The 2017 Minnesota Vikings do not make sense. Before the season began, it seemed this team’s best chance of reaching the playoffs involved replicating the formula it used back in 2015, when it finished 11-5. Minnesota has built through its defense, with a slew of highly drafted players in the secondary and a front four that’s turned into one of the league’s best. On the other side of the ball, the Vikings’ hopes appeared to depend on Sam Bradford staying healthy and rookie running back Dalvin Cook powering the ground game and facilitating a reliable if unspectacular unit.
Instead, Cook tore his ACL in Week 4, Bradford hasn’t completed a game since Week 1, and the Vikings still have a 7-2 record that’s built largely on the strength of their offense. After hanging five touchdowns on Washington in Sunday’s 38-30 win, Minnesota is now averaging 24.1 points per game, the 10th-best mark in the league. It headed into Week 10 ranked 11th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA and eighth in passing DVOA. Given the roster that’s in place and the identity this group has maintained for the entirety of head coach Mike Zimmer’s tenure, this high-flying version of Minnesota simply doesn’t compute.
It all starts with the guys up front. The Vikings lost a combined 57.2 games from their offensive line last year, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric, the most of any team this century. After showing some bright spots during a 5-0 start to the 2016 campaign, the offense cratered, failing to hit 20 points in seven of its final 11 games. General manager Rick Spielman spent most of his resources this offseason remaking the offensive line. Tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers both secured sizable deals in free agency, and the front office spent its third-round pick on Ohio State center Pat Elflein. With three new starters installed, Minnesota has found a combination that both works and has stayed relatively healthy. (Remmers missed his first start of the season in Week 10 with a concussion.)
The line has provided the rest of Minnesota’s offense with an opportunity to function, and that’s allowed some of the unit’s skill players to prove how special they truly are. Receiver Adam Thielen delivered another monster outing Sunday—eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown—to add to a season that’s been full of them. Only two NFL players (Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins) have more receiving yards than Thielen’s 793, and only four (Brown, Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald, and Michael Thomas) have more receptions. Thielen has now caught at least five passes in every game this season, making him the only receiver in the league to do so. A former practice-squad player who was cut following his debut training camp in 2013, Thielen represents the best example of how the Vikings have found production in unexpected places, but he’s not the only one.
Only two of this team’s offensive starters (Reiff and receiver Laquon Treadwell) were first-round picks. Treadwell is the lone homegrown first-rounder on the depth chart, but he’s clearly taken a backseat to both Thielen and Stefon Diggs—a 2015 fifth-rounder out of Maryland who’s racked up 500 yards with five touchdowns this fall despite missing two games. Along with Cook, Teddy Bridgewater, and now-Panthers offensive tackle Matt Kalil, Treadwell is one of the team’s recent high-round picks who hasn’t contributed much to this unit’s 2017 success.
With Cook injured, the rushing game has been spearheaded by Latavius Murray (a sixth-round pick who was cast aside by the Raiders after last season) and Jerick McKinnon (a 2014 third-rounder who entered this year as a career backup). With Bradford sidelined, the passing game is fronted by Case Keenum, the journeyman quarterback who tallied 16 turnovers in 10 games played for the Rams last year. Unlike a defense that’s stocked with highly drafted talent (linebacker Anthony Barr, safety Harrison Smith, and corners Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes were all first-round picks), this group does not have the makings of a top-10 unit. Yet here we are.
The Vikings’ toughest call down the stretch—and the one that could define their season—will be whether they choose to roll with Keenum, who threw four touchdown passes in Washington, or Bridgewater under center moving forward. The sight of Bridgewater crying tears of joy as he sat on the bench, not even 15 months removed from a gruesome knee injury that some thought might end his career, was one of the best moments of this NFL season. And the rumblings out of Minnesota are that his return could be more than just a feel-good story. Even with the success that the Vikings have found on offense, Fox’s Jay Glazer reported Sunday that they are mulling a quarterback change. Keenum has performed admirably since taking the reins in Week 2, but the 25-year-old Bridgewater remains the franchise’s quarterback of the future, and Keenum is still prone to baffling decision-making, like on his two second-half interceptions to D.J. Swearinger that kept Washington in Sunday’s game.
It’s also worth noting that the Vikings are about to enter the toughest portion of their schedule. Minnesota has rattled off a five-game winning streak by beating the Bears, Packers (who were without Aaron Rodgers for most of the game), Ravens, and Browns, in succession, in addition to Sunday’s result. Two of its past four victories have come at home. The Vikings’ next four games include matchups against the Rams, Lions (on Thanksgiving), Falcons, and Panthers—the last three of those on the road. On the heels of 2016’s nosedive, Minnesota will have to prove that it can sustain a high level of play against some of the NFC’s best.
Still, Minnesota has gotten more out of its ragtag offense than many would have believed possible given its rotten injury luck, and this unit might even have another level to hit if Bridgewater is inserted into the lineup. This may not be the version of the Vikings that most people anticipated, but it’s the one that has them firmly in control of both the NFC North and their playoff fate. In a season full of surprises, Minnesota riding a banged-up yet red-hot offense to a 7-2 start may be the most unlikely one.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Adrian Clayborn enjoyed a game for the ages against Cowboys backup left tackle Chaz Green. The Falcons’ veteran defensive end was absolutely dominant throughout Atlanta’s 27-7 win over Dallas on Sunday. With stalwart left tackle Tyron Smith sidelined by back and groin injuries, Green started on Dak Prescott’s blind side and was completely overmatched all afternoon. Clayborn finished with six sacks, and appeared every bit as impactful as his gaudy statistics would suggest.
Clayborn, a 2011 first-round pick, has never been known as a pass-rushing specialist. The 280-pounder is big presence who’s always been more stout than spectacular. His six sacks against Dallas make up 21 percent of his career total, a history that Clayborn referenced after the game. “I only have one move,” he told a group of reporters, “and it worked.”
That’s not entirely true, but the point is well taken. Clayborn overwhelmed Green with a mix of straightforward power rushes and counter moves to the outside. The 2015 third-rounder had no answers and was eventually yanked for Byron Bell. By then, though, it was too late. The entire ordeal served as a stark reminder of what Dallas has in Smith. It’s tough for fans to appreciate what an All-Pro left tackle means to a team until he’s not there.
2. The Giants remain an absolute mess, and a 31-21 loss to the previously winless 49ers is the nadir of a lost season. With Odell Beckham Jr. out for the year with an ankle injury, the New York offense always figured to struggle. But that doesn’t explain how a defense that was among the league’s best last season got steamrolled by San Francisco rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard. The Giants secondary—most notably cornerback Janoris Jenkins, fresh off a one-game suspension for skipping practice last week—looked confused all game, regularly allowing receivers to run wide open through the defensive backfield. The Niners’ 83-yard touchdown to Marquise Goodwin midway through the second quarter is a prime example.
A depressing Giants season only seems to be getting worse. Head coach Ben McAdoo said after Sunday’s game that this loss doesn’t change the way he views his job security, but that seems unlikely. At a certain point, it isn’t sustainable for a team that once had playoff hopes to keep looking like this.
3. The New Orleans running game devastated the Bills, and looks to be a solid foundation of this offense. The Saints traveled to Buffalo with a clear game plan against the 17th-ranked run defense, per DVOA, and it worked like a charm. Drew Brees attempted only 25 passes on Sunday as Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara each ran for more than 100 yards, with New Orleans tallying 298 rushing yards with six scores in a 47-10 win.Kamara also hauled in five receptions and continued to double as a focal point in the Saints’ passing game. With Adrian Peterson now in Arizona, New Orleans has found the ideal mix of snaps and roles for Ingram and Kamara. This has given the Saints offense a different feel than several of their high-flying units of seasons past, but it’s worked to perfection. The team’s small-ball approach has been a great way to lighten the load for Brees as he nears his 39th birthday.
4. Bears coach John Fox used one of the worst challenges of all time to turn first-and-goal at the 2-yard line into a touchback that gave the ball to Green Bay. This was almost too horrendous to be real:
Bear down Chicago Bears song added to the Benny Cunningham play/challenge that didn't end well the Bears. Ref's explanation with John Fox, and Mike McCarthy reactions pic.twitter.com/BkwdLU7Ioa— ⓂarcusD (@_MarcusD2_) November 12, 2017
After Chicago running back Benny Cunningham caught a screen pass and ran 23 yards, he dove toward the goal line, hitting the pylon with the ball. Hoping to get the call changed to a touchdown, Fox issued a challenge, a decision worth criticism regardless of the result. Instead of trusting his offense to gain a few inches, Fox sent the refs to the tape, where they saw Cunningham lose control of the ball as he fell to the ground. The Bears gave up what likely would have been six points and turned the ball over. It’s worth noting that the Packers beat Chicago by seven points, 23-16.
5. The final minutes of Jaguars-Chargers were about as weird as a football game can get. On the first play following the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, trailing 17-14 and facing second-and-4 from his own 47-yard line, Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles rolled to his right and slung a pass toward a cluster of four Chargers defenders. The ball was deflected three separate times, then landed in the hands of Tre Boston. Boston went out of bounds, and in most situations this would have sealed a Los Angeles win. But this game was far too wonky to end that simply.
On the initial snap of the Chargers’ ensuing possession, the Jags stripped running back Austin Ekeler and it appeared that safety Tashaun Gipson returned the fumble 38 yards to the end zone for the go-ahead Jacksonville score. Instead, Gipson was ruled down, giving the ball to the Jags on the edge of field goal range. Then, on a second down from the L.A. 22-yard line, Bortles floated a ball for receiver Marqise Lee in the end zone; a flag was thrown on Boston for delivering a hit to a defenseless receiver; that prompted Lee to turn around and dance directly in Boston’s face; that drew another flag, this one on Jacksonville. Of course, Boston’s penalty was later waved off, thereby pushing the Jags out of field goal range and setting the stage for Bortles to throw another pick to Boston on the very next play.
The Jaguars proceeded to somehow force a quick three-and-out, benefit from a roughing-the-passer penalty called against Joey Bosa, tie the game with a 34-yard Josh Lambo field goal, eventually pick off Philip Rivers in overtime, and make a tipped field goal to win 20-17.
Jacksonville scored a 56-yard touchdown on a fake punt earlier in this contest. It was about the 12th-weirdest thing that happened on the day.
6. The Patriots’ running backs did a little bit of everything in a 41-16 victory over the Broncos. Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis racked up 118 combined yards from scrimmage and each found the end zone on offense, but it was their contributions on special teams that truly put this game away for New England. Lewis returned a kickoff 103 yards for a score in the first quarter, managing to stay inbounds despite taking a two-handed shove from Devontae Booker while running along the left sideline. Not to be outdone, Burkhead knifed into the backfield as the Broncos attempted a punt early in the second quarter. He made a textbook block and gave the ball to the Pats on the Denver 30-yard line, setting up a field goal.
New England came into this week ranked 11th in special teams DVOA, and after Sunday’s performance should fall comfortably in the top 10. The Pats have been a fixture there for years, finishing in the top 10 of that category every year since 2010, and among the top five in every season except two. There’s a reason that the Patriots are the Patriots, and it’s because they do the small stuff right all the time.
7. Life as a passing-down back means having to pass block, and Theo Riddick laid one hell of a shot on Browns linebacker Joe Schobert in Sunday’s 38-24 win.
Early in the second quarter, with the Lions trailing 10-3, Schobert came at quarterback Matthew Stafford on a delayed blitz off the defense’s left side. Waiting for him in the hole was Riddick. The second-year linebacker is listed at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds. Riddick is … not. The fifth-year back stands a gentleman’s 5-foot-9 and tips the scales at about 200 pounds. On this play, though, it didn’t matter. Riddick managed to lift Schobert off the ground and eventually drive him to the turf, giving Stafford the extra beat he needed to slide to his left in the pocket and find wideout Golden Tate for a 35-yard gain up the sideline.
8. Cameron Heyward was a terror in an ugly win for the Steelers. The 2011 first-round pick finished Sunday’s 20-17 victory over Indianapolis with only one tackle and two quarterback hits, but he basically lived in the Colts’ backfield for the entirety of the afternoon. Pittsburgh’s defense has been excellent for much of the season, and it seems like every game involves a new member of that unit taking over. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt (who had four quarterback hits of his own Sunday) has been that guy at times. Linebacker Ryan Shazier has, too. This front seven is loaded with difference-makers, and it’s helped define the Steelers’ 7-2 start.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Aaron Donald is straight-up unblockable. I could probably honor Donald in this category every week. The two-time All-Pro tallied another sack in Sunday’s 33-7 win over the Texans, marking the fourth straight game that he has notched at least one. His latest was more of what we’ve come to expect:
The way Donald’s hands and feet always move in concert is incredible. He’s able to knock Xavier Su’a-Filo’s hands away at the snap, rip his inside arm underneath, and explode toward Houston quarterback Tom Savage without ever breaking stride. No one in the league, at any position, is playing better football than Donald is right now.
10. This week in tales of the tape: The Rams have crushed opponents with play-action all fall, and used it to perfection in a rout of the Texans.
Among starting quarterbacks, only two players (Deshaun Watson and Case Keenum) have used play-action on a higher percentage of dropbacks than Jared Goff (27.6 percent). Only Kirk Cousins (139.8) has a higher passer rating on play-action throws than Goff’s 131.3. All three of Goff’s touchdown passes in Week 10 came on play-action throws, and my favorite was the 12-yard strike to Robert Woods late in the third quarter.
On first-and-10 from the 12-yard line, the Rams lined up with trips bunched to the right. At the snap, tight end Tyler Higbee cut across the formation, a simple way to sell the play fake to Todd Gurley even more convincingly. After Goff feigned the handoff to Gurley, Woods made it look as if he was coming behind Goff to run an end-around. Instead, the wide receiver stopped in his tracks and reversed course, leaking open into the right flat and scampering about 20 yards into the end zone.
This is the type of play we’ve come to expect from head coach Sean McVay’s offense: a basic concept wrapped in roughly 10 different wrinkles, each making life easier for a young quarterback and the players around him.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Washington’s Maurice Harris makes the catch of the year.
Harris’s one-handed stab while working against Minnesota’s Waynes on the right sideline was downright majestic. It’s more ridiculous given that Harris was called up from the practice squad a day earlier. Even the fringe guys of an NFL roster have more talent than most of us can comprehend.