Sense of Urgency: from short term to long term
I don't feel the sense of desperation week to week that I'm accustomed to feeling with the Vikings. If you look at the NFC standings, the reason is simple.
The Vikings are currently chasing New Orleans for the #1 playoff seed in the NFC. Of course it would be preferable for the Vikes to get homefield advantage throughout the playoffs: Thunderdome is wonderful. But the Saints play in a dome, too: if the Vikes meet the Saints in New Orleans for the NFC title, I think the Vikes can win there (they beat the Saints there last season, when neither team was as good).
The Vikings have a two game lead over the Cowboys for the #2 seed and first-round bye, but the Cowboys also already have two NFC losses, and frankly I don't think they're done losing games. I'd consider it a disasterous collapse if the Vikings didn't end up with a first-round bye.
I'm not concerned about the Vikings winning the division (they have a three game lead over the Packers, plus the head-to-head tie breaker), and I'm certainly not worried about the Vikings making the playoffs. In all likelihood, they're going to have the #2 seed in the NFC. It's not like the last two seasons, when in the second half of the season every game was necessary for the Vikings' chances to even make the playoffs. The playoffs are a given, and it would appear the only real question is which dome team clinches the #1 seed.
So I haven't been watching games with desperate passion. Maybe that's because in the last two weeks they opened up fairly early leads in blowing out the Seahawks and Bears. Maybe the next time the Vikes are in a close game I'll get that empty-queasy stomach feeling (that is like an addiction: I hate that feeling, yet I crave it when I don't have it). But right now, I'm watching week to week with a sense of calm and peace.
But that must be qualified. I have much less anxiety during each game, but my football anxiety for the season is at an all-time high. I am absolutely anxious, nervous, hell, terrified for the playoffs. I fear the Vikings choking a home game in the division round (my nightmare of nightmares is a playoff loss to the Packers). I dread seeing them lose to the Saints. In every part of my football-watching being this season, I've had a sense of agonized fear.
I don't watch each game with anxiety. But I follow the team with the highest level of sports anxiety I've ever had. I love watching the Vikings, but I sense less pleasure coming during the playoffs. I'm going to watch each game with nervous tension coursing through my body, and my experience of joy if they win playoff games will feel a lot more like relief.
We're Viking fans. If you're a youngish fan, you remember the ending of '98, '00, and '03. If you're an older Viking fan, you remember four Super Bowls, and you remember '75. I've heard it and read it from numerous Viking fans--we're worried. It is when the team is the most successful that we most fear they are going to squeeze the life out of our hearts, because we've seen that movie too many times. The collective neurosis in the state of Minnesota during January will look something like this:
(image from HBO)
#2 in points scored, #5 in yards
#8 in points allowed, #8 in yards allowed
#10 in points scored, #10 in yards
#13 in points allowed, #24 in yards allowed
Maybe I'm overly influenced by last year's 35-14 win at Arizona, when Adrian Peterson rushed for 165 yards, Tarvaris freaking Jackson lit up the Cards with four touchdown passes, and the Viking defense held the Kurt Warner-led Cardinal offense to seven points. Maybe I look at the Cardinals' defensive numbers and see a mediocre defense that the Vikes can carve up. Maybe I know Matt Leinart started last week and may start again. Maybe I haven't seen the Vikings lose a game in several weeks, and know they're 4-1 on the road. Maybe I see the Cardinals are 2-3 at home and that weather won't be a factor, and know the Vikings aren't exactly going into the bowels of hell (why does hell have bowels? Does heaven have bowels?). Maybe I see that the Viking defense is finally peaking (their 29 point, 37 first down run of the past three weeks has pushed their rankings in points and yards to 8th) and that the Viking offense seems to be gaining 400 yards a game at will (they're averaging 390 a game). Maybe I'm letting all these things make me overconfident about this game. But maybe I'm just a fan with no control over things so it matters nothing at all (outside of my own sanity and propensity for disappointment) whether I'm overconfident.
John Randle (pro-football-reference.com)
According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings are #1 in "variance," meaning their performance week to week has been the most consistent in the league. This embiggens me greatly. As you can see above, I live in terror that the Vikings are going to choke away a playoff game. While they still might, FO's advanced metric suggests that the Vikings have not been an up-and-down team, so maybe they're less likely to have a non-cromulent game in the playoffs. The Vikes are talented, and if they are also consistent, then they should do what they do in the playoffs (on a side note, while I find it irritating that some of the FO writers are openly antagonistic about the Vikings because they find media coverage of Brett Favre annoying, I still obviously check the site out for the statistics, and they do still occasionally offer some insights on the Vikes without also complaining about media coverage of Favre. Occasionally).
The Vikings are good on 3rd down (Star Tribune).
Brett Favre is good against the blitz (Pioneer Press).
A lot of Viking-Cardinal information (Vikings.com).
Adrian Peterson has been struggling a bit. Jason at Defensive Indifference points out that he's averaged fewer than four yards per carry in four of his past five games, and largely blames the offensive line. Others have suggested that defenses are still focusing on stopping Peterson, partly accounting for Favre's spectacular play and partly accounting for Peterson's struggles--see, for example, this Pioneer Press article on the Bear game.
If it's true that teams are still focusing on Peterson, great! That means the Vikings are destroying opponents with the pass, and frankly I don't care how the Vikings destroy opponents. If they continue to load up on Peterson, then either Percy Harvin, or Sidney Rice, or Bernard Berrian, or Visanthe Shiancoe will get open frequently. And if they start focusing more attention on the pass, I think they'll fail (because it's hard to cover Percy Harvin, and Sidney Rice, and Bernard Berrian, and Visanthe Shiancoe on every play), and even so, then Peterson has a better chance to destroy opponents.
But I don't really think that's an explanation. As Jason points out, "selling out to stop Peterson" is what teams have "been doing that for the last three years." And after all, are teams not selling out to stop Steven Jackson? Are they not selling out to stop Chris Johnson?
I think the answer is simple: Adrian Peterson in his first three seasons is a boom and bust running back. He breaks off a lot of long, beautiful runs, but he also gets stuffed near the line of scrimmage quite regularly. He might develop into a more consistent runner, breaking off four, five, six yard runs regularly, but that's not who he is right now. Recently a lot of his carries have been "bust," but soon a lot of his carries might be "boom." It's the nature of a boom or bust runner: sometimes he'll be struggling, and sometimes he'll go crazy. He's second in the league in 20+ yard runs in 2009. He was first in 2008. He was tied for third in 2007.
A boom and bust running back can be frustrating. Luckily, the Vikings now have a great passing game that can sustain drives even when required to convert on third and long. I'd like to see more play-to-play consistency from Peterson (and hope he develops it), but I think the Vikings can win this year during Peterson's booms and busts.
Other Games of Note
Week 13 Games
Colts-Titans. I'd like to see the Colts lose a couple games, and the Chargers keep winning, so that in Week 17 Peyton Manning et al. still have a reason to help my fantasy teams (I just want them to score 49 points in defeat). It would be fun to see the Titans win out too. I guess. Sort of. What do I care?
Ravens-Packers. Take it to them, Baltimore.
Eagles-Falcons. playoff ramifications galore.
Cowboys-Giants. a division game with playoff ramifications--and either of these teams is always capable of a total dud.
All grading papers and no football make PV a dull boy. It makes me so dull that I lazily paraphrase famous movie lines.
Have a good weekend everybody. Except Cardinal, Packer, and Saint fans.