The Minnesota Vikings—at 4-1—remain one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 season. A stout defense and a careful ball-control offense, have been leading the way for a young team currently standing atop one of the toughest divisions in football.
Their accomplishments look impressive in almost any light, with a number of good predictive metrics putting the Vikings in as a top team in the NFL.
While oddsmakers haven't quite bought into Minnesota's record just yet—they still place Minnesota as the 13th or 14th most likely team to win the Super Bowl—opponent-adjusted statistics are optimistic.
Three systems that tend to do well against the spread, Matt Grecco's Winning Stats, Football Outsiders' Efficiency rankings and Advanced NFL Stats' Efficiency rankings, all place Minnesota as the seventh or eighth best team overall.
For the most part, this has been lead by a Minnesota defense that has been a top team against the run and the pass, placing second in yards per carry allowed, at 3.2, and third in yards per passing attempt allowed, at 6.1. This puts them at second in the league in yards allowed per play, at 4.5.
Minnesota will need to continue relying on its tough defense to pull it out of games as its offense sets its feet, but without a strong offensive performance, the Vikings may find themselves regressing.
Minnesota once again travels to Washington to fight off an ascendant Redskins, a team whose record has revealed some glaring weaknesses but also conceals an explosive offense.
Led by rookie prodigy Robert Griffin III, Washington will hope to outpace Minnesota's methodical offense in order to limit the weaknesses that former Vikings free safety Madieu Williams and cornerback Cedric Griffin create for their secondary.
At any rate, it seems like the game will be close, because of the big-play capability of the Washington offense. Minnesota will need to contain the multiple-play packages that Shanahan has incorporated into the Washington offense, which include passing and running plays folded in together, allowing Griffin to make the decision either before the snap or at the mesh point.
Washington is working with a bevy of options, reading defensive tackles, outside linebackers or defensive ends depending on the play call. With run/reads and pass/reads, the offense is designed to create, then exploit favorable matchups.
The best response will include coverage rotation (similar to the 'scrape' concept used to defeat the basic read-option in spread offenses) and discipline. Moving cornerbacks up to the line and blitzing will also be effective. Minnesota effectively game-planned against Michael Vick to contain what was then one of the more explosive offenses in the NFL.
While the running styles—and circumstances—of Griffin and Vick are radically different, outside pressure that can reduce the defensive end, contain responsibilities both will allow Minnesota to contain an offense that could blow up in a big way. While this won't be enough to completely limit Washington, especially their inside zone running with Alfred Morris, it's enough of a template to make a dent.
If Minnesota can effectively use Jerome Simpson to stretch the field and torch a secondary, Washington doesn't stand much of a chance. Given Washington's struggles rushing the passer, deeper options will not just be available, but potentially critical to the win.
Minnesota should pull out the win, but will need to continue displaying the flexibility that made them so effective earlier in the year.
Minnesota will host a team that is also being held in suspicion by pundits and oddsmakers the following week, going up against a similarly stout defense and unfortunately familiarly anemic offense.
The difference between Minnesota's play and Arizona's, however, is that there have been a few nuggets of statistical study that indicate that Arizona's success may be unsustainable, particularly the efficiency ratings put forth by Advanced NFL Stats and some of the statistical work by Bill Barnwell over at Grantland.
While Arizona has done a good job containing opposing offenses, it should expect its red-zone defense (which outpaces its defense outside of the red zone) to regress in some ways. Similarly, its relatively high fumble recovery rate—a big part of its wins in the past—should not continue.
Minnesota's strong play hasn't relied as much on random factors rolling their way, but fundamentally sound principles that have led to a good defensive run success rate (seventh in the NFL) and defensive pass efficiency (third in the NFL).
Given that Minnesota's reputation for a restricted offense isn't all that well-deserved (they've been average at manufacturing points by almost any measure), the Vikings should have the edge.
Arizona's offensive pass efficiency and run success rate both rank 31st in the NFL. The injuries to Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells should be further cause for concern.
If Minnesota can continue mixing up coverage concepts like they did in the first few weeks, while also maintaining the safety discipline they've found in the last three weeks, they should do fine. Larry Fitzgerald remains the most important offensive weapon the Cardinals have.
But, Minnesota shouldn't deviate too far from the game plan that allowed them to shut down Calvin Johnson—occasional defensive packages that manned a corner against him while the rest of the defense played zone, while most playing zone coverage with slight safety shades to cover him.
Fitzgerald remains a savvier receiver that will demand more of Chris Cook and Josh Robinson from a technical perspective, but both have been performing above expectations against the better receivers in the league so far.
On offense, Minnesota could potentially find themselves in trouble running the ball to the inside, which is how they've been managing Adrian Peterson's return from injury.
The Vikings should take advantage of the outside zone/stretch runs they deployed against the Titans top open up lanes in the alleys and put Jerome Felton up against the outside linebackers and defensive backs instead of Darnell Docket or Calais Campbell.
The most worrisome threat comes from their defensive line, and Minnesota's offensive line, despite improvements, might not match up. Nevertheless, isolating the outside linebackers in the run game and maintaining control in the passing game should give Minnesota the edge once more.
Minnesota finally follows a home game with another home game, and this time hosts Tampa Bay, who they have not been able to beat since the latter's exit from the NFC Central division in 2002.
The Buccaneers have had a relatively quiet year so far, and haven't drawn attention for being either surprising or dramatic. Unfortunately, they live in a division with one of the top teams in the NFC—the Falcons—and two teams that could be better than their records—the Saints and the Panthers.
The improved offense hasn't shown much heat yet, but should improve over the course of the season. They made some splashes in free agency by bolstering an already strong offensive line, adding Vincent Jackson at wide receiver and changing the nature of the offense with new staff, which includes Tom Coughlin disciple, Mike Sullivan, at offensive coordinator.
Josh Freeman still hasn't flashed the potential he showed when he first started making plays for the Buccaneers, although that might not be entirely his fault this year. While some have criticized Bill Musgrave for restraining Christian Ponder, a more accurate criticism could be made of Greg Schiano or Mike Sullivan in regards to Freeman, who many know to have solid playmaking ability.
The team is better than its metrics or statistics indicate, and finding a play-calling balance might be critical in this regard. Minnesota might not be able to expect the run-heavy, acontextual offense that Tampa Bay has run so far and will likely be up against a team that will have a better sense of game situation in its play-calling.
Still, this game should be easier than the one before it or the one following, particularly because of the heavy home advantage that hosts have had on Thursday nights. A Minnesota win should come if the offensive line can contain and obviate the improved Buccaneer interior and Minnesota finds ways to continue stretching the field horizontally with Percy Harvin, Peterson and the rest of the skill players.
The Buccaneers have a number of holes in defensive coverage that can be exploited, and Ronde Barber hasn't been aging as gracefully as Antoine Winfield. If Minnesota can find its rhythm, Tampa Bay will lose its first game against Minnesota in a long, long time.
Minnesota will continue its tour of the league's top defenses by visiting Seattle in Week 9, and will likely revert to a conservative offense against what could be the NFL's top secondary.
The defensive identities of the two teams have been nearly identical in a number of different metrics, but the consensus is that Minnesota should do a bit better against the run while Seattle does a bit more against the pass. The differences here are marginal, though, even if the schemes are different.
Minnesota prides itself on a strong pass rush, but Seattle's pass-rushing sub-package may be the best in the league. Seattle's ability to get to the quarterback will put Ponder under pressure all day, and the tough coverage will make it difficult to throw.
Seattle knows how to use their secondary, and the size of that defensive backfield cannot be matched. Jerome Simpson and Harvin will be pushed around, and unless Musgrave finds ways to obviate press-man coverage, Minnesota should find itself hurting for yardage. In all likelihood, Minnesota will find itself using the screen game they hadn't relied on since earlier in the season, as they prefer it against man coverage.
It's a group of players that wraps up well, but Percy Harvin knows how to slip tackles. YAC may be the order of the day in the passing game.
Minnesota will find more breathing room running the ball, but not much as the linebacker corps is solid. Minnesota will want to run away from Brandon Mebane, who has been excellent so far as a defender on the line.
On defense, Minnesota should do better. The defensive line is stronger against the run than it was before, which is important here more than against anyone else—once Marshawn Lynch gets going, he's insanely difficult to tackle. Luckily, it takes a bit before Lynch can get going, and Minnesota has shown the ability to swarm to ball-carriers, and should be able to restrict Lynch to lower than his current 4.5 yards per carry.
By any measure, the Seahawks have a much worse offense than the Vikings, and Russell Wilson is a big reason why. He has a lot of potential, but has been extremely inconsistent. Brilliant games against Carolina and Dallas are overshadowed by more worrisome games against Arizona and St. Louis.
He's one of the few rookies that doesn't crumble under pressure, but he takes too long to make decisions. A quick pass rush and a rotating line will have to work alongside a nickel package that keeps receivers bracketed in order to restrict the offense.
The home effect of the Seattle crowd may be a bit overrated by fans, but it could be enough to stall Minnesota's momentum and hand them its first loss since Week 2.
The Detroit Lions should theoretically be easier to manage at home than they were on the road, but the Vikings probably won't find themselves the benefactor of two special teams scores this time around. It seems that the Vikings' game plan against the Lions in Week 4 was conservative in light of the lead—something that they may not be able to rely on once more.
The Vikings know that the Lions like to play their defense in off-man coverage, designed to limit big plays against a weak secondary, but didn't play to take advantage of it.
If the Vikings find space in between the hashes on quick passes, coupled with longer plays with a healthy Jerome Simpson, the Vikings should be able to take advantage of a weaker defense.
Minnesota has been increasing the complexity of its blocking scheme in the running game, and the Lions are one of the most susceptible teams to this sort of sophistication, given their aggressiveness. Conversely, they also possess the greatest ability to disrupt the sophistication of a technical line. Vikings may hope for and even expect a boom-bust running game, one that confuses the defensive line and puts players in spaces all across the field.
It would be tempting to say that the Vikings should do what they did earlier to limit Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford's offense, but it likely wouldn't work twice. Minnesota should abandon restricting their defensive backs to sides of the field and make sure that one of their taller corners can cover Johnson—while Winfield could effectively reroute Johnson when he lined up in the slot, he was beat more often than not. The Lions will want to take advantage of this to open Johnson up again.
Once again, a deep or intermediate passing game should be enough to secure the win, but only if Minnesota's defense adapts to how the Lions have changed. Minnesota's home advantage should give them the edge they need to win.
Minnesota continues to face stern tests as it enters Soldier Field off the bye week, with a brutal row of tough NFC North battles. This should be the first game since Week 3 that Minnesota finds itself a clear and heavy underdog.
While the Vikings should be able to take advantage of the Bears' offensive line woes; teams with strong pass rushers still found themselves playing from behind to an explosive offense and a defense that seems to consistently generate points.
Brandon Marshall is on pace to have a 1,600 yard season, and only foundered against Green Bay on a short week. Jay Cutler's mobility is his greatest asset, and Minnesota's pass-rushers could find themselves stymied as one of the best quarterbacks to throw on the run, attempts to carve up the defense.
The Mike Tice offense isn't particularly complicated, but it is effective, making sure to flood receivers to the right or the left as the play dictates and making sure that Matt Forte (or Michael Bush) has cutback room on the backside of plays. Minnesota will need not just to maintain play discipline on the line to prevent good cuts from an explosive running back, it will need to occupy six instead of five blockers, given Matt Spaeth's proficiency in creating lanes.
Minnesota's run defense hasn't quite had to play against a similar style of running, and Chicago should be a good test for Houston, which runs a different style, but demands the same discipline from defenders.
There's a good argument that the Bears might have the best defense in the NFL right now, and if the Vikings want to make gains, they may want to adjust who they throw to.
The Bears play an even more vanilla version of the Tampa two than the Minnesota defense does, but they have been excelling with it. Entering the year with what many (including myself) thought were average corners and subpar safeties.
While the safeties have elevated their play to "average," the corners have been nothing short of elite in the past five weeks. Not only have they grabbed six interceptions between the two of them, neither of them has given up a touchdown or allowed a passer to generate more than a 39.0 passer rating when throwing against them—the passer rating one achieves for throwing every pass incomplete.
In order to attack this defense, Ponder and Musgrave will need to deploy more creative uses of mismatches, forcing nickel packages and getting Harvin the ball in interesting ways, like they did against San Francisco and Tennessee.
Still, unless excellent adjustments are made by both coordinators, the Vikings should come away with another loss.
Minnesota will stay away from the dome for another week to meet the Packers at historic Lambeau field in Week 13. Once again, Minnesota should find itself battling the odds against a Green Bay team that will likely have turned itself around from their sputtering start.
One good sign that the Packers have had results below their ability is that their efficiency on offense is still in the top ten, according to some measures. More importantly, their drops are unsustainably high while Aaron Rodgers should regress to a high level (where regression here refers not to stepping back in ability, but moving closer to their true mean).
Aaron Rodgers had one of the best quarterback seasons in NFL history a year earlier, and the fact that defensive backs have been concentrating more on Jordy Nelson is hardly a reason for him to have such a poor season.
The defense has improved considerably, and if the offense ever finds its feet again—something that seems eminently feasible within several weeks—the Packers will be one of the tougher teams in the NFL again.
Their greatest weakness on defense, by far, is a consistent running game—one the Vikings should exploit. While they have been averaging in allowing yards per attempt at 7.0, they've added five interceptions to their defensive statistics in the passing game. The added pressure of Nick Perry and surprising improvement from Erik Walden has given them the ability to allow Tramon Williams and their safeties to roam the field with more latitude.
By contrast, their 4.3 yards per carry allowed combines with one of the lowest defensive success rates against the run. While they haven't allowed many big gains, runs against them have mostly done what the offense had wanted.
While airing it out against Detroit may be an intelligent strategy, the other NFC North opponents will require a different take. A strong game on the ground would serve them well, but the Vikings will likely still not come away with a win.
Meeting up against the Bears at home so soon after already having played against them, the Vikings will need to find ways to further exploit any weaknesses they found against a team that has been humming along entering Week 5.
Sometimes it's difficult to remember that this was a team that was 7-3 before injuries took them out of the running for the playoffs, even with a sieve for an offensive line. The Bears are proving once again that they can generate explosive playmaking when necessary, and have invested in backups in key positions.
Even if the Vikings find the Bears depleted late into the season, Jason Campbell and Michael Bush are starter quality, and Alshon Jeffery has proven to be a solid investment as well.
Playing at home, it's important that the Vikings do what they did against another top team in Week 3—strike first. That may seem trite, given that every team does its best to score on every drive (it sounds as useless as "win the turnover battle" or "tackle better"), but there is demonstrable proof that home-field advantage diminishes by quarter, becoming very small by the end of the game.
Knowing that, underdogs need to make sure that they engage in high-risk/high-reward plays early at home, because plays are simply more successful for home teams early on. This means the 4th-and-1 conversion attempt that was successful against San Francisco would be a wise play to dial up once more.
Ponder and Musgrave should start the game with long passes and other potentially high-reward plays, like end-arounds, in order to take advantage of the home-field atmosphere early on. This is important, because Minnesota would need to pass against Chicago's elite passing defense if they fall behind anyway, so it's better to get it done earlier when they have a structural advantage.
The Bears are about as good as their record, and the Vikings are only a little worse than their own as of right now, so there's a slight advantage to Chicago. Once again, the home-field advantage can be a significant enough swing to give the Vikings the victory.
Nearly completing their survey of the nation's top defenses, Minnesota travels to St. Louis to test Chris Long and Cortland Finnegan, both of whom have contributed in a big way to St. Louis' surprising defensive prowess, giving them the 10th most efficient defense in the NFL as of Week 6. This is highlighted more by their success against the pass (sixth) than the run (25th), so there are clearly holes they can exploit.
There's a good chance that St. Louis will flounder offensively with Steven Jackson showing his age and the receiver corps depleted, so the Vikings won't likely have to worry about a shootout. Putting the game on the ground should give them an advantage, particularly given the wide front the defensive line shows and the weakness they have in the interior, despite a stronger outside linebacking corps.
The Rams like to run in man coverage without corners in run support, so the Rams should be playing linebackers horizontally against the run—the Vikings can keep them to that with alternating outside/inside runs.
The Vikings should be favorites here, so there's no reason to engage in the risky play they might want to against superior teams, so fewer gadget plays and more solid fundamentals will help them win the day.
On defense, the Vikings will do better with their defensive line than against many of the other teams they have on their schedule this year, simply because the Rams offensive line is horrible.
Unlike with Chicago, the Rams don't even have the ability to claim good run blocking to make up for their problems in pass protection, and the strong run stuffing and pass-rushing character of that line should have their way.
The Rams offensive line is more often than not flustered with complicated defensive line calls, so the Vikings should have their way and have Chad Greenway in charge of maintaining gap discipline when the defensive line goes off—it will pay dividends.
The Vikings should win this game but need to stay focused.
The trip to Houston will nearly complete the season, and certainly complete the circuit of top defenses that Minnesota will have to face, with six of the top ten defenses (including first through fourth) on the schedule now having been tested, a more impressive feat considering that Minnesota also occupies a spot on the top ten.
Normally, when two strong defenses are slated to compete, people expect a grinding, low-scoring game. Here instead, a strong Texans offense will test the mettle of the defense enough that Ponder, Harvin and Peterson will have to respond in kind.
The loss of Brian Cushing will have a big impact in the Texans run defense, but Wade Phillips may be the smartest defensive coordinator in football, and he'll find a way to make up for it as the season winds down.
On defense, the Vikings will want to employ the same strategy on Andre Johnson that they did against Calvin Johnson, even if Andre has started dropping off in his production, largely because the corps around him is not as great to demand a different strategy.
This means multiple looks, changing off/press coverage in man situations and playing 3-3 zones with one corner tailing (and therefore bracketing) the premier receiver.
The Vikings will be tasked to defend cutback lanes once more against the best zone running team in the country. While the linebackers have traditionally been OK alternating run blitzing with gap discipline, they would do better to maintain patience to read Arian Foster or Ben Tate to fill alleys and prevent longer gains. In this way, they can sacrifice many of their tackle for loss opportunities, for security against bigger gains.
Alternately, Christian Ponder will once again need to make sure that playmakers get the ball, and Jerome Simpson will need to play beyond the ability he showed in Cincinnati in order to have an impact. This is another week where Musgrave will need to engage in creativity in order to pull Harvin away from cornerbacks and give him the ball in space.
Minnesota would do well to find ways to get away from JJ Watt, who is making the case for being the first defensive MVP since Alan Page. He's been excellent as a pass-rusher, run defender, and as a pass deflector.
Passing lanes will be more important than ever, which will restrict opportunities in the intermediate passing game, which means the Vikings will need to rely on their play-action game to get bigger gains.
Despite all of this, it will be difficult for Minnesota to pull off the win, even at home.
The Vikings get to finish the regular season at home, against a Packers team that could potentially be up against a wall. While not many would have predicted it at the beginning of the year, these two teams could be battling for a wild card spot, and as of Week 6 have ranked next to each other on a number of predictive ranking metrics, including Football Outsiders' team efficiency rankings.
If so, the Vikings should be happy this game is at home. The lack of a run game from the Packers, as a result of injuries to James Starks and Cedric Benson, might not be as important as it is for some teams, but they did show greater consistency and rhythm when Benson was being fed the ball.
Given that, the Vikings should let the front four handle most of the scrimmage responsibilities, and delay linebacker reactions to play action or runs in order to maintain discipline on defense.
The terrible Packers offensive line has put Rodgers on the ground more than any other team except the Cardinals. This won't continue, however, because many of the sacks were uncharacteristically due to poor quarterback play, than line play, so the Vikings cannot rely on always generating those sacks. Nevertheless, it is a critical dynamic to their defense.
Rodgers excels at forcing defenses to play the entire field, making plays on sidelines, in the middle and out deep. Therefore, the Vikings will need athleticism from their outside corners in order to help cover the field, which means they will want to reduce Winfield's snaps or play more nickel snaps than usual.
If the Vikings maintain their high level of play, and if the Packers start getting into rhythm, the Packers should still come out ahead. It should be a priority for the Vikings to prevent the Packers from getting into that rhythm by stuffing the run, jamming receivers and generating pass pressure.
Nevertheless, at home, the Vikings are still more likely to lose.