Vikings Will Go as Far as Justin Jefferson Takes Them
NFL Wild Card - DVOA tells us that the New York Giants are a bad team whose 9-7-1 record was built on good fortune. It also tells us that the Vikings are a terrible team whose 13-4 record was built on weekly cases of deus ex machina run amok.
New York went 8-4-1 in games decided by eight points or less; one more loss in those contests and we would be writing about the Detroit Lions in this space instead. The Vikings topped them by becoming the first team in NFL history to go a perfect 11-0 in one-score games. Kirk Cousins tied records with eight game-winning drives and comebacks. Daniel Jones had five comebacks himself; only Cousins had more. Does that mean we're sure to have a comeback win in this game? Not necessarily—the Vikings were the only team in the league that never allowed a comeback to an opposing quarterback, while the Giants only gave up two.
The Giants visited the Vikings just three weeks ago. As you'd expect, it was a back-and-forth affair—the Vikings went from leading 10-0 to trailing 13-10, then leading 17-13, then tied 24-all before finally winning 27-24 on Greg Joseph's 61-yard field goal, the longest in franchise history. Daniel Jones dink-and-dunked his way to 334 yards and a touchdown for New York, while Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson each caught at least a dozen balls for over 100 yards and scored for Minnesota. Remember all this, it's going to be relevant later.
A look through the play-by-play data shows that yes, both teams have plenty of weaknesses, but each some has extreme strengths as well. In fact, the Vikings were the NFL's best team in some statistical categories that haven't come up much on highlight shows or analytical websites. Still, the numbers say that neither of these teams should have made the playoffs—but now one of them is going to get a postseason win.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||-4.3% (21)||-13.8% (27)|
|WEI DVOA||0.5% (18)||-18.6% (28)|
|Giants on Offense|
|NYG OFF||MIN DEF|
|DVOA||7.1% (10)||6.7% (27)|
|WEI DVOA||10.4% (7)||7.9% (28)|
|PASS||20.2% (10)||14.2% (26)|
|RUSH||4.9% (7)||-4.3% (19)|
|Vikings on Offense|
|NYG DEF||MIN OFF|
|DVOA||10.2% (29)||-3.3% (20)|
|WEI DVOA||9.1% (29)||-6.1% (23)|
|PASS||9.2% (22)||11.3% (15)|
|RUSH||11.6% (32)||-14.4% (28)|
|DVOA||-1.2% (22)||-3.8% (30)|
If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Hey, the Giants offense looks pretty good! They're balanced, able to run and pass effectively, and they're peaking late despite resting starters in Week 18. Most importantly, they hang on to the ball. They threw a league-low six interceptions (including one by Tyrod Taylor) and only the Detroit Lions had fewer total turnovers than New York's 16.
Hey, the Vikings defense looks pretty bad! They're mediocre against the run, lousy against the pass, and playing at their worst down the stretch, allowing 22 points or more in eight of their last nine games. They did force 25 turnovers, putting them in the top 10 in that category, but the edge there still goes to New York.
Aside from ball security, the New York offense's primary asset was quarterback mobility. Jones finished fourth at his position with 120 official rush attempts and fifth with 44.3 rushing yards per game. (His backups can scoot too; Tyrod Taylor had 70 rushing yards in only 32 offensive snaps, while Davis Webb added 41 in 63.) Here at Football Outsiders, we had Jones eighth in rushing DVOA but third in DYAR behind Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. Giants head coach Brian Daboll deserves a world of credit for unlocking this part of Jones' arsenal. In his first three seasons, Jones averaged only 26.3 rushing yards per game, and he actually had negative rushing DYAR in 2021.
Jones' carries were split nearly evenly between scrambles and designed runs. He had 54 scrambles, second only to Justin Fields, and ranked fourth in DYAR on those plays. He ranked sixth with 53 designed runs, but second in DYAR on those plays (a distant second behind Jackson, but still, second!).
The Minnesota defense faced 61 quarterback runs this year, which was bang-on average, but their distribution was extreme: only Detroit faced more scrambles, while only Denver faced fewer designed quarterback runs. Regardless, not many quarterbacks accomplished much by running against the Vikings. Josh Allen rambled over them for 83 yards and a touchdown, but the quintet of Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields (twice), Daniel Jones, Kyler Murray, and Taysom Hill were quiet, limited to 31.0 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry.
When Jones wasn't running, he was usually checking down. His average depth of target was only 6.6 yards past the line of scrimmage, and only 11% of his passes were deep balls thrown to receivers more than 15 yards downfield. Out of 34 qualified passers, only Matt Ryan and Justin Herbert threw shorter passes on average, and only Ryan had a lower rate of deep balls. Saquon Barkley led the Giants in targets and catches even though he wasn't an effective receiver, falling outside the top 40 in both DYAR and DVOA at his position. Overall, though, the tactic made sense—Jones ranked 12th in DVOA on short passes, but 22nd on deep balls. This is all bad news for the Vikings, who ranked much better against deep balls (11th in DVOA) than they did against short passes (29th).
Barkley figures to catch a lot of passes on Sunday because the Vikings struggled in coverage against running backs, finishing worse than average in DVOA and yards allowed on those throws. Among Jones' other targets, fourth-round rookie Daniel Bellinger has been a pleasant surprise, ranking in the top 10 in DVOA and top 20 in DYAR among tight ends despite missing five games due to injury in the middle of the year. New York's wide receiver depth chart has been a chaotic mess—nine different wideouts have started at least one game for them—but Darius Slayton and Richie James have emerged as a solid if unspectacular one-two punch. Slayton figures to do more damage against the Vikings, who rank 30th in DVOA and 31st in yards allowed on passes to WR1s. Minnesota's pass rush looks like a wash against New York's pass protection; neither side ranked in the top 20 in adjusted sack rate.
When Jones does hand off, neither side will have a significant advantage. Barkley was almost exactly average in rushing DVOA, while the Minnesota defense was in the middle of the pack. New York's biggest advantage will come in short yardage, where their offensive line ranked second in power situations, but the Minnesota defense ranked 24th.
New York's play-calling strategy should be pretty straightforward: no matter what happens on first down, they should be passing on second, but running on third. On second downs, the Giants were the league's best passing offense, while the Vikings were the league's worst passing defense. (New York was also very good when running on second down; the Minnesota defense was middle-of-the-pack defending those plays.) On third downs, however, the Giants ranked much higher on runs (third) than on passes (18th), while the Vikings were much better against passes (eighth) than against runs (30th).
The Giants aren't very explosive and will need to convert those third downs to reach the red zone, but if they can do that they should score plenty of points. The Giants surprisingly had the NFL's best offensive DVOA in the red zone (first passing, third rushing), where the Vikings defense ranked 23rd (20th against the pass, 23rd against the rush.)
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
No sense burying the lede here: stopping the Vikings means stopping Justin Jefferson. The third-year wideout finished first with 489 DYAR and fourth with a DVOA of 20.6%. The Vikings had six other players qualify for our passing, rushing, and receiving tables; none of them had a DVOA higher than 3.6%—and that was Cousins, whose DVOA fell to -16.3% if you take out passes to Jefferson.
It's no exaggeration to say that the Vikings will go as far as Jefferson will take them. Jefferson had 11 games with 90 or more yards receiving, and six with 50 or less. The splits between those two sets were radical. When Jefferson didn't produce, the Vikings were a much worse team.
|Minnesota Vikings Team Stats by Justin Jefferson Production, 2022|
|90 or more||11||10-1||28.5||382.7||-6.7%||1.4%||18.8%|
|50 or less||6||3-3||18.5||322.5||-31.8%||-14.2%||1.2%|
With seven different starters, the Giants' depth chart was nearly as messy at cornerback as it was at wide receiver. Adoree' Jackson has missed the last seven games with a knee injury, but the Giants are hopeful to have him available on Sunday. With Jackson shelved and Aaron Robinson out for the year with a knee injury, the Giants have been leaning on seventh-round rookie Cordale Flott; journeyman Fabian Moreau; slot corner Darnay Holmes; and Nick McCloud, a 24-year-old who has already been waived or released three times in his NFL career. All four of those men have played at least half of the Giants' defensive snaps in recent weeks.
This all makes it hard to predict just who will have the unfortunate fate of matching up with Jefferson. But then that may not matter, because it's less about who's covering Jefferson and more about where he's being targeted. Jefferson was versatile and effective all over the field, but he was otherworldly on outside deep balls. On throws that traveled more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, Jefferson was first in DYAR to both the left and right sides of the field. His 41 deep outside targets were tied with Davante Adams for most in the league, and he finished with 314 DYAR on those throws when no other wideout had even 200; he caught 63% of those targets when the positional average was 42%. Mind you, Jefferson was no one-trick pony, ranking 12th in DYAR on all other throws. But it was the deep outside shot that made him unique.
The Giants ranked eighth or higher in DVOA against deep balls to either side, but in the bottom 10 against deep middle throws, and dead last on all throws between the numbers. That's a weakness Minnesota looks primed to exploit; Cousins was fourth DYAR on passes over the middle. Jefferson was Minnesota's most dangerous receiver down the middle (we told you: versatile!), but the dropoff to Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn was narrow there. And though he played only 10 games for the Vikings after they acquired him from Detroit, it was tight end T.J. Hockenson who led Minnesota in catches, yards gained, and DYAR on deep-middle throws. Hockenson's overall post-trade DVOA was a disappointing -14.4%, but he did open the deep middle in a way that none of his teammates could, and he's likely to reel in at least one big catch this weekend. Oh, did we mention the Giants were next to last in DVOA on throws to tight ends? Because that suddenly seems very relevant. They were also 22nd on throws to WR1s but top-six on throws to other wideouts, suggesting that Jefferson will be carrying an even bigger share of the workload than usual.
The best way for New York to cover Jefferson may be to put Cousins on the ground before he can get a sack off in the first place. That will likely mean extra pass-rushers; per Pro Football Reference, the Giants' blitz rate of 39.7% was the highest in the NFL. Wink Martindale likes to send blitzers from all over the place, and 10 different linebackers and defensive backs had at least half a sack for New York. Unfortunately for New York, Cousins has a better QBR against the blitz (60.3) then he does against non-blitzes (48.8), per ESPN.
As for targets to running backs, the Giants were a little worse than average against those throws, but that's OK because Dalvin Cook was a little worse than average as a receiver. Cook was also worse than average as a runner—much, much worse than average. He finished 36th in both DYAR and DVOA; among qualified runners who reached the postseason, only Seattle rookie Kenneth Walker was worse. In fact, once you account for his sack and fumble on a bungled trick play against Detroit, Cook was one of the worst running backs of 2022.
That may sound harsh, considering that Cook ranked 12th in the league (and eighth among running backs) with 1,468 yards from scrimmage. But as we noted in our Quick Reads Year in Review:
Cook was stuffed for no gain or a loss 62 times, most in the league, and only James Robinson and Kenneth Walker had higher stuff rates than Cook's 23.5% amongst qualified runners. Oh, and he only converted 10 of his 24 carries with 1 or 2 yards to go for a first down. The Vikings as a team were dead last in short-yardage success and next to last in stuff rate, and whether that's the fault of Cook or the Minnesota offensive line, it's not good.
The good news for Minnesota is that the Giants are in no position to exploit those weaknesses. New York ranked dead last in overall run defense DVOA, 29th in stuff rate, and 26th against short-yardage runs. Come to think of it, they were pretty lousy in most of our defensive front statistics. Cook isn't likely to win the game for the Vikings, but given the opposition, he's not likely to lose it for them either.
Given their stellar win-loss record in close games, one might expect that the Vikings would have excellent special teams numbers, but one would be wrong. Only the Patriots and Buccaneers were worse by our numbers. The Vikings were strong on kickoff returns, thanks mainly to Kene Nwangwu's touchdown against New England (that one play may have single-handedly kept Minnesota out of the special teams basement), but weak everywhere else. Jalen Reagor averaged just 6.4 yards per punt return with four fumbles. Greg Joseph converted only four of his 10 field goal attempts of 50 yards or more (this makes that Giants game-winner all the more unlikely) and also missed a half-dozen extra points. And the Vikings allowed 26.2 yards per kickoff return; only Miami was worse.
Mind you, the Giants had their own struggles in the kicking game—mostly on punts, whether delivering them or receiving. Jamie Gillan was in the bottom 10 in net punting average, with 26 punts down inside the 20 but nine touchbacks; that ratio of 2.9:1 was second-worst among punters who played 17 games. And led by Richie James, the Giants only averaged 6.2 yards on punt returns while fumbling four times. The good news is that Graham Gano was excellent, finishing third in placekicking value and missing only five attempts (three field goals, two extra points) all year.
By now, you're probably wondering how in the hell Minnesota managed to win 13 games considering that their roster seemingly consisted of Justin Jefferson and 50-some practice-squadders. One answer: penalties. They didn't commit many fouls, (88 accepted penalties, a bottom-five total), but their opponents sure did: 111 in all, trailing only Mike Vrabel and Tennessee (another team with a reputation for winning ugly games). Those penalties gifted the Vikings with 926 yards and 45 first downs, both the highest totals in the league. All told, Minnesota committed 23 fewer penalties than its opponents (second-best behind Atlanta and Arthur Smith, Vrabel's former offensive coordinator) while gaining 237 yards and 23 more first downs, leading the league in both categories. And that's where the Vikings were the NFL's best team; they couldn't pass, run, cover, tackle, or kick, but man could they draw a flag.
The Giants, by the way, also benefitted from exactly 111 fouls on their opponents, but they committed 106. Because what you really want to see in a playoff game is flags falling from the sky like rain.
The Giants and Vikings are both led by rookie head coaches who arrived on the job with plenty of hardware—Kevin O'Connell won a Lombardi Trophy last year with the L.A. Rams, while Daboll picked up a half-dozen Super Bowl rings in assorted stints in New England. Both, somehow, still have a chance to add another ring this year. But only one will survive the weekend, and given the way their respective seasons have gone, no sane observer could confidently pick which it will be. But if we must make a prediction, we'll take the team with the biggest superstar, most capable of single-handedly leading his team to victory. And that, clearly, is Justin Jefferson and the Minnesota Vikings.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.