Have The Vikings Squandered Their Playoff Shot?
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
|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
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.