At 6-2 the Minnesota Vikings leading the NFC North and hope to stay there.
For now the Vikings are in control, and you have to like their chances of winning the division unless Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (broken collarbone) heals much faster than anticipated.
The Vikings play stout defense, denying touchdowns just about as well as any team in the league. Opponents have scored a touchdown on only 13.3 percent of their possessions against the Minnesota defense; only Jacksonville (10.5%) has done better than that.
And the Minnesota defense owns third downs, ranking 2nd in the NFL in getting offenses off the field on 72.3 percent of third-down plays. Because of that the Vikings have forced 44 punts this season, the league’s second-highest total.
On offense, the Minnesota ground game has remained robust despite the loss of terrific rookie running back Dalvin Cook to a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 4. With Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray sharing the work, the Vikings are 4-0 and averaging 132 yards rushing per game since Cook went down.
And the Vikings don’t turn the ball over much, with only seven giveaways in eight games. In many ways, the Vikings are winning in a conventional style: run the ball effectively, stop the run, force punts, and avoid mistakes.
But the Vikings are surprising for at least one reason:
Solid quarterback play.
And Minnesota’s guy is none other than former St. Louis Rams’ backup Case Keenum. He’s playing well as the replacement for another former STL Ram, Sam Bradford, who has missed six games with knee ailment. And just to add another link to the connection, the Vikings offensive coordinator is Pat Shurmur, who held the same post in St. Louis in 2009-2010.
Keenum is 4-2 as the Vikings starter. He’s been on the field for all but six quarters of their first eight games.
According ESPN’s Total QBR metric, Keenum is the seventh-best passer in the league this season, ranking slightly above the likes of Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan.
And while Keenum’s 88.8 passer rating ranks 16th in the league — nothing special, right? — he has a higher rating than many bigger-name quarterbacks such as Philip Rivers, Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton, Eli Manning, Marcus Mariota and Ben Roethlisberger.
Keenum has completed 64 percent of his throws (12th best), with 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He’s been excellent in the red zone with a 113.2 rating, 5 touchdowns and and no picks. He’s thriving at play-action passes, with a 71 percent completion percentage and 120.9 rating.
When you think of the Vikings, their offense isn’t at the center of your mind. But the Vikes are 5th in time of possession. They rank 7th in the NFL in offensive scoring efficiency, getting points on 41.3 percent of their possessions. They are eighth at converting third-down plays (427%). And this isn’t a plodding offense; the Vikings have more plays that have gone for 20+ yards (37) than any team in the league.
On the down side, Keenum has a 13-17 career record as a starter for the the Houston Texans, Rams and Vikings. What’s his ceiling? Keenum has gotten off to slow starts in his last two games, throwing an interception on the Vikings’ opening drive in each contest. But overall, Keenum has greatly exceeded expectations.
“Case has done a nice job and we’re very, very fortunate that we have him,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said last week.
After shoving Cleveland out of the way for a 33-16 win Sunday in London, the Vikings returned home to begin their bye week.
A decision is looming: Minnesota has until Nov. 8 to make a decision on whether to activate quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from the physically-unable-to-perform list for the second half of the season. Bridgewater has slowly made his way back from a devastating left knee injury that felled him in Aug. 2016. But Bridgewater hasn’t played — or taken a hit — in a regular-season game since Jan. 3, 2016.
It could be a mistake to rush Bridgewater, the team’s first-round draft choice in 2014. The Vikings begin the second half of their schedule with games at Washington, vs. the LA Rams, and three in a row on the road in Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina. And Bradford isn’t close to being able to go.
“Hopefully, I have a decision to make,” Zimmer told reporters after the victory in London. “I don’t know. We’ve got two days of practice next week, got another day of practice on Monday. We’ll sit down, evaluate everything. Case has done an unbelievable job. He’s done what we have asked him to do, he’s come out and kept things rolling, and we’ll just figure it out as we go. We’ll see. I hope I have to make a decision.”
Quick Slants …
The enigmatic Detroit Lions, 3-4, basically refuse to run the football. I guess with QB Matthew Stafford making so much money, the Lions want to make him earn it, throw by throw. But Stafford hasn’t played at a high level, the Lions are dragging offensively (19th in scoring efficiency) and you’d think they’d want to balance the attack. But Stafford keeps flinging it, with the Lions opting to pass the ball on 64.1 percent of their plays. Only four teams have aired it out a higher percentage: Arizona, Tampa Bay, San Francisco and the New York Giants. And here’s another problem with Detroit’s passing-game lunacy: according to Pro Football Focus, the Lions rank among the 32 teams in pass blocking efficiency. Stafford is getting beat up. Since the start of the 2014 season, the Lions have the fewest rushing attempts per game (23), the fewest rushing yards per game (84.4) and the fewest rushing first downs in the NFL.
The Buffalo Bills, 5-2, are serious about making the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and end the longest current postseason drought among NFL teams. But after smacking the Oakland Raiders around 34-14 on Sunday , the Bills are challenging New England (6-2) for first place in the AFC East. The teams will face each other twice in December. Why are the Bills prospering? At 4-0 they’re one of only three unbeaten teams at home this season. The Bills are tied for the NFL lead with 17 takeaways, and have turned it over only THREE times for the league’s best turnover ration, +14. And the Buffalo offense, guided by underrated quarterback Tyrod Taylor, is more effective than you probably think, ranking 11th in the league by getting points on 37.2 percent of its possessions. First-year coach Sean McDermott is on the short list for league Coach of the Year
Few rookies have made as much impact as New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State), the 11th overall pick. Sunday, Lattimore made a late interception to bag his team’s 20-12 home win over Chicago. Lattimore is the NFL’s second-rated cornerback according to Pro Football Focus. When quarterbacks have targeted Lattimore this season, they completed 12 of 24 passes for only 114 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions for a sickly 28.8 passer rating.. Lattimore is one of the identifiable reasons for the Saints’ five-game winning streak that’s carried them to first place in the NFC South with a 5-2 record. Defense is behind the Saints’ surge. After getting burned for 6 touchdown passes in the first two games — both losses — check out the Saints’ pass defense during their five-game winning streak: opposing quarterbacks have 3 TD passes, 9 interceptions, have averaged a skimpy 5.36 yards per pass attempt, and have a horrendous passer rating of 54.2. Last season the Saints were the worst team in the league at preventing scores, allowing points on 45 percent of their opponent’s possessions. This season they’ve improved to 15th in the same category, giving up points on 34 percent of possessions. Big change.
The frauds in Tampa Bay got whacked 17-3 by Carolina for their fourth consecutive loss, dropping to 2-5 on the season. It was the usual nonsense from the Tampa Bay offense: three giveaways, two interceptions by Jameis Winston, only 279 yards of total offense, and converting only 2 of 12 third downs. Going back to late last season, Tampa Bay is 3-7 in its last 10 games. Head coach Dirk Koetter is supposed to be some sort of offensive guru, right? Well, despite signing free-agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson and drafting Alabama tight end O.J. Howard to boost the offense, Tampa Bay ranks 20th in the NFL in offensive scoring efficiency. And wasn’t Koetter supposed to turn Winston inro a great quarterback? During the four-game losing streak Winston has gotten intercepted three times, lost two fumbles, and completed 44.4 percent of his throws on third down.
San Francisco 49ers first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan is supposedly another offensive swami … and look, know he took over a rebuilding team. But come on, now. After getting pounded 33-10 at Philadelphia on Sunday the 49ers’ 0-8 record is the worst start in franchise history. Over the last two games, losses to Dallas and Philadelphia, the 49ers were outscored 73-20. Shanahan’s offense has scored 12 touchdowns from scrimmage this season; hell, even Cleveland, Indianapolis and Chicago have stumbled to more offensive touchdowns than that.
The Oakland Raiders aren’t cooked at 3-5, but after making the playoffs in 2016 this is one of the league’s most disappointing teams. The Raiders appeared to be shaking off the lethargy with a 31-30 win over Kansas City on Oct. 19, but that was just a flash. Sure, quarterback Derek Carr missed time with a back injury but that doesn’t justify the Raiders’ putrid pass defense or their extremely negative turnover ratio. Opposing quarterbacks have harpooned the Oakland for 70 percent completion percentage, 7.98 yards per passing attempt, 11 touchdowns, and a passer rating of 108.2. Not only is that passer rating the highest in the league against a defense this season, the Raiders are the only NFL defense without an interception. And on third-down passes, the Raiders have given up an astonishing 75 percent completion rate, five touchdown passes and a passer rating of 124.6. Unreal. Last season Oakland led the NFL with a +16 turnover ratio. This year Oakland is minus 6. After snatching 30 takeaways in 2016, the Raiders have only five so far … Oakland has a rough second-half schedule with games against New England, Denver, Kansas City, Dallas, Philadelphia and San Diego.
A note on Derek Carr. According to Pro Football Focus he’s faced pass-rush pressure on only 21.4 percent of his dropbacks; that’s the second-lowest pressure rate among NFL quarterbacks. But Carr has been awful when under pressure in 2017, ranking 30th with a 37.6 passer rating in those situations. (Only Denver’s Trevor Siemian is worse under pressure with a 29.5 passer rating.) Carr hasn’t thrown a TD under pressure and has been intercepted three times. When Carr isn’t under pressure he’s hit on 67.3% of his passing attempts, with 12 touchdowns and 3 INTs and a passer rating of 102.8.
The NFL staged some lousy games in London this season: Jacksonville destroyed Baltimore 44-7; New Orleans shut out Miami 20-0; the LA Rams pummeled Arizona 33-0; and Minnesota defeated Cleveland by 17 points, 33-16. The average margin of victory in those wins was a ridiculous 26.7 points. Is this the NFL’s idea of marketing?
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has been intercepted 11 times this season, the most against any league QB — and the same number as hopelessly overwhelmed Cleveland rookie DeShone Kizer. Since the start of last season only Philip Rivers (27) has been picked off more times than Newton (25.) Newton ranks 33rd over the last two seasons with a passer rating of 77.0, and his TD-INT ratio (29-25) is one of the poorest in the league. What the hell happened to Superman?
Thanks for reading …