Have The Vikings Squandered Their Playoff Shot?

Minnesota Vikings ERs Kenny Willekes and D.J. Wonnum
Minnesota Vikings ERs Kenny Willekes and D.J. Wonnum
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 13 - I wanted to write a long, flowery lede for this edition of Any Given Sunday. I really did. When I first realized that the Detroit Lions' 29-27 walk-off win over Minnesota would be the biggest upset of the week, my mind started racing. In my mind, the Lions' first win of the season had to be a fun write-up.

I had every intention of writing this big introduction detailing how Dan Campbell is the Ted Lasso of the NFL. I was going to make the umpteenth joke about kneecap-biting. There would have been a section about how endearing Campbell has made himself to us, whether that be crying during press conferences over how badly he wants his team to win or walking with a smile everywhere he goes like he's the Jolly Honolulu-Blue-and-Silver Giant. Maybe I would have likened Campbell's call-out of quarterback Jared Goff to how Lasso treated top scorer Jamie Tartt. What if I compared his crazy coffee order to Lasso's daily biscuit box? Wouldn't that be wacky?

The more I watched this game, however, the less I felt that introduction fit for a piece like this. As badly as I want this Any Given Sunday to be a celebration of the wayward Detroit Lions mustering up all they had to overcome a superior opponent, that wasn't what this game was. This wasn't a win for the Lions. This was a debilitating loss for a superior Minnesota Vikings team.

In his postgame press conference, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer simply chalked this game up to one that shakes out in the grand cosmos of professional football. "You play all these close games, they're going to come down to win or lose," said Zimmer. "That's just the way the NFL is."

I'm going to refute that claim, Coach. Losses like this don't just happen apropos of nothing. These defeats happen because of a series of mistakes throughout the game, mistakes that in summation crescendo into a walk-off loss for the ages.

When you square the eighth-ranked offense after Week 13 against the 28th-ranked defense, these losses should not happen. Dalvin Cook did not play in this game, but Alexander Mattison held up his end of the bargain. Yes, Adam Thielen left the game in the first quarter, but Justin Jefferson still managed a career-high 182 yards. At some point, this loss comes down to squandered opportunities and poor play calling.

Detroit won this game in part because they took advantage of every opportunity they were given. The Lions' two first-half touchdowns came off big gifts from Minnesota just in time for the holiday season. Detroit's opening touchdown drive saw a 25-yard completion turn into a 39-yard play thanks to an unnecessary roughness penalty from Xavier Woods. That set up a touchdown to T.J. Hockenson two plays later. After a Kirk Cousins fumble gave Detroit the ball back near midfield just two minutes later, the Vikings secondary had a quick lapse in tackling, allowing Josh Reynolds to turn what should have been a 9-yard completion into a 28-yard gain.

The Lions kicked a field goal to make it 17-6, and then Minnesota received the ball with 1:33 left before halftime. The Vikings played with urgency, working the ball down the field to get some kind of score before heading into the locker room. After converting two first downs, the Vikings stalled out at Detroit's 42-yard-line. The plays on that set of downs? Incomplete pass, incomplete pass, incomplete pass, sack for turnover on downs. Minnesota ran four plays and burned 11 seconds off the clock, leaving Detroit enough time to kick one more field goal before halftime.

The Vikings mounted a comeback in the second half, but even that got sullied by offensive mismanagement. Minnesota scored three touchdowns in the second half and went for two on each of them. Their decision to go for two is not a problem. Minnesota tried to cut a 20-15 deficit down to three points, attempted to tie the game when down 23-21, then made an effort to take a six-point lead when up 27-23. All of these are sound decisions, in my opinion.

The play calls on these two-point conversions are what turn sound decisions into nothing plays. The first two attempts were simple inside runs that went straight into the teeth of the defense. Detroit rolled up nearly everyone to the line of scrimmage and sniffed out any run attempt before it even had a chance. The third attempt was a pass by Kirk Cousins off his back foot to a heavily covered receiver in the back of the end zone. If even one of these plays gets exchanged for something slightly more creative, Minnesota at least forces Detroit to kick the extra point to win. If the Vikings had played conservatively and just kicked extra points, the Lions would have needed a two-point conversion of their own just to tie the game and send it to overtime.

Minnesota also received what should have been a game-sealing interception, according to our win probability data listed below. Cameron Dantzler's pick gave Minnesota a first down at their own 31, trailing 23-21 with eight minutes and change to go. The ensuing drive lasted a measly four plays because of penalties. Second-and-5 at midfield eventually became second-and-20 at Minnesota's own 30 because of a holding call and false start on back-to-back plays. The Vikings would punt, and though they later scored a touchdown after a Jared Goff strip-sack, but this was a game dropped by Minnesota.

A few grains of sand are harmless, but a million will bury you.

Where the Game Swung

DET-MIN GWC chart

Qtr Time Down To Go Yard Line WP Change Play
4 0:04 4 2 MIN 11 +80.2% Game-winning touchdown to Amon-Ra St. Brown
4 8:41 3 4 MIN 38 -18.8% Jared Goff intercepted by Cameron Dantzler.
4 2:48 3 2 DET 11 -17.6% Alexander Mattison converts on a third-and-short run up the middle
4 4:08 4 1 DET 28 -17.4% Goff stripped by Blake Lynch, recovered by Lynch at Detroit's 19-yard-line.
2 11:16 2 11 DET 33 +13.9% Kirk Cousins strip-sacked by Charles Harris, recovered by Julian Okwara

If you wanted any indication this was Minnesota's game to lose, check the win probability model. There were 11 plays in this game with double-digit swings in win percentage, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter. Seven of those plays were also negative-win probability plays for Detroit.

Let's talk about the walk-off touchdown for a second. The whole last drive of the game, Minnesota mostly played prevent, allowing Goff and the Lions to make checkdown passes and slowly move their way down the field. On non-spiked passes, Goff went 8-for-10 for 64 yards to set up the final play of the game. Even after Minnesota called a timeout to set up a play with eight seconds left, the Vikings still managed to screw up the last coverage of the game.

Minnesota dropped eight defenders back into coverage, with five defenders in the end zone by the time the ball was released. The only problem with that strategy? This wasn't a Hail Mary. Whoever catches this pass (from 11 yards outside the end zone) just needs to break the plane. The only three defenders actually guarding the goal line were almost exclusively deployed within the hash marks. Amon-Ra St. Brown finds some space and Jared Goff makes the connection.

By the DVOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
MIN 4.0% 3.0% 2.2% 3.2%
DET -14.1% 7.2% -1.2% -22.5%
         
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
MIN 14.5% -10.0% 2.2% 26.7%
DET -11.0% 12.2% -1.2% -24.5%

Even in the loss, Minnesota walked out of this game with the higher DVOA. The Vikings outgained the Lions 6.0 yards per play to 5.2 while also winning the turnover battle. Based solely on performance in this game by DVOA, Detroit had a postgame win expectancy of just 14%.

At least part of that must come from Detroit's appalling third-/fourth-down performance. The Lions managed an eye-popping -148.7% on third and fourth downs. Detroit finished 2-for-11 on third downs with a turnover and 1-for-3 on fourth downs with a turnover. Both third-down conversions came on the Lions' final drive of the game, and the lone fourth-down conversion was St. Brown's game-winning touchdown.

Trouble in the Twin Cities

Vikings fans, I have got good news and bad news. The good news is that the NFC wild-card picture is pretty much wide-open. Two of the three wild-card seeds are up for grabs, with the Los Angeles Rams possessing a two-game lead for the fifth seed. There are currently seven teams in the NFC with records between 6-6 and 5-7. The Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles, who both currently sit above Minnesota, still have two head-to-head matchups left on their schedule. The 5-7 teams tied with Minnesota either have difficult closing schedules (Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons) or are dealing with a slew of injuries (New Orleans Saints).

The bad news? Minnesota doesn't control their destiny anymore, and they absolutely should. Minnesota is currently 11th in total DVOA and ninth in unadjusted VOA through 13 weeks. The Vikings are also our most consistent team with a league-low 3.1% variance. This team is better than their 5-7 record would suggest, but none of that matters after losing to the lowly Lions. Minnesota's Week 12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers certainly hurt the team's wild-card hopes, but a loss to the Lions twisted that knife. We now give Minnesota a 35.7% probability of making the playoffs, down 19.7% from last week. That's the single-biggest drop-off for any team this week.

The Vikings have five games remaining this season, starting off with a Thursday Night Football matchup this week against Pittsburgh. After that, Minnesota has two games against the Bears and games against the Rams and Packers. There's no real way to predict how this slate could pan out. Eleven of Minnesota's 12 games this season have been decided by one score. The Vikings have a habit of playing up (and down) to opponent strength. A full-strength Vikings team could be a threat in the playoffs for that very reason.

That's the thing, though. Minnesota isn't full strength. Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen are both currently dealing with injuries, capping the offensive ceiling for the Vikings. Could Minnesota beat Green Bay? Yes, they have already shown that ability once this year. Is it possible the Vikings drop both games to Chicago? Honestly, I wouldn't put it past them at this point.

Comments

14 comments, Last at 09 Dec 2021, 7:40am

1 answer to the headline: yes

Not that the Vikings were going anywhere in the playoffs if they got there, barring a Minneapolis Miracle set of plays. This game was actually surprising to me that the Vikings didn't get creamed, but that speaks to the weakness of the Lions more than anything. The Vikings D-line is a theory these days with the starters on IR and the core LBs were both out, leaving basically warm bodies in the front 7. And then Thielen went down at the start of the game. Also, did the announces say something about the O-line having reshuffled or 3 players at different positions or something? I was actually surprised the offense didn't crumble. Jefferson certainly can handle more targets as he showed, Conklin seemed fine and Osborn eventually stepped up when Cousins started targeting him.

But yeah, the Vikings playcalling was certainly worse this game than usual, and its normally not very good (outside of the 1st drive scripting for whatever reason). The prevent & with no attempt at pressure at the end was a terrible decision, esp given Goff as QB (my mom calls that scheme 'prevent winning').

I'm always good with the Lions losing, but i'm glad they aren't on their way anymore to going 0-16-1, just wish they could've found someone else to fail to lose to. Now the Vikings get to be in a Thursday Lions 'no loss' bowl (the 2 teams that the Lions didn't lose too, both playing 'so well', now with a short week, how 'fun'!).

4 I wouldn’t use the Vikings’…

I wouldn’t use the Vikings’ injuries as an excuse.  The Lions, who already had a bad roster, are even more injured, missing 10 starters going into the game (between those already on IR and those who missed this week).  Also, the Ravens would like a word with you.

2 FO 4th-and-short play 'analysis'

It didn't work, ergo the play call was bad. En-TIRE!-ly irrespective of what the play call was.

Fail running up the middle? "You can't run against a stacked line".

Fail running wide? "You ought to run right at them on short yardage".

Fail passing? "Everyone knows running is the short yardage percentage move".

Fail doing something creative? "Don't get fancy in short yardage".

And now, failing running basic plays? "You need to get creative".

3 I guess while we're at it

So now you're supposed to run some clock when at the opposing 42-yard line with 1:33 left? Kinda sounds like playing for the field goal to me.

7 Lead ever game

One oft quoted state about the 2021 Vikings was how they had lead every game by at least 7 points... and we had kind of observed how Kirk Cousins played horribly with a lead, but better when behind or tied.

Kirk only had a few series tied or with the lead:

lead (one drive only):  2 for 5, 40 yds (34, inc, 6, inc, inc)
tied (first two drive only):    4 for 5, 33 yards (those went 19, inc, 0, 18, -2, -2). 
trailing:  (all other drives)   24 for 30, 267 yds

anyway. that statistic is no longer true.  They never lead this game by 7.   But they have now lead every game by at least 6.

 

8 the Jim Mora clip

Let's pretend I posted the Jim Mora "Playoffs?" clip here.

Seriously, if you're losing to the Lions, you shouldn't be worrying about getting into the playoffs to get stomped in the first round.

9 Teams that gave other teams their only win

I compiled a list of these some time ago.  This isn't the Vikings first time doing this (assuming Detroit loses out).

In 2001, the Vikings dropped their opening game to the Carolina Panthers, who proceeded to lose their last 15 in a row (the last of their George Siefert years).   They didn't even get the #1 pick in the drat for their efforts, because of the expansion Texans (this saved them from drafting David Carr I suppose).

 

year team record teamtheybeat score thatteamrecord  did they make postseason?

1921 Washington Senators 1-2 Cleveland Indians 7-0 3-5

1921 Cincinnati Celts 1-3 Muncie Flyers 14-0 0-2

1921 Minneapolis Marines 1-3 Columbus Panhandles 28-0 1-8

1921 Columbus Panhandles 1-8 Louisville Brecks 6-0 0-2

1922 Louisville Brecks 1-3 Evansville Crimson Giants 13-6 0-3

1922 Minneapolis Marines 1-3 Oorang Indians 13-6 3-6

1923 Akron Pros 1-6 Buffalo All-Americans 2-0 5-4-2003

1923 Oorang Indians 1-10 Louisville Brecks 19-0 0-3

1925 Hammond Pros 1-4 Chicago Cardinals 10-6 11-2-2001 NFL Champions

1926 Racine Tornados 1-4 Hammond Pros 6-3 0-4

1926 Columbus Tigers 1-6 Canton Bulldogs 14-2 1-9

1927 Duluth Eskimos 1-8 Pottsville Maroons 27-0 5-8

1928 Chicago Cardinals 1-5 Dayton Triangles 7-0 0-7

1929 Minneapolis Red Jackets 1-9 Chicago Cardinals 14-7 6-6

1934 St. Louis Gunners 1-2 Pittsburgh Pirates 6-0 2-10

1936 Philadelphia Eagles 1-11 New York Giants 10-7 5-6

1937 Cleveland Rams 1-10 Philadelphia Eagles 21-3 2-8

1939 Chicago Cardinals 1-10 Pittsburgh Pirates 10-0 1-9

1940 Philadelphia Eagles 1-10 Pittsburgh Steelers 7-0 2-7

1945 Chicago Cardinals 1-9 Chicago Bears 16-7 3-7

1946 Detroit Lions 1-10 Pittsburgh Steelers 17-7 5-5

1950 Baltimore Colts 1-11 Green Bay Packers 41-21 3-9

1952 Dallas Texans 1-11 Chicago Bears 27-23 5-7

1969 Pittsburgh Steelers 1-13 Detroit Lions 16-13 9-4

1969 Chicago Bears 1-13 Pittsburgh Steelers 38-7 1-13

1971 Buffalo Bills 1-13 New England Patriots 27-20 6-8

1972 Houston Oilers 1-13 New York Jets 26-20 7-7

1973 Houston Oilers 1-13 Baltimore Colts 31-27 4-10

1980 New Orleans Saints 1-15 New York Jets 21-20 4-12

1982 Houston Oilers 1-8 Seattle Seahawks 23-21 4-5

1989 Dallas Cowboys 1-15 Washington Redskins 13-3 10-6

1990 New England Patriots 1-15 Indianapolis Colts 16-14 7-9

1991 Indianapolis Colts 1-15 New York Jets 28-27 8-8 wildcard

1996 New York Jets 1-15 Arizona Cardinals 31-21 7-9

2000 San Diego Chargers 1-15 Kansas City Chiefs 17-16 7-9

2001 Carolina Panthers 1-15 Minnesota Vikings 24-13 5-11

2007 Miami Dolphins 1-15 Baltimore Ravens 22-16 (ot) 5-11

2009 St. Louis Rams 1-15 Detroit Lions 17-10 2-14

2016 Cleveland Browns 1-15 San Diego Chargers 20-17 5-10

2020 Jacksonville Jaguars 1-15 Indianapolis Colts 27-20 11-5 wildcard
 

Most 1 win seasons:

3 Oilers (Titans)

3 Cardinals

2 Eagles

2* Rams

2 Marines

Most times losing to one win team

5 Steelers / Pirates

3 Colts

3 Cardinals

3 Jets

2 Bears

Better formatted version:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1S2bEj7NpesgO3mAObQgKEAhoENYsngASVBz684k6MDI/edit?usp=sharing

 

14 That Colts team capped off a…

In reply to by RickD

That Colts team capped off a terrible season by beating the Patriots in the final game, thus costing themselves the #1 pick. 

12 DVOA

DVOA still likes the Vikings, more than the other teams close to getting the 7th playoff spot.  

We can take Dallas, Green Bay, Arizona, the Rams, and Tampa as (relative) playoff locks.  That leaves Philly, Washington, Minnesota, Carolina, Atlanta, and San Francisco competing for two spots.  None of those teams has more than 6 wins and a lot play either each other or the division leaders.  Only the 49ers have higher DVOA and more wins, and they have 81% playoff odds. 

DVOA doesn't like any of the NFC South teams (and I don't blame it), which would seem to leave the Vikings in contention with Philly and Washington for the last spot.  And those two teams play each other twice, and Washington plays Dallas twice while Philly plays them once. 

I wouldn't be surprised to see the #7 seed go to an 8-win team.  Had the Vikings not blown this game, they'd have been in excellent shape.

The question is - which team will show up?  The one that beat the Chargers and Packers, or the one the lost to Detroit and San Francisco?