Sunday, November 29, 2009

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 36, Bears 10

ESPN Box Score

In the last three weeks, the Vikings have established themselves as a dominating team. They've shown that they have elite talent on offense, defense, and special teams, and that they will not blow a game against a far inferior team.

Offensively, they've averaged 486 yards over the last three games (they had 537 against the Bears).

Defensively, the Vikings have allowed 29 total points and 37 total first downs in the last three games (the Bears had 169 yards and 8 first downs today).

They've got the talent to crush bad teams. The offense is so versatile they've become virtually unstoppable, and the defense has become the dominating unit that they can be. I'm equally excited about both units, and the Vikes have been playing very well on special teams.

Brett Favre
392 yards and 3 touchdowns, so excellent at spreading the ball to the Vikes' vast array of pass catchers, and superb hitting the right guy on third down. His arm strength was on display today, as he was zipping the ball all around the field. His only equals in the game right now are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees.

Percy Harvin
45 yards rushing, 101 yards receiving, and one touchdown catch. He made a spectacular deep catch when he took a vicious hit and hung onto the ball. Notice how good he is at catching the ball and then gaining extra yards: he catches the ball and immediately makes a move to run. When he's moving one way toward the ball (meaning the defenders covering him are moving in the same direction), he'll catch, immediately stop, and break back the other way. He's much quicker at stopping and changing directions than any defender covering him, so the move is usually effective--Harvin rarely goes down right where he catches it.

I think Harvin will be the x-factor in the playoffs.

Cedric Griffin
He made some good solo tackles today, stopping the runner at the point of contact. He also made a nice interception in the end zone (on a poorly thrown ball).

Jared Allen
Allen was simply pushing back the offensive tackle assigned to block him. He ended up with two late sacks, but before that his constant rush was closing the pocket, forcing Cutler to scramble and throw quickly, while forcing the Bears to play-call in order to not get destroyed by Allen. If you pay attention, you can see how much he can control a game from beginning to end. He is the most important player on the defense: his ability to rush the passer makes his fellow defensive linemen and the defensive backs behind him better.

The downside: penalties
A great team can overcome 10 penalties for 70 yards against a far inferior team. It will be harder to overcome that against another quality team.

The Vikes are 10-1. They're 6-0 at home, 4-1 on the road, and still undefeated against the NFC.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Conversation

No, the most depressing conversation I had on Thanksgiving wasn't my grandmother noticing my balding spot and telling me, "Joe, put your head down. I just noticed that. Did somebody hit you? Do you have a scar? It's so thin there," then proceeding to tell me what shampoo she uses to get thicker hair. The most depressing conversation I had on Thanksgiving was the following:

Aunt: Does anybody know, when is the last time the Vikings WON a Super Bowl?

(I stare blankly)

Aunt: I tried to look it up, but I couldn't find it.

Me: It will probably take you a while.

Aunt: I could only find the info back to like '67.

Me: That's around when they started having Super Bowls. But the Vikings have never won one.

Aunt: So what did they do before the Super Bowl? Just have nothing?

Me: They called it the NFL Championship.

Aunt: Oh. So when is the last time the Vikings won that?

(I blankly stare)

Me: They never won that either. Actually, they won it in '69, but then lost the Super Bowl.

Aunt: Oh. But they were in, like, three Super Bowls.

Me: Four, actually.

Aunt: Well, what team has gone the longest without winning a Super Bowl?

Me: Um, the Vikings are pretty close.

Aunt: So they're like the Chicago Cubs of football.

Me: Yes.

Aunt: Well, then it could be worse: it could be another 60 years of waiting.

Me: Did you walk out of my nightmares and into my waking life?

Monday, November 23, 2009

National Thanksgiving League (week 12)

We have an early edition this week. Speaking of early edition, this guy will always be the guy that got the newspaper early to me.

Vikings-Bears Preview

As a Viking fan who has studied, lived, or worked in Wisconsin for over a decade, I've come to detest and fear the Packers. I've never developed such a loathing for the Bears, however: when they're not playing the Vikings, and when they're not competing with the Vikings for a division title, I watch Bear games with mild indifference.

Instead, the Bears become a canvas on which to splatter all the paint of my Viking anxieties, a foil on which to expose all that is rotten in the state of the Purple. The Vikes struggle outdoors on the road? How about two wins at Soldier Field this entire decade. The Vikes lack a sort of toughness? Here come the Bears to hit hard and knock them around a while. The Vikings underachieve against lesser teams? Well here come the Bears for them to play down to.

Happily, this week's game is in Thunderdome, where the Bears have only beat the Vikings twice this decade (and only in their two 13-3 seasons). What might be a week of dread is assuaged: the 9-1 Vikings face the reeling 4-6 Bears, a team playing without Brian Urlacher (the most frightening player on the team, in my opinion).

The Viking defense has a real good chance to dominate against the Bear offense. The Vikes only have seven interceptions through ten games, but they'll be facing the league leader in INTs. The Vikes are one of the league's best pass-rushing teams with 34 sacks, and the Bear offensive line has struggled (Cutler hasn't taken a lot of sacks, but the pass rush helps explain his high interception rate). The Bears don't have very dangerous receivers (though TE Greg Olsen could scorch the Vikings), and Cutler hasn't been very accurate. The Bears struggle to run the ball: leading rusher Matt Forte has all of 3.3 yards per rush. How are the Bears scoring points? They'll have a chance if Cutler effective scrambles, if they utilize their TEs well, and if they can connect on 2-3 long passes, where Devin Hester or Johnny Knox can catch and run. They could also score points on defense or special teams, something they always seem to do.

The Bear defense isn't what it has been, but the jerseys alone frighten me, and make me think Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson, and Percy Harvin are going to take some vicious hits from some hard-hitting defenders. But then, there is Adrian Peterson's history against the Bears: he's averaged 138.5 yards and 2 touchdowns per game against them. The Bears are also the team that Bernard Berrian got his 99 yard touchdown on last year. Shouldn't there be enough images of Viking players running wild past the Bears for me to feel somewhat comfortable? No. Never. When I see those Bear uniforms, I expect disaster.

But I will trust Thunderdome: it sets all to right.

Some people think my mental breakdown needs encouragement.
Readers of this blog will know me to be rather neurotic, and those who know me personally know I'm borderline Obsessive-Compulsive. So here's the monologue Mrs. PV provided me Sunday night (it really was a monologue, because I sat there staring, unable to interrupt):

"The Vikings are 9-1, that's pretty awesome. Actually, it's fantastic. Do you just get so excited thinking about it? This could be the year they finally do it: they could go and redeem your entire life as a sports fan. Isn't it amazing? This year that you're experiencing right now, this could be the year you'll always look back to and talk about. Don't you have trouble thinking about anything else? Is it like all you think about?"

Why I sort of hope Brett Favre throws a few INTs sometime soon
A 1% interception rate is just too low; I fear the regression toward the mean, and I fear it could come in the playoffs if it doesn't come sooner.

Improvement in the Secondary
Is anybody else seeing some real potential in Asher Allen? I'm really starting to like him. In the NFL three and four wide receiver sets are commonplace; the more competent defensive backs you have on your roster, the better.

I also just realized I've barely noticed Cedric Griffin in the last two weeks, which for a cornerback, can be a good thing (I generally notice which Viking defensive backs get beat on a play). And for that matter, Karl Paymah and Benny Sapp have played pretty admirably in Antoine Winfield's absence.

I'm starting to feel like we have a secondary that can get us through the playoffs.

Other Games of Note

Packers-Lions. on Thanksgiving, Viking fans, you get to root for the Lions in an inevitably futile effort. Lucky for us, we only root for them twice a year.

Colts-Texans. the Colts are going to go down sometime--a road loss to a division rival that's been itching to beat them has too much sense to it to actually happen though.

Cardinals-Titans. I think the Cardinals might get trounced here.

Steelers-Ravens. when I think about it, I don't really want to watch this game. I'll probably use Sunday evening to grade research papers and glance at the box score occasionally.

Patriots-Saints. it's an AFC team, but the best team the Saints are going to play this season. My hope is they lose this one and at least one more division game.

What I like about Monday Night Football
ESPN always shows a lot of crowd shots. I love crowd shots. I love to see how individual fans are reacting to the action on the field. Last week they showed some Brown fan with his face painted and some sort of crazy head gear reacting to a Browns' coaching decision with a look and a gesture that said, "Come on, be reasonable." It's especially fun seeing home team fans acting nervous and concerned; I don't know why I enjoy watching fans showing nervous concern, but I do.

Fantasy Box
Fantasy football can give us crazy, irrational ideas (watch that universal "us," sucker. Yes, I know: or as Pinker calls it, the "Straw We"). I personally believe that Norv Turner and Philip Rivers are both dickheads because they don't go to Antonio Gates in the red zone. Why not? It's like they're trying to go to anyone else. Gates averaged 9.8 touchdowns a season from '04-'08, he's averaging 70.9 receiving yards per game this year, and he only has two touchdowns? He's gone scoreless in nine of ten games? And this is a team that has attempted 23 field goals, so it's not like they're just scoring touchdowns however they want.

Timberwolves Box
Two fun games this week: Wednesday against Denver (excited to watch Carmelo Anthony) and Friday against Phoenix (excited just to go).

No turkeys for me, of course, but vegetarians can still usually find plenty to eat at the Thanksgiving table. I'm hoping for lefse (that's right, I'm a real viking).

Have a good week everybody. Except Packer and Bear fans.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 35, Seahawks 9

Vikings-Seahawks Box Score (ESPN)

After busting out with a 21 point second quarter to establish the rout, the Vikes virtually sealed the game with a 12 play, 89 yard touchdown drive in the third quarter. Every number points to a Viking team that dominated a game it should dominate.

Points: Vikings 35, Seahawks 9

First Downs: Vikings 28, Seahawks 10

Yards: Vikings 431, Seahawks 212

Time of Possession: Vikings 42:11, Seahawks 17:49

Brett Favre
22/25 throwing a lot of different types of passes to several different receivers. Growing up with Tecmo Super Bowl, I love deep passing. But it's these days when Favre lights it up with short and intermediate passing that make me confident the Vikes can win games in the playoffs. Teams might scheme to take away the deep pass plays, and they might scheme to stop big runs. But it's hard to stop a QB with a firm grasp of his offense, a quick release, good pass protection, and several reliable pass catchers to choose from.

Visanthe Shiancoe
When an opposing defense focuses on preventing deep passes, the Vikings have been good at running an efficient, high percentage short passing game. When that becomes the strategy, Shiancoe becomes a very good target. He's reliable at both getting open and holding the ball.

He's one reason the Viking offense can succeed at virtually anything the defense is willing to allow.

Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin
Rice: 6-89-2
Harvin: 5-79-1

Both Rice and Harvin were effective running after the catch today. They did little things to gain yardage after catching the ball that looked easy and obvious, but actually took some savvy and skill.

And that's yet another way to break an opponent that's working to stop the deep pass: catch the short passes and run with them. Rice and Harvin do well at that: they're both tough players that are hard to bring down.

E.J. Henderson
I thought he played a pretty good game: frequently at and behind the line of scrimmage making tackles and disrupting plays. Today he looked like the old E.J. Henderson.

Chester Taylor
It also felt good to see Taylor making positive plays. Adrian Peterson can get a break for a play or two, and the Vikes still have a player that provides a running threat and works effectively in the passing game.

Run and Pass Defense
Aaahh. The Seahawks had 13 carries for 4 yards. Since 2006, Viking fans have started taking these sort of games as a birthright.

The Viking defense was also excellent versus the pass today, and still without Antoine Winfield (nice to go 3-1 while he gets healthy). It's all sort of a blowout blur to me now, but it seems to me a lot of Viking linebackers and defensive backs were making effective plays in pass coverage.

The Vikings are 9-1, and host the Bears next week. The Vikes still haven't lost a home game or an NFC game. There's nothing to feel bad about right now. I spend most of my football anxiety not fearing a Viking collapse, but fearing potential playoff opponents like New Orleans or Green Bay.

The Vikings look dominant on offense, on defense, and on special teams. Skol.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

National Friday League (week 11)

Vikings-Seahawks Preview
2009 Vikings
Offense: #2 in points and #7 in yards
Defense: #12 in points and #15 in yards

2009 Seahawks
Offense: #19 in points and #16 in yards
Defense: #18 in points and #20 in yards

Don't look at the Vikings home game against the 3-6 Seahawks as a gimme win. They might be better than their record (p-f-r's expected W-L for Seattle is 4.2-4.8). They have Matt Hasselbeck, a good quarterback that isn't what he used to be but that can still hurt you in the passing game. They'll throw short passes like crazy, and while I think they won't be able to sustain drives against the Viking defense that way, they're still dangerous.

The Vikings are a much better team than the Seahawks, but if they underachieve, commit untimely penalties, and commit untimely turnovers (aren't they all?), they can lose.

Last week, the Vikes should have put 40 up on the Lions, and the reasons they didn't are concretely obvious. I'd point to four specific plays. On a first half drive, they had a 2nd and 3 inside the ten and had a five yard penalty (they ended up kicking a field goal). On another first half drive, they drove to the red zone and on 1st and 10 called a reverse that got fumbled (they got zero). On another first half drive, they were in the red zone and failed on a fourth and one (they got zero). And in the second half, Adrian Peterson had a long run toward the red zone but had the ball poked out from behind him (they got zero).

I don't think on the whole the Vikings were sloppy or lethargic. You don't get 492 yards of offense playing flat. What they did do was fail--badly--on some key plays that meant those 492 yards amounted to 27 points instead of 40+. Luckily, the Lions are awful. But if the Vikings make those sorts of failures against the Seahawks, I don't think they'll end up with a 17 point win. They can overcome such struggles, but they might not. If they play a lousy game and the Seahawks play a good game, Seattle could knock us off.

But what do I think will happen? I think the Seahawks won't be able to run, and won't be able to complete many passes downfield (their personnel and scheme are directed toward short passing). I think the Seahawks won't be able to cover Rice, Harvin, and Berrian, that Favre will connect with accurate passes, and that Adrian Peterson might be able to run wild against this team. The Vikes will play excellent on special teams. If the Vikes can avoid the untimely mistakes, they should easily handle the Seahawks.

The Viking Defense
The Viking defense is, I believe, better than their current numbers show. I think during the second half of the season, they are going to establish themselves as a dominating unit.

The Vikes have had trouble holding big leads. In both Green Bay games and in the Baltimore game, the defense played very well for long stretches before giving up big plays (especially in the passing game) to let the opponent back into it. That's a problem on the defense, obviously, and is rightly credited against them--but it's also a very specific problem, and one that might be improved upon.

The defense has given up garbage time touchdowns against the Browns and Lions. The Vikes have also given up five non-offensive touchdowns. The defense is much closer to being a unit giving up 15 points per game than the 20 they've currently got credited against them.

The core of it all is the defensive line. I'm not sure how good the secondary is, and I'm not even sure how good the linebackers are (E.J. Henderson does not look like his old self out there--too often I see him near the ball carrier but unable to make a tackle, or finally making a tackle downfield after a ball carrier has already gained yardage. It makes me sad: I've really liked his game in the past, and hope he improves). But Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are potential Hall of Famers in their prime, dominating and playmaking. Pat Williams is a major disruptive presence, and Ray Edwards has had stretches when he's looked dominant himself.

I think the defense's numbers will improve, and they'll continue to keep the Vikes in games if or when the offense falters.

I purposely avoid hearing details about any Viking stadium news, and I will purposely avoid writing about it ("if you're purposely avoiding writing about it, you're doing a lousy job," you say. "Yes," I say. "You know, it's a really annoying technique to guess at what your readers are thinking, voice those guesses, and then respond to them," somebody else says. "That may be," I reply, "but I've been immersing my mind entirely into the world of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman where such writing seem natural." "Oh," you say, "I forgot you're a pretentious prig who can't control himself within parentheses." "You forgot that? I don't see how," I say). I have a deeply felt terror that the Vikings will be relocating in three years, and worse that they'll relocate before winning a Super Bowl so that we'll never see them win it, and I don't like to face that terror, since there's virtually nothing I can do about it anyway.

Brad Childress's extension
Brad Childress got an extension through 2013 (ESPN). I don't approve. This is not to say Childress is a bad coach that doesn't deserve to be the franchise's coach; there are a lot of positive things that can be said about his tenure. I just think the extension is unnecessary at this point: Childress is under contract until the end of the 2010 season, and there's little reason the Vikes shouldn't wait until the end of the 2009 season to offer Childress an extension. Would it be too much to ask that he win a playoff game before getting a long-term commitment?

There is a positive, however. Childress is now under contract with the Vikings through 2013. To me, this indicates a commitment by Zygi Wilf to maintain ownership of the Vikings long-term, and also a commitment to keep the franchise in Minnesota after the Metrodome lease ends after 2011. I could be very wrong about this and I am just speculating, but if I were an NFL owner thinking of either selling or relocating the team after 2011, I wouldn't extend the contract of my coach past 2011. As I say, this is nothing but speculation, but the tone suggests to me a commitment to franchise stability long-term.

Other Games of Interest
Week 11 games

Colts-Ravens. How many WRs are clearly better than Reggie Wayne? I think Randy Moss is. I think Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson are Wayne's equals.

49ers-Packers. I could see this game going a lot of different ways. I choose to see Frank Gore running for long touchdowns and Aaron Rodgers taking a bunch of sacks. What I will actually see outside my imagination, I don't know.

Falcons-Giants. a mid-season game between two 5-4 teams is interesting. The outcome is not necessarily a sign of the direction each team is going, but during mid-season it's fun to pretend that it is.

Chargers-Broncos. a game between 6-3 division teams, with the winner sitting atop the AFC West. I want to predict that in December, we'll look back at the time when the Broncos were talked about as a good team. But they still have a game against the Raiders and two games against the Chiefs remaining, so they'll stay relevant even if they lose to the Chargers (which I think they will).

Eagles-Bears. Either of these teams could do anything against each other, and I wouldn't really be surprised.

Titans-Texans. I vaguely hope the Titans win out, finish 10-6, and I can start having wild fantasies about Vince Young again. But really, what I want out of a Monday night game is fantasy superstars, and this game delivers players like Chris Johnson, Andre Johnson, and Matt Schaub.

Fantasy Box
Since my fantasy teams rely on the Indianapolis Colts, I wouldn't object to seeing them lose a few games (by scores like 52-49). When I acquire Colts for my fantasy team, I already abandon week 17: it's always a virtual bye for the Colts. But if the Colts clinch everything early, then weeks 15 and 16 have potential to see starters benched. This is a less than thrilling idea for me.

Free advertising on a little-read niche blog
Parks and Recreation is a very funny show. You should watch it.

I do think Mark Brendanawicz was funnier as an easy-going rake. See, I still use words like "rake" and "cad" to describe rakes and cads.

This has been free advertising on a little-read niche blog.

Timberwolves Box
I went to the Wolves-Mavs game on Friday with my toddler. He had fun: he danced when the music was on, he watched for Crunch, he saw a guy dress up like a cowboy and ride a mechanical horse. I had less fun: I watched the game. Without Kevin Love or Al Jefferson, the Wolves' best players were Jonny Flynn, a 20 year old rookie point guard who is learning the pro game and at any rate has no scorers to pass to, and Corey Brewer, a hustling player who does a lot of little things that can contribute to a team, as long as there are other players on the team who do things like, um, score.

On Bill Belichick's fourth down decision
In my view, punting in that situation says this:

A. This opponent may defeat us, but they're going to have to earn the win.

Going for it on fourth down says this:

B. We're going to try win this game.

Most coaches in most situations choose A. And in most situations, A. is the right decision. But Bill Belichick has built up enough credibility that he can get away with choosing B. If he punts and loses, the loss is understandable; if he goes for it and loses, criticism of the loss goes on him. Belichick knows that and knows he can take it, because he's ensconsed in his position, and he's proven he deserves to be ensconsed in his position. He made a risky call, and it didn't work. But it was a call intended to win the game, not a call intending to make the opponent earn a win. A. and B. may seem synonymous, but they're not. Though his decision failed in this case, I still like that Belichick chose B.

Last season Peyton Manning won against a rather weak pool of MVP candidates; this year, he might win against a very strong pool of MVP candidates. As long-time readers of this blog know, only QBs and RBs on winning teams are eligible for MVP. Here are the contenders at the moment.

Peyton Manning. I can't see any other AFC player getting MVP over Manning. Tom Brady will end with great numbers and a great team record, but Manning will be better in both categories and voters will care that Manning's team beat Brady's team this year.

Drew Brees. I don't think he deserves it, but he's the recognized superstar quarterback on a team that will likely be a #1 or #2 seed in its conference. By the end of the year I think he'll only be competing with Manning, Brady, and Kurt Warner for yardage and touchdown numbers.

Brett Favre. I doubt he'll win it, but he's a deserving candidate. Favre has never had a 100 passer rating for a season (career best 99.5 in 1995), but he's currently leading the league with 107.5. He's made the Vikings from a playoff contender to a Super Bowl contender, and it really is his strong play that's on display weekly.

Adrian Peterson. I don't think he'll get the award away from one of the quarterbacks. However, if he's able to (or forced to) take over some games during the second half of the season, and the Vikes end up with the #1 seed in the conference, it's possible.

I love what these two Vikings do, but the competition is likely to be between Manning and Brees. I think Manning is better and more deserving, but voters might be tired of giving Manning MVPs and be ready to give Brees his first.

At Football Outsiders, there is some discussion about how the Vikings have improved so dramatically on Special Teams (scroll down).

Percy Harvin (ESPN). We're lucky.

Antoine Winfield is 85% sure he'll play Sunday (Pioneer Press).

The Vikes have an 80% probability of winning this weekend (New York Times).

Have a good weekend, everybody. Except Seahawk, Packer, and Saint fans.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 27, Lions 10

ESPN Box Score

I'm starting to dread these Lion games: there just isn't an upside. We shouldn't have to sweat so much in a game when the Vikings score on their first drive and hold the lead the entire game. We shouldn't have to sweat a game when the Vikings have 492 yards of offense and win by 17. Yet due to fumbles (2), penalties (13 for 91 yards), and red zone struggles (2 for 6), that's what happened. Eventually, the Vikes proved the superior team and finished their drives: they did in the second half what they should have been able to do in the first.

And now the Vikes sit at 8-1. We still get to sing "Skol."

Sidney Rice
Rice was a star with 201 yards receiving, and I'm trying to figure out why he's so successful catching deep passes. He's often open downfield, but with a defender right near him, and he's generally in good position to make a catch 40+ yards downfield look easy, when really it is not.

Part of it is his own skill: he's physical, he runs routes well, he has good hands, and he has good instincts adjusting to the deep balls.

But I also think he benefits from his fast teammates: while Rice is undoubtedly the Vikings' #1 WR this season, defenses still need to account for the speed of players like Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and Bernard Berrian. That leaves it difficult to double cover Rice, and I think opponents aren't always putting their best cover man on Rice. He's made more big plays in the passing game than any other Viking this season, but because Peterson, Harvin, and Berrian can burn opponents, they can't focus on Rice.

Brett Favre helps a great deal too. On several of his deep passes to Rice, Favre has moved around to buy time, and his downfield passes to Rice have been remarkably accurate. I think Favre also does a good job at subtle but important things. If the defender covering Rice is on his inside, Favre throws it slightly to his outside. Favre's play-action is effective, and he looks off safeties well. He's helping get Rice in a position to make a play, and throwing the ball where he can make a play.

Rice is doing a spectacular job making plays downfield. It's not easy to catch a pass 40+ yards downfield with a defender right on him. He's finishing plays, and he might become the first Viking with 1,000 receiving yards in the Brad Childress era.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

National Friday League (week 10)

This week featuring nudity

Vikings-Lions Preview
Do you want to know more about why the Vikings should crush the Lions out of Thunderdome?

According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, the Lions are the worst team in the league, with the 30th ranked offense, 30th ranked defense, and 29th ranked special teams.

According to Advanced NFL Stats’ Efficiency Rating, they aren’t that bad: they are #31 (Bryan Burke of Advanced NFL Stats also posts at the New York Times that the Vikes have a 92% probability of winning).

Don’t like metrics and prefer simpler numbers? The 2009 Lions are 1-7, rank 26th in points scored, 31st in points allowed, and 29th in point differential. They rank 25th in offensive yards, and 26th in defensive yards allowed. They appear to me equally bad at stopping the run or stopping the pass (#28 in net yards per pass attempt allowed, #28 in rush yards per attempt allowed).

If you want to get more specific, the Lions also starting a rookie quarterback that has thrown interceptions on 5.6% of his pass attempts and been sacked on 6.1% of his dropbacks. Roughly speaking, the Lions should expect disaster once every 9-10 times Stafford drops back. If they try play it safe and run, they can hand it to Kevin Smith, their leader in rushing yards that averages 3.3 yards per attempt.

I really went into this trying to justify why I wasn’t going to write up a preview of the Viking-Lion game. It seems that in doing so, I’ve written up a preview of the Viking-Lion game. I expect the offense, defense, and special teams to put on a Thunderdome show (I have a weird feeling that Bernard Berrian is going to have like a million yards on Sunday). But we’re Viking fans, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too confident: the Lions put the fear of the Olympian gods into us last year at the Metrodome.

Other Games of Interest
Week 10

When the season reaches its second half, any games featuring teams .500 or better are interesting. This week, each such game is also a wicked busy fantasy matchup.

Bengals-Steelers. a matchup between 6-2 division opponents.

Eagles-Chargers. an inter-conference game between 5-3 teams with loads of talent and a tendency to underachieve and/or blow close games.

Cowboys-Packers. when you think about it, "going for the jugular" is a surprisingly violent metaphor involving biting into a living neck and tearing until the victim bleeds out.

Patriots-Colts. Sure fantasy starters include Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Stephen Gostkowski. Possible fantasy starters include Joseph Addai, Laurence Maroney, the Patriot Defense, the Colt Defense, and whatever the name of the current Colt kicker is. Fringe starters might include Austin Collie or Ben Watson. That's really what I want out of a night game: loads of fantasy interest.

Tony Gonzalez

Always nice to find fellow travelers. See more on Tony Gonzalez at PETA here and here.

In other PETA/football news, PETA ranks the Metrodome #7 among NFL stadiums for offering vegetarian food options. I'm always able to eat heartily at the Dome. I eat the veggie burger rather as a formality: I figure it exists primarily for me.

Basketball: like football but for liberals. I don't know what that means but it feels sort of true.
I won tickets to most of the Wolves' games this season. This week I watched the Blazers run an alley-oop offense. Drive and dish: dunk. Throw the ball up: dunk. If you like to watch players dunk, watch teams play the Wolves.

I do find it relaxing at the Target Center: basketball is a great game to watch live, and the Wolves are so dreadful there's no emotional investment involved. I brought a book to read during timeouts (John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, which I teach for the first time this week), and frankly, it's as easy to concentrate in the Target Center as at a library.

Friday night: the Mavericks.

Free advertising on a little-read niche blog
Glee is freaking fantastic. You should watch it.

This has been free advertising on a little-read niche blog. But if Ryan Murphy sends me a Lea Michele poster, I wouldn't turn it down.

Percy Harvin (Pioneer Press).

The Vikings-Bears game on Nov. 29th is moved to 3:15 ( I welcome this news, as it allows me to both manage Sunday's return-home-from-Thanksgiving drive at a time with little traffic, while still getting to watch the entire game. I don't know if it does anything for you.

Peter King's midseason All-Pro Team includes Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Percy Harvin (Sports Illustrated).

Have a good weekend everybody. Except Packer and Lion fans.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

"It's not fair! It's not fair!"

Last night I dreamed that the 2009 Vikings won the Super Bowl. The dream even featured the next day's aftermath. I was just as giddy and euphoric as I've ever been and probably ever will be. It had finally happened. Everything had changed. At some point I woke up and realized I was in bed. We were just through week eight. The Vikings have never won a Super Bowl.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


2009 Vikings: first half
2009 Minnesota Vikings

7-1, including four wins road wins, 5-0 in the conference and 3-0 in the division, and five home games remaining. It's hard to be in much better shape right now. Let's look at some things that happened in the first half and how it might be relevant to the second half.

Good Surprises
Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin: Rice is on pace for 1,000 yards, and has started to fulfill the potential he flashed two years ago. I thought Harvin would make a handful of important plays per game, but I didn't expect him to be this dynamic.

Brett Favre: I'm still worried about whether he can be this effective in January, but I didn't expect him to be this dominant.

Adrian Peterson's workload: He's currently on pace for 326 carries: a manageable load far short of his 363 carries last season. If the Vikes can win without wearing Peterson down, all the better.

Special Teams: the return coverage has greatly improved, Percy Harvin has been a spectacular kick returner, and Darius Reynaud and Jaymar Johnson have been effective as punt returners. Add in Ryan Longwell's kicking, and the Viking special teams have been very good.

Pass Protection: it was a mess during the first two or three weeks, and since then has been really terrific.

Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams: the safeties aren't making enough plays, and they're also a reason the Vikes are vulnerable. Pass defense as a whole has been pretty bad when the Vikes get a lead.

Bernard Berrian: I'm really hoping for an explosive second half of the season from Berrian. Injuries have hampered him in a lot of ways so far, but he's good enough to be better than he has been.

Chester Taylor: 2.7 yards per rush is pretty lousy, and his dropped pass on a screen play was a big factor in the Vikes' one defeat.

Antoine Winfield's injury: Not only because it really affects the entire defense, but because he's so fun to watch play.

The consistency of the running game: whether it's AP's style,struggles on the offensive line, of the defense's focus, I feel far too many of the running plays get stuffed at the line.

Jared Allen: 10.5 sacks is on pace for 21, which would be short of the NFL single-season record. Allen should be doing more.*

*of course I'm joking. But Allen's spectacular play is not a surprise, and as he's arguably the best defensive player in the league right now and in position to win Defensive Player of the Year (essentially an MVP award for defenders, since only QBs and RBs are eligible for MVP), I have to mention him in my mid-way assessment. While we're at it, the versatile dominance of Kevin Williams needs to be once again appreciated, though it is completely unsurprising.

Why I'll continue to fear the Packers

In 2008, the Colts beat the Chargers in the regular season, but lost to them in the postseason. The Eagles beat the Cardinals in the regular season, but lost to them in the postseason. The Titans beat the Ravens in the regular season, but lost to them in the postseason.

In 2007, three of the Giants' four playoff victories were against teams that defeated them during the regular season (the Cowboys had beaten them twice).

During those years, there were also teams that defeated the same opponent in both the regular season and the postseason (the '07 Jags beat the Steelers twice, the '07 Chargers beat the Colts twice, the '08 Ravens beat the Dolphins twice, the '08 Steelers beat the Chargers twice and the Ravens thrice). But if I looked at recent history, I'm not sure I could be confident that a regular season outcome will predict a postseason outcome.

I'll fear the Packers until there's no possibility they could face the Vikings in the playoffs.

Special Teams
Grant's Tomb points out the subtle importance of some special teams play:

"Some of the ways the special teams helped the Vikings were subtle – like punt returner Jaymar Johnson’s refusal to call for fair catches or not catch them at all and let the ball hit the Lambeau Field turf and roll deep into Viking territory on Packer punts. [...] his fearlessness (and sure-handedness) in catching and returning punts shaved a few extra yards off the total the Vikings offence had to gain to get into scoring position."

I remember hearing Bill Parcells (don't ask me when, where, or why) talk about a playoff game between his Giants and the Washington team. According to Parcells, the Giants' punt returner consistently called fair catches, while the Washington punt returner let the ball bounce. Parcells estimated that the difference accounted for around 100 yards of field position. Johnson saves yards by catching the ball in traffic rather than letting it bounce (even when he does fair catch it), and that contribution shouldn't be underestimated.

One reason the Vikings' offense has been so successful at scoring points is because they've consistently had good field position. In '09, Percy Harvin is averaging 30.7 yards per kickoff return and the Viking punt returners are averaging a collective 10.7 yards per return. And, as DC points out, Johnson is willing to field the ball to save the Vikes the yardage a punt hitting the ground could cost them.

The field position helps the Vikes score points and limits some of the wear and tear key players like Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson might have to endure if they were forced to drive the bulk of the field every drive.

Brett Favre had the best quarterbacking day of Week 8 (Football Outsiders).

Jason Cole talks to a scout that is impressed with the Vikings; don't read this if you don't like getting your hopes up (Yahoo!).

Don Banks provides some more optimism going forward (Sports Illustrated).

Mark Craig asks the question that I can't help thinking about every day: what if the Vikings and Saints meet in the playoffs (Star Tribune)?

Comparing Adrian Peterson 2008 to Adrian Peterson 2009 (Access Vikings).

Fantasy Box
Week 8 was my first week of lineup regret in 2009: Joseph Addai and Austin Collie were in, Pierre Thomas and Bernard Berrian were out. Lineup regret is my least favorite part of fantasy football.

Intriguing Games
Week Nine Matchups

The bye means relaxing football to follow, and we've got a lot of good games to follow.

: are these teams playoff contenders? Do these teams suck? Depends on the week.

Ravens/Bengals: the three-way race for the AFC North is interesting.

Packers/Buccaneers: during the Vikes' bye, we know we won't get to see the Vikings win. We still can hope to see the Packers lose.

Dolphins/Patriots: after they beat up on Tennesse and Tampa, then took a week off, aren't we anxious to see if they keep rolling? This week I finally partook of the annual tradition of adding Laurence Maroney to my Hazelweird fantasy team.

Texans/Colts: if you depend on Matt Schaub or Andre Johnson for your fantasy prospects, take note: the 2008 Colts allowed six passing touchdowns, a total so low I'm grammatically required to spell out the number. Through seven games the 2009 Colts have allowed three touchdown passes. While they can be run on, the Colts just don't give up passing touchdowns. I'm pretty enthused to be riding the Manning-Wayne combo.

Panthers/Saints: First down, DeAngelo Williams. Second down, Jonathan Stewart. Third down, DeAngelo Williams. Maybe mix in an end-around to Steve Smith. Just do it: run down the Saints' throat, knock them down a peg, help me find another cliche, and resurrect your season to go to .500.

Titans/49ers: another contest of dueling running backs: Chris Johnson and Frank Gore try to top each other.

Chargers/Giants: fantasy matchup of the week? Lots of starters here.

Cowboys/Eagles: Another rich fantasy matchup.

Ramblings on Sacks and Rating
At the Star Tribune, Mark Craig points out that Aaron Rodgers leads the league in passer rating, and also takes a high number of sacks:

"Rodgers' lofty passer rating and his ridiculously high sack total are one of the stranger contrasts in the league at the halfway point this season."

But the contrast isn't really related: sacks and lost yardage from sacks have no impact on a quarterback's rating. It's a problem with using passer rating: throwing the ball away hurts your rating, while taking a sack has no impact. Losing a down and yardage from a sack really hurts a QB's team, yet passer rating doesn't account for it. But the point is that it's not any "strange contrast" to see a high sack total with a high passer rating.

Craig then compares Rodgers' sack total to the sack totals of the #2 and #3 ranked QBs in passer rating:

"Peyton Manning is No. 2 in passer rating (109.3). He's been sacked five times. Drew Brees is No. 3 in passer rating (107.6). He's been sacked 11 times."

Stopping the comparison with the #2 and #3 passers is a bit deceiving: look further at the league leaders in passer rating and you'll see that among the league leaders in sacks, nobody is close to Rodgers, but several have a lot more sacks than Manning or Brees do. Rodgers actually reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger. Each holds the ball a long time, and while sometimes that results in a sack, sometimes that also results in a big play. Either way, the sack total has no impact on either QB's passer rating.

There's another problem here: passer rating is an efficiency stat, while sacks are a total stat. I'd like it better if the comparison were between two efficiency stats: passer rating and sack rate (sack rate is a better number to look at than sacks anyway). Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 12.1% of the time, an extremely high rate. But his rate isn't that far ahead of Ben Roethlisberger's rate in 2006: that year Roethlisberger was sacked 10.4% of the time, and still managed to post a 104.1 rating. If you want a comparison to this season, Donovan McNabb has a passer rating of 103.2, but is getting sacked 9.5% of the time.

If there is any correlation between a high passer rating and a low sack total, it is that an elite QB is likely to have both. But that's not always the case either.

Free advertising on a little-read niche blog.
Community is my favorite show on network TV right now. You should watch it.

This has been free advertising on a little-read niche blog. If Joel McHale would like to send me a "The Soup" coffee mug, I wouldn't turn it down.

The Vikings have a bye this week; I've chosen this weekend to take my family out of town to visit my parents. I used a semicolon to link these two independent clauses to show that they are related. The semicolon is my favorite punctuation mark; it is perfect for combining two independent clauses into the same sentence.

Have a good weekend, everybody. Except Packer, Bear, and Saint fans.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 38, Packers 26

Vikings 38, Packers 26 (ESPN Box Score)

The Vikings scored their first win at Lambeau Field since 2005, and also their first season sweep of the Packers since 2005.

It's hard to question that this game meant more to Packer fans than to Viking fans. Obviously Viking fans always want to see the Vikes beat the Packers, but be honest: at a personal level, how much does Favre's Reveng On The Packers do for you? If Favre were the Bears' QB returning to Lambeau, I'd be rooting for a 2-0 Bears' victory. It's obvious that this game meant a great deal to Packer fans (and to Favre fans who took their loyalties with the individual player).

But for Viking fans, it's still a sweet, sweet victory. Victories at Lambeau are rare for the Vikes, and season sweeps of the Packers are even rarer. The way the victory came--dominating the game to a 24-3 lead in the 3rd quarter, committing silly mistakes and playing bad defense to let the Packers back in the game, but coming back offensively to never let the Packers take the lead back and finally sealing the game with a fifth touchdown--leaves a feeling of both exuberance and relief. The victory really hampers the Packers' chances of winning the division (but they still have the talent to finish the year well; I really don't want to have to face them as a Wild Card opponent in the playoffs), and it pushes the Vikes to 3-0 in the division and 5-0 in the conference.

Percy Harvin trips the light fantastic
5-84-1 receiving, 5-175 returning kicks: it's hard to define how many points Harvin helps put on the board for the Vikings. His 51 yard touchdown reception was his best offensive play of the season, but he's been constantly dangerous as a kick returner, frequently giving the Vikings excellent starting field position (in addition to his two touchdown returns).

The Vikings have been remarkably successful in the draft during the Childress era: their four first round picks have netted them Chad Greenway, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen (via trade), and Percy Harvin. Greenway is a very good starting linebacker, Peterson and Allen are superstar performers, and Harvin is a dynamic, playmaking force.

Whatever else happens, the Vikes will have a good wide receiving trio of Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, and Bernard Berrian for years to come. They are a good group because while physically each has different skills and can excel at different types of things, all three are also capable of big plays. Favre has brought out the most from them, but I believe they'll bring the most out of whatever quarterback succeeds Favre.

Brett Favre sings the body electric
He's been playing so well this season that a four touchdown, zero interception game, while superb, was not out of the ordinary.

Jared Allen
The Vikings had six sacks, and the Viking defensive linemen deflected four passes. Allen was once again the star, getting three sacks plus another tackle for loss. Many of us were ecstatic when the Vikings aquired Allen in April 2008, but if we had known just how dominant he'd be, especially against the Packers, we'd probably have started floating off the ground.

Ray Edwards
Edwards had two sacks and two pass deflections, and he was credited with four quarterback hits. He's had a couple outstanding games this year. He's overshadowed on the line by Allen, Kevin Williams, and Pat Williams, but he's held his own joining them on (let's say it) the best defensive line in the league.

Adrian Peterson
And let's not forget AP's 141 yards from scrimmage plus a touchdown run on fourth and goal. The yards haven't been easy for Peterson this year: teams are stuffing him around the line a lot. But he runs hard and when he breaks out it's a joy to watch.


I'd like to praise a few decisions by the Viking coaching staff. Twice in the red zone the Vikings went for it on 4th and short: once they were successful, and once they were not. But the combined attempts made for a success: they got seven points instead of the maximum six that two field goal attempts would have netted, plus the failed attempt still left the Packers in bad field position.

When Mason Crosby missed a field goal late to give the Vikings the ball with a five point lead, I thought the Vikings played it perfectly. The first play was a screen pass to Adrian Peterson, a safe play that's not likely to stop the clock but gets the ball to your best offensive player: Peterson took the ball for a devastating 44 yards, setting the Vikes up for at least a field goal to go up eight. After two unsuccessful runs (that drained the Packers' timeouts), it looked like the Vikes might again play too safe as they did against Baltimore. But they called a pass play that was both aggressive and safe, a quick pass over the middle that Bernard Berrian was able to get to the end zone for the clinching touchdown.

Overall the Vikes were aggressive offensively, coming out and trying to put the game away. We question Brad Childress's decisions a lot (since I have a parentheses, why not: I think they called runs on first down too much today), but I think he can be praised for this game.

Does Aaron Rodgers look dead inside?
I don't want to try too hard to read the facial expressions of athletes. But when I see Rodgers against the Vikings, the expression on his face makes him look empty inside. Whether facing Favre has gotten to him, or (more likely) facing the Viking pass rushers has him on edge, he looks like a hollow man that doesn't want to be there and doesn't know how to rise to the moment.

That doesn't mean I wasn't terrified that he was in the process of leading a comeback, and he showed real moxie (it's a fun word: just embrace it) in the second half evading pass rushers and hitting receivers downfield. But he just looked empty.

The Vikings' Weakness
I think the Viking pass defense is solid overall, because the pass rush is so threatening: they rush throws, tip passes, and sack the passer, putting the offense in bad spots. Their dominance against the run helps, because when teams attempt offensive balance, they end up in must-throw situations. However, the Vikings have trouble holding a lead because of the weakness of the secondary. When teams go into all-throw mode, it's hard to sustain a pass rush every down, and teams are willing to take more risks against the rush and throwing downfield. As a result, we've seen teams move the ball on the Vikings successfully when they are down.

It's a dangerous weakness, especially if the Vikes are facing a team like the Saints in the playoffs. It might be a less glaring weakness when Antoine Winfield returns.

But the Vikes are good
Two sort of flukish plays made this score closer than it might have been: John Sullivan's early snap not only got recovered by the Packers, but it bounced around and flew backward to give the Packers better field position with it. And when the Packers had to setttle for a field goal after a nice drive to leave the score at 24-6, the Packers squib kicked and Brian Robison conjured the spirit of Mel Gray and tried to run and then fumbled--instead of giving the Vikes good field position to score a dagger touchdown, the Packers had good field position and used it to cut the score to 24-13.

I'm not just saying this game could have been a blowout but for those flukish plays. I'm saying in the past, those flukish plays probably would have begun a Viking collapse resulting in a loss. But they didn't, because the Vikes have the talent to overcome those things.

The Packers also had a lot of penalties that helped the Vikings, but the Packers are among the league leaders in penalties and penalty yards: that's a feature of their team, not an abberation that only aided the Vikings today.

2009's first half
So far, it would be hard for 2009 to have gone any better. The Vikes are 7-1, including 4-1 on the road. Their only loss was to an AFC team, and they've already swept one of their rivals competing for the division title.

Looking ahead
So much emotional energy went into this game against the Packers (and not just because of Favre), it might have been easy to overlook the reality that after the win, the Vikings are now 7-1, and they still have five remaining home games.

The Vikings come out of the bye with three straight home games: against the Lions, against the Seahawks, and against the Bears. It's hard to envision the Vikings not being 9-1 when they host Chicago (if they play really lousy, they could lose to Seattle, but they should win at home). They get a bye right in the middle of the season, and hopefully an injured Antoine Winfield and a hampered Bernard Berrian get the chance to recover and play well in the second half of the season.

The Vikes can throw and run. They can stop the run and they can rush the passer. Their special teams have been generally good to outstanding. Things are looking good.

Enjoy the bye week, folks. Skol.