Here we go. The second half of the regular season gets underway today and the Vikings kick it off with a battle against the Washington Redskins in what is the first of five consecutive games against NFC opponents, with four of them coming on the road.
Externally, a lot of weight will be put into the Vikings next two games because A) both opponents – the Redskins and Los Angeles Rams – represent an upgrade in competition from most of what the Vikings saw in the first half of the season and B) the outcomes will determine what's on the line for the Thanksgiving Day game against Detroit. Internally, the two games after the Detroit game – at Atlanta and at Carolina – have the same amount of bearing on the Vikings fortunes as the two games prior to the Detroit game.
The Vikings can take care of business these next three weeks and be in great shape, but dropping the Atlanta and Carolina games could then put them right back in the grind over the season's final few weeks. Or they could stumble through the Detroit game but then recover with big road wins in Atlanta and Carolina to potentially climb back into the driver's seat.
All of it is neither here nor there. What's paramount at the moment is today's game against the Redskins. This is a week-to-week league and the team's singular focus each week is on the upcoming opponent, not the ever-shifting landscape of the conference.
Here are a few final thoughts from the week that was.
Two stout DTs on display
If you love looking in the trenches during the game to find stout playmakers, you will love Sunday's Vikings-Redskins matchup. The Vikings have one of the best nose tackles in the League in Linval Joseph, and his matchup against Redskins center Spencer Long is a key one. Long is expected to be back in the lineup after missing the last two games with an injury. Washington loves to run Robert Kelly between the tackles and throw the ball in the middle of the field, and both of those tasks will be made tougher if Joseph wins his matchup against Long consistently. For the Redskins, Stacy McGee has been a standout performer. He was particularly stout last week in Seattle, as Vikings Radio Network analyst Pete Bercich detailed in this week's film segment on Vikings GamePlan. Rookie center Pat Elflein and the guards to either side of him will have to find a way to take care of McGee in order to give quarterback Case Keenum and the running backs room to operate in the backfield.
Will Griffen, Thielen extend streaks?
Two Vikings are in the midst of impressive statistical streaks entering Week 10. Griffen is the only player in the NFL with at least 1.0 sack in every game this season. He's been limited in practice time this week, so his sack streak could be in jeopardy as the Vikings head to Washington. Thielen is the only NFL player with at least five receptions in every game this season and he'll look to continue that streak against a Redskins defense that allows just under 21 completions a game.
At 6-2 and as division leaders, the Vikings have put themselves in the optimal position – they control their own destiny. But that doesn't mean they can't be helped and wouldn't accept help from other teams to firm up their own standing in the NFC. As we joked about this in the Wobcast, division rival Chicago can help the Vikings out quite a bit over the next three weeks. The Bears play consecutive home games against the two teams chasing the Vikings in the NFC North – Green Bay and Detroit, and then they head to Philadelphia to play the NFC's top seed. Again, the Vikings focus should be on controlling what they can control, which is defeating the Redskins this week. But the rest of us can scoreboard watch, and we should be watching and rooting for the Bears.
Stat of the week
Pass att./Sacks allowed Rush avg./Rush TDs
2016: 276/21 2016: 2.7/4
2017: 277/10 2017: 4.0/7
The Vikings success is buoyed in large part by the success of its defense. But football is the ultimate team game, and the teams that play complementary football are the teams who can sustain success. So as good as the Vikings defense has been, it needs the proper complementary play from the other two phases – the offense and the special teams. The two stats highlighted above illustrate complementary play from the offense. By not allowing sacks and by running the ball efficiently, the offense is possessing the ball and sustaining drives to put up points and to allow the defense to rest. If the offense can maintain this kind of success in these two categories, then you can count on the defense maintaining its success.
Quote of the week
"I believe it's always about the players and not the plays." – Pat Shurmur
Play calling is one of the most commonly second-guessed and criticized aspects of football, especially on the offensive side. A day after the game and in the comfort of an arm chair or office cubicle, it's common and easy for many to question the plays that were called. It's much more difficult to call them in the heat of the moment. When your teams wins, the play calling was great. When your team loses, the play calling was terrible. At the end of the day, the same plays were called in both scenarios. And every play is designed to succeed. Shurmur's perspective is the right one – it comes down to play execution (by the players), not play calling by the coaches. And that is not Shurmur avoiding criticism. That is Shurmur shifting the credit to where it's due – the players.
Too many FGs, not enough TDs – An area of focus for the Vikings in the second half of the season will be red zone scoring efficiency. Through eight games, the Vikings are tied for seventh-worst in the category, with 46.4% of their red zone drives yielding touchdowns. Washington's offense can put points up in a hurry, as was on display last weekend when Cousins and Co. drove needed just 35 seconds to drive 70 yards in four plays for the game-winning touchdown. With that being the case, a bunch of field goals may not do the trick for the Vikings. When in the red zone, the Vikings offense must capitalize by putting six points up on the board.
Redskins YAC – No team has a higher percentage of their passing yards come after the catch than the Redskins. Led by wide receiver and Jamison Crowder and running back Chris Thompson, the Redskins have seen 55% of their passing yardage come via yards after the catch (YAC). Sound tackling is paramount for the Vikings defense this weekend.
Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith – The Redskins are getting solid production from these two edge defenders. Kerrigan (6.0) and Smith (4.5) have double digit sacks combined and can also play the run well. Smith daggered the Vikings in last season's matchup when he intercepted a Sam Bradford pass late in the 4th quarter. With right tackle Mike Remmers having missed practice this week (concussion), the Vikings may need extra help on the right side, which means Riley Reiff may be on his own for most of the day on the left side.
What a versatile player Jerick McKinnon is. He reminds me of another #21 – Terry Metcalf. It looks like Shurmur is using our own #21 in much the same way. With our running back by committee approach, I can see McKinnon driving defensive coordinators nuts as the season heads into the stretch. Thoughts?
-- Geoff Hansplant
Since Dalvin Cook went down with an injury in Week 4, not many Vikings have stepped up their game to the degree Jerick McKinnon has. He is the only player in the NFL with 20+ receptions, 400+ scrimmage yards and four-plus touchdowns since Week 5 and he's done that while seeing 60.4% of the offensive snaps, sharing time with fellow back Latavius Murray. I won't speak for opposing defensive coordinators and say they've being driven nuts by McKinnon, but I will say it's been impressive and pleasant to see McKinnon pick up so much slack at a time when it was needed.
I think the Vikings can win the NFC North this year with Case Keenum at QB. I don't think we can win the NFC without a healthy Sam Bradford, though. Not Case Keenum, not Teddy Bridgewater. To me, a healthy Sam Bradford is exactly what we need and have needed for a long time to be considered a playoff threat. Thoughts?
-- Corey Hyde
I wouldn't rule out the Vikings winning the division and the NFC with Keenum or with any of the quarterbacks on the roster. This team, time and again, shows resiliency and just goes out every day and works to get better. Time will tell how everything unfolds at the quarterback position. The backbone of the team is its defense, so as long as they stay healthy the Vikings have a chance to attain all of their goals.
I love how the Vikings are winning games and flying under the radar. "Will be winners of NFC North by default" is one thing I heard. No one knows the depth and talent of the depth, which is very exciting to watch. They're also forgetting how battle-tested our team is. Just need to not get ahead of themselves and come out of the bye firing on all cylinders this year! Excited to see how we come out of this tough second half schedule! SKOL!
-- Kyle Alexander Texas
The key is to take it one game at a time. When you are on a team or are a fan of a team that is in contention in the second half of the season, it's easy to pan out and focus on the big picture. The more practical approach, however, is to keep a narrow focus and focus on one game at a time. The Vikings control their own destiny and will remain in that position so long as they take care of their own business and not worry about what other teams are doing or about what people on the outside are saying.
National Television: FOX
Play-by-play: Kevin Burkhardt
Analyst: Charles Davis
Sideline: Pam Oliver
Play-by-play: John Sadak
Analyst: Mike Mayock Local Radio: KFAN-FM 100.3/KTLK-AM 1130
Play-by-play: Paul Allen
Analyst: Pete Bercich
Sideline: Greg Coleman, Ben Leber