The Minnesota Vikings' longship is sinking as the season progresses, and it seems like there's very little they can do to right their fortunes.
It might be a foregone conclusion that the coaching staff will be fired by the end of the season, but they—along with the players—will be fighting for their jobs in a significant way as the season rolls on. A strong performance in the second half of the season might be enough to save their careers even if it won't help their prospects for a job in Minnesota.
As such, they'll want to put up big performances against the Washington Redskins on Thursday night at home. Unlike their performance against Tampa Bay a year ago, they'll want to tighten up and put on a show for the home crowd, hoping to make themselves look better than they have all season.
Thursday Night games are unique in their unpredictability. Underdogs cover the Vegas spread nearly 60 percent of the time according to the data provided by Pro-Football-Reference, even though they generally cover almost exactly half the time, per the same website.
This unpredictability creates a pretty favorable crowd for bold predictions, and the Vikings are set to fulfill some of their own.
It might not seem odd to predict that the current season leader in kickoff return touchdowns score again, but kickoff return touchdowns are an extremely rare event, regardless of the talent of the individual returner.
Even if he doesn't score a touchdown, Patterson will be immensely useful, averaging 29.7 yards on his non-touchdown returns, which by itself would rank second among non-touchdown kick return averages for those with over 15 returns.
But if he wants to score on special teams, he has a mountain to climb. The league leader in kickoff return touchdowns per game in a single season is Cecil Turner, who scored four in 14 games in 1970, which comes out to just over a quarter of his games.
Since then, a number of returners have scored a touchdown off of kickoffs three times, and only two have done it on more than 10 percent of their returns—Raymond Clayborn of the New England Patriots in 1977 and Mel Gray of the Detroit Lions in 1994.
Patterson is already below that rate despite being the league leader. Given that there have been fewer than three returns a game for him, it seems a stretch that he could perform a feat that has eluded history's best and maintain a return-to-touchdown ratio of 10:1.
However, a few things will work in his favor as he attempts to chase history on special teams.
The first bit of data that will help him out is that the Redskins rank fourth in the percentage of their kickoffs returned, per Pro Football Focus. Kai Forbath is an excellent kicker, but creating touchbacks is not one of his strengths.
In addition, Washington's special teams haven't been great in kick coverage. They've given up the second-worst field position on returned kicks (from Pro Football Focus again).
Beyond that, the Vikings have forced a number of kickoffs simply by playing poor defense and giving up bad field position. They give up a score on 43.2 percent of defensive drives, which ranks second in the NFL among defenses, which should mean a lot of kick returns for Patterson.
The Redskins offense and Vikings defense combine to average 12 drives a game and over four scores in those drives, which should mean five prime opportunities for the former Tennessee Vol to take it to the house. He very well might be able to do that.
In Peterson's record-breaking season, he only hit 200 yards twice (and hit 199 once, in the final regular-season game against Green Bay). That's two of the 127 games to feature a 200+ yard running back since 1960, a number which represents just over half a percent of the 21,674 team games played in that span.
But it is entirely possible that Adrian Peterson can once again outdo history and repeat this rare feat.
The Vikings surprisingly ran the ball little in Weeks 6-8, totaling 33 carries in three games. But in the close loss to Dallas, the Vikings returned to form, running him 25 times, where he gained 140 yards.
It is unlikely that he'll get the carries he needs to get to 200 yards, but it might be the case that the Vikings will be less sensitive to the scoreboard in the middle of games and give the ball to their best player. If he has a lot of carries—something around the neighborhood of 28—he'll need just over 7.1 yards a carry to hit that mark.
For him to do that, he'll need to have two or three explosive plays of over 20 yards mixed in with an otherwise solid running game. Against Dallas, who ranked eighth in yards per carry given up before their game against the Vikings, Peterson managed just one such play for 52 yards and finished with an average of 5.6 yards a carry.
Without those explosive plays, Adrian Peterson has averaged an abysmal 2.9 yards per carry but will benefit from playing against a defense that ranks 28th in run defense, per Football Outsiders DVOA metric and one that ranks 31st in "second level yards" given up, which measures how well a team defends runs between five and 10 yards.
When factoring out the explosive plays that the Redskins gave up, running backs have been able to gain 3.5 yards per carry—a good sign for a beleaguered run blocking game that is far too "famine" in their feast-or-famine style.
Should Peterson reach 3.5 yards a carry on his normal runs, he would need two explosive runs of 55 yards each to hit 200 yards.
A difficult task, but certainly doable for one of the best running backs in history.
The Vikings have become a league-average team when it comes to takeaways this year, a stark change from previous years. So far in 2013, they've intercepted passes on 2.4 percent of opponent dropbacks, which is just about in the middle.
Given that Robert Griffin III, the Washington quarterback, has been having a bad year—throwing interceptions on 3.0 percent of his throws—it's not out of the ordinary that the Vikings would be able to intercept a couple of his passes.
But the secondary has had a significant number of injuries. The Vikings will miss Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford, while Chris Cook, Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson are questionable for Thursday Night's game.
That's the entire starting secondary, as well as the nickel cornerback.
But the Redskins have spent a lot of time playing from behind, with the second lowest "game script score" in the NFL, a measure that averages the point differential for every second of a game. Should this hold up, Washington will have to throw the ball far more often than they'll be comfortable doing, given the concerns about Griffin's passing and his footwork, specifically.
In addition, five of the Vikings' eight interceptions have come from players outside of their secondary. A sixth came from A.J. Jefferson, a player who figures to see significant time against Washington, given those injury concerns.
Should the Vikings put Washington in a bind, it's entirely possible that Griffin could throw two interceptions.
It should be difficult for every prediction to come true with all of this, but there have been nine games in NFL history where a team gained 200 yards on the ground but lost the yardage battle by as much. As recently as 2011, Carolina gave Chicago 200 rushing yards but outgained them by 226 scrimmage yards.
It's still an extreme total, even without the Peterson prediction folded in. Only 45 of the 1,024 regular season games in the past two years have featured such a mismatch in total yardage gains. 12 of those games were either wins for the team that was outgained or within one score, so this doesn't necessarily confine the Vikings to a loss.
The Vikings rank second-to-last in the NFL in the total yardage battle, on balance giving up 75 more yards a game than they gain. Washington is just above average, adding eight yards in the average game versus their opponents.
But with the aforementioned injuries in the Vikings secondary, as well as an injury to Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings could struggle much more than they have in the recent past, and it seems as if Robert Griffin III may be hitting his stride.
He's average 288 yards a game through the air and on the ground in his past four matchups, and were it not for a very strong defensive performance from Denver, he would be averaging just over 337.
To add to that, Alfred Morris has hit over 90 yards in his three past games and is finally being given an opportunity to have more carries. Combining those for 427 yards alone would mean that the Vikings would need to add 228 yards to avoid being outplayed by 200 on the field.
They can do it—they've averaged over 315 yards a game on offense so far—but it will be tough to merely hold the Redskins to 427 yards given their injuries, and it will be similarly difficult to do the same without Kyle Rudolph, who already has 313 yards this season (just under 40 yards a game).
His production will be compensated for in a small way, but it's easy to imagine the Vikings offense stalling below 300 while the Redskins hit 500 of their own.
It wouldn't be a pretty game, but it's certainly possible.
With the way the Vikings season is going, it is unlikely that whoever plays quarterback will be turnover-free. In fact, there have only been two games where the Vikings did not throw an interception, and both of them had more than one dropped interception from the opposing team—a misstep that will be difficult to rely on.
Add in the fact that DeAngelo Hall seems to have revived his career in a small way and that David Amerson is making a splash as a rookie, and it seems wholly improbable that the Vikings can escape without throwing a pick.
But the rate at which the Vikings are throwing turnovers is unsustainable.
Just one year ago, Christian Ponder turned a league-average 2.5 percent of throws into interceptions and is nearing four percent this year. But when playing looser this last week against Green Bay, his throws were as precise as they were a year before, and he made fewer cringe-worthy mistakes.
This isn't to say that Ponder is a good quarterback by any means, but that one of his positive traits usually involves protecting the ball, usually at the risk of eschewing high-value plays downfield.
Should the Vikings revert to the no-huddle offense that was so successful at the beginning of the Dallas game, they could keep defenses predictable enough to avoid obvious mistakes. Beyond that, giving more responsibility to Adrian Peterson will provide fewer opportunities for a turnover against a defense that is far weaker than their interception totals imply.
DeAngelo Hall has always been a gambler, safety help or not, and generally regresses to the mean when trying to create turnovers. In 2010, he intercepted six passes in his first eight games (four of them in one game against the Bears), then didn't catch an opposing quarterback's pass for the rest of the year.
Similarly, 2012 could be considered a successful season, but all of his interceptions fell in the middle eight games of his year.
His interception totals—like many players—aren't predictable or a reliable indicator of his value to the team. It may not be smart to keep throwing at him all game, but the threat the Redskins provide in the turnover game may be far smaller than people think.