Dude was the center-piece of the offense, and nobody would have blamed them if they had completely pooed the bed after his deactivation. However, they've actually been all right ever since.
Overall, the team ranks eighth in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. Although we found in January that this doesn't have a high correlation to win total, it has to help a young quarterback to have a solid ground game to lean on. The guys behind McKinnon have stepped up for sure.
Let's play a little game of blind résumé. Below is a chart of the top three Vikings running backs and their rushing metrics for the season. I'll let you guess which is which. The area that says "rank" represents where the player ranks in Rushing NEP per play among running backs with at least 20 carries this year. Success rate is the percentage of carries that result in a positive NEP.
|Player||Rushes||Rushing NEP||Success Rate||Rushing NEP per Rush||Rank|
As you've probably guessed, Player A is Matt Asiata, Player B is Jerick McKinnon and Player C is Peterson. Peterson's one game came against the Rams, who currently rank 21st in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. He was not very good at all in that game. Obviously, Asiata and McKinnon aren't an upgrade, but they're not as much of a drop-off as most would have expected.
The Zimmer Affect
Last year, the Vikings' defense made the Cowboys look stingy. While they're not exactly the '85 Bears, they're at the very least much improved.
The biggest issues arose last year when opponents went to the air. The defensive backs' highlight film was set to circus music. They made Brian Hoyer look like Peyton Manning. It was tough-sledding to say the least.
This season, the Vikings rank 11th in against the pass on a per play basis and 15th versus the run. Again, this isn't Earth-shattering. But the difference between 2013 and 2014 is significant. They will see a big test to that defense tonight and next week when they face the Packers and Lions respectively. The three games after that, however, are against Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Washington. If they can avoid losing both of these next two games, the Vikings could be cookin'.
What the Projections Say
While numberFire's algorithms aren't fully aboard the Teddy Train, they're also not dismissing the Vikings' chances at the post-season. Minnesota sits 22nd in numberFire's Power Rankings and is projected to win right around eight games this year. That's certainly better than 5-10-1 last year.
As far as their shot at the playoffs, they are currently at 26.8 percent. That's actually higher than the Packers, who are 20th in the rankings, at 25.7 percent. The Bears are ranked 16th with a 28.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. Detroit is sixth overall and is at 63.5 percent. So after looking at that, it's very clear that the division is still up for grabs. Why not the Vikings?
Well, unless things improve even more on defense and Bridgewater keeps up his torrid pace, this may not be the year. While the defense is certainly better, it may not be good enough to compensate for an offense that has the potential to struggle still. What is blatantly clear, though, is that they can't make a run without Bridgewater scorching the Earth. And that's an awful lot to ask of a rookie, even if he is the tastiest gosh durn rookie in the history of this beautiful planet.