Are the Minnesota Vikings Legitimate NFL Playoff Contenders?

With how Teddy Bridgewater has played, this Vikings team may ride into the playoffs once again on the back of Adrian Peterson alone.

My relationship with my girlfriend’s father is a testament to the idea that you don’t have to agree with someone to respect him. He is a staunch conservative, and I’m a very vocal progressive. He’s a firearm instructor who goes buck hunting annually, and I’m a pacifist who last shot a rubber band at my cat. He listens to Rush Limbaugh in his truck, and I listen to a podcast where comedians play Dungeons & Dragons while riding my bike.

Yet, I was almost less worried about those beliefs being accepted than another.

Like the NFL Shop commercials, I wondered if a Green Bay Packers fan could make it in a Minnesota Vikings family.

Fortunately, I get more ridicule for defending Karl Marx than I do Aaron Rodgers, so we’re in the clear there. Yet I haven’t been able to dish it back lately, with the Vikings sitting above the Packers at the top of the NFC North standings. If things don’t change soon, the holidays may be pretty unbearable.

For my own sanity, and peace in the family, are the Vikings, currently 7-2, legitimate playoff material?

The Teddy Bunch

We know that it hasn’t been all roses and rainbows in the North Star State for the past few years, with the Vikings’ complete offensive collapse last season due to off-the-field issues for running back Adrian Peterson. Their last playoff appearance came in 2012 against the Packers, and they had to claw and struggle their way to even earn a 10-6 record that year thanks to the likes of Christian Ponder and Joe Webb leading the team.

Where do the Vikings of 2015 stand in comparison to their recent iterations? Is this team actually improved from last year?

We can find this out by using a simple, but illuminating, metric pioneered right here at numberFire: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows the Vikings’ team totals in Adjusted NEP and rankings over the last five years. 2015 totals will be pace extrapolations. Remember: negative totals for Defensive NEP are good.

How fearsome are today’s Vikings?

Year Adj. Pass NEP Adj. Rush NEP Adj. D Pass NEP Adj. D Rush NEP
2011 -49.47 (27th) 47.93 (3rd) 97.01 (31st) -27.63 (5th)
2012 29.75 (16th) 43.92 (3rd) 84.07 (28th) -22.62 (8th)
2013 -30.54 (24th) 38.66 (2nd) 107.61 (31st) 12.87 (22nd)
2014 -7.75 (28th) 18.30 (3rd) 49.71 (17th) 20.42 (28th)
2015* 8.57 (29th) 31.00 (6th) 56.20 (12th) 7.32 (20th)

The 2015 Vikings are certainly a lot more in sync across the board than recent iterations. It’s stunning to think that the pace they’re on this year would see the first positive Adjusted Passing NEP score by the team since 2012. The defense has seen marked improvement under head coach Mike Zimmer as well, with its first top-half finish in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP in this decade and a resurgent run defense.

Still, a team in the bottom five of passing value without a dominant defense seems like an unlikely candidate to be 7-2, let alone a strong playoff team.

The only team to make the playoffs in the last five years with an equal or worse passing attack was the 2011 Denver Broncos (ranked 29th in Adjusted Offensive Passing NEP), led by Tim Tebow, and they had shockingly similar rankings to this year’s Vikings in Adjusted Defensive NEP (17th in both Passing and Rushing).

The only other recent playoff team with such a stunted aerial attack was the 2010 Chicago Bears (ranked 28th), who had a stellar defensive unit that season; they were 5th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP and 6th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP.

Those Broncos made it to the Divisional Playoffs on the heels of some Tebow overtime magic, and the Bears earned a berth in the NFC Championship, each winning one game those playoffs. Two out of 60 teams aren’t great odds, however.

All in the Family

A big factor in considering the stability of the Vikings’ position co-leading the NFC North is what their strength of schedule has looked like. If they’ve faced poor teams, their record is hardly impressive. Who have the Vikings played so far this year, and how have they done?

Among their games so far this season, the Vikings have played against just two top-half offenses in the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, who rank 12th and 13th respectively in Adjusted Offensive NEP per play through Week 9.

They have played three top-half defenses in the St. Louis Rams, Denver Broncos, and Chiefs, who are 1st, 2nd, and 12th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.

The only complete team they have come up against this year is the Chiefs, against whom they were able to muster a measly 16 points. In fact, the Vikings have beaten their opponents this year by an average of exactly 3.5 points -- the very definition of “the skin of their teeth.

Can this hold up?

The table below shows the Vikings’ 2015 remaining schedule, along with the rankings of each team through Week 9 by Adjusted NEP per play in Offensive Passing and Rushing, and Defensive Passing and Rushing.

Week Team Adj. Pass NEP Adj. Rush NEP Adj. D Pass NEP Adj. D Rush NEP
11 GB 4th 14th 17th 26th
12 ATL 8th 13th 20th 12th
13 SEA 20th 8th 5th 4th
14 ARZ 2nd 10th 7th 1st
15 CHI 26th 21st 29th 31st
16 NYG 11th 26th 21st 16th
17 GB 4th 14th 17th 26th

Minnesota will get plenty of tests in the second half of the year. The only possibly easy matchup for these Vikings will be the Chicago Bears in Week 15.

The one saving grace for their playoff hopes is that they are facing defenses ranked in the bottom half of the league in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play for five of their seven remaining games. That said, they will face five top-10 offenses by Adjusted NEP per play in that span as well.

The Fresh Princes of Minnetonka

Thanks to a favorable early-season schedule and a second half that can be exploited by a quality run-first team, the Vikings may have a chance at sustaining this run into the playoffs in 2015.

If quarterback Teddy Bridgewater -- who suffered a concussion in Week 9 -- can remain healthy for the rest of the year and keep this passing game mistake-free, running back Adrian Peterson can push this offense into the postseason once more.

The real test will be whether or not the defense can withstand this second half comprised of strikes from Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Marshawn Lynch, Carson Palmer, and Odell Beckham.

Per our algorithms prior to Week 10, we projected the Vikings to finish 10-6, good enough for the first wild-card berth in the NFC. They had a 67.9% chance of making the playoffs with an outside shot at winning the division (33.7%), though they were major Super Bowl long shots at 1.3%. With the Week 10 win, the Vikings have claim to the 3 seed in the NFC.

As unlikely as it seems, stranger things have happened than a defensive team with a strong rushing attack making a deep run into the playoffs.

Just ask the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.