After weeks of asking this question about the Packers, I finally get the pleasure of asking it about the Vikings: what the hell happened to them this week in Philadelphia?
Mike Emms (Sports Ramble Contributor): Strangely, it was the kind of game I expected but was also a very weird and disjointed game full of anomalies. The Vikings defense played a tremendous game and their offensive line couldn't have blocked a Pop Warner team. The Vikings could have easily won the game but really squandered every single opportunity, i.e. if Andrew Sandejo fell into the endzone instead of at the one yard line on his interception return and if Anthony Barr scooped and scored instead of safely falling on a fumble recovery, the ineffectiveness of the Vikings offense would have been a small footnote in another Vikings victory. The offensive line is still a glowing weakness.
I don't mean to dismiss what the Eagles did to win, but a lot of crazy stuff had to happen for the game to unfold the way it did. When Is the last time you saw five consecutive drives end in turnovers from the two offenses that have turned the ball over the least prior to the game in question? It was clear that the Vikings team defense was overall excellent whereas the Eagles were simply opportunistic versus a terrible offensive line. Nothing in the Eagles secondary impressed me. The Vikings third takeaway resulted in three points, which turned out to be a bad thing for the Vikings because the ensuing kickoff return that resulted in eight points for the eagles. Carson Wentz mishandled the snap four times but some how maintained possession of the ball on every single one.
I thought the officiating was randomly bad in both directions as well. The refs picked up a flag on a clear pass interference that would have put the vikings offense near the goal line and then completely missed the Vikings committing the same foul in a similar situation the next drive on the Eagle's possession. Normally the Vikings special teams is excellent, but on Sunday they fumbled on a punt, gave up a touch down on a kickoff, and had no lengthy returns for Sherels or Patterson, which made Blair Walsh's field goal kicking the best thing that happened for the Vikings special teams.
And who would have expected that?
Erik Ritland (Sports Ramble podcast host and contributor): The Vikings looked haphazard, uncomfortable, and unprepared, which is strange considering the hard-nosed attitude of their coach. Who, to his credit, put a lot of the blame on the coaching staff needing to be more hands-on with the players. The team got a little fat and happy after going 5-0 into the bye week with every sports talk station in the Twin Cities raving about them (heck, even our last podcast was titled "Can Anything Stop the Vikings?").
While there's no need for alarm - even good teams play poorly like this, see the Patriots game against the Bills - it does show that the Vikings have weaknesses and are not the indestructible team that many people (including myself, sort of) thought them to be. Sam Bradford will continue having growing pains and if the offense can't score it doesn't matter how good the defense can play.
The Vikings offensive line is obviously their biggest concern. Is there anything they can do about it?
Mike: It is the Achilles' heel of the entire team, and if not remedied will be the single reason this Vikings team can't compete for a Superbowl this season. It is the lynch pin.
The biggest concern is that I don't think that coach Zimmer is happy with his personnel on the offensive line. During his post-game press conference he was asked why he has confident his that offensive line will get better, and he said that he doesn't know if he has confidence; rather, that he has 'faith'. In the context of his statement in sounded more like, "I hope it gets better." This is definitely a concern.
When the Vikings began training camp their top three offensive tackles were Matt Kahlil, Phil Loadhoalt, and Andre Smith. Loadhoalt retired and the other two are on IR, and as such it is no wonder why the unit is struggling. Other than Jake Long, who signed during the bye week there is no-one else coming, the Vikings are paying $34,000,000 to nine players who are currently on IR and have already traded away next years 1st round draft pick to get Sam Bradford. Thus, they are short on salary cap space and assets to make any more moves to fill in roster holes.
Long story longer, the Vikings are kind of stuck with making due with what they have, TJ Cemming, Jeremiah Sirles, and Jake long. Each player took turns at Both tack.e positions against the Eagles and each player gave up multiple quarterback hits. You could make the case that Clemmings played better on the left side than on the right side and that Jake long was simply rusty, but there's no real reason to give these guys the benefit of the doubt.
Erik: There's not really anything they can do about it except hope that things get better. Zimmer, as always, was realistic about this. All you can have is faith. The Vikings have worked around so many injuries this year with great success, however, so there isn't much of a reason to believe that they can't improve what they have right now.
Will lack of a running game effect the Vikings moving forward?
Mike: Yes, but the running game has been all about the performance of the offensive line, too. Jerrick McKinnon has enough talent to provide an explosive spark to the offenses running game, but there have been very few holes. That was true with Peterson, Asiata, McKinnon and now Hillman. If they can't figure out how to open up holes we are going to be forced into too many passing situations. I'm comfortable with Bradford reading defenses and making accurate throws, but I am not comfortable with him being pressured. He isn't Russell Wilson, he can't escape pressure in his face. His options are to throw quicker or accept being sacked. Sometimes neither of those are good options.
Erik: Yes, but with this offensive line they could have Walter Payton and Barry Sanders and still not be able to get a running game going.
The Packers came back to life this week, beating the Chicago Bears 26-10. Are they “back” or are the Bears just rull bad?
Mike: I would pump the breaks on the 'Pack is back" chatter. The Packers were losing 10-6 at the start of the 3rd quarter and the bears defense pretty much played the entire second half thanks to their back up quarterback, Matt Barkley, who displayed possibly the worse quarterback performance I have ever seen. The Bears defense might also be the worst in the NFL. For the Packers, putting up 6 points in the first half should unacceptable. If they are able to build off of what they did in the secnd half against better opponents then we can rehash this conversation.
Erik: It was a tale of two games: typical below average 2016 Packers in the first, and something like we thought they'd be going into the season in the second. The Packers are who they've proven us to be: a decent team, probably a playoff team, but without nearly enough depth on either side of the ball to give confidence of a deep run into the playoffs.
The Lions beat the Redskins this week in a tough contest at home. Do you believe in them (yet)?
Mike: It should be an interesting Wild Card Race. Matthew Stafford is playing like a true franchise quarterback; who would have thought that Calvin Johnson was holding him back all this time? They still have a very problematic defense - its hard to imagine a scenario where this Lions team makes a deep playoff run even if they get in - but with wins over Philadelphia and Washington they have a leg up in the Wild Card Race.
Furthermore, the NFC North is still very much up for grabs. We shouldn't write off the Lions 'chances of finishing with a better record than the Packers or the Vikings just yet. They played the Packers in a very competitive game at Lambeau Field and have yet to play the Vikings. If you're a Lions fan, you already believe that your team can at least split the divisional games. I think the Vikings are the best team in the division and that the Lions and Packers are pretty close to each other. But if other teams can find ways to exploit the Vikings offensive line like the Eagles did we could be in for a really interesting ride.
Erik: They are far more interesting, and competitive, than anyone thought they'd be, and that's super fun. How awesome is their game against the Vikings on Thanksgiving going to be?! They definitely have a chance to catch the Packers, and with the Vikings full of holes, we can't really count them out in the race against them, either.
Any other games catch your eye this week?
Mike: Falcons and Chargers. An example of a game that looked like an easy one for the Falcons turned out to be anything but, as they put up 21 points in the second quarter but then got stymied for most the rest of the game and lost. It's hard to know if the Falcons are falling apart like they did last year or if they will be able to get back on track. Falcons fans must be nervous.
Erik: I was sad to see the Buffalo Bills collapse against the Dolphins. They're very hot and cold and I have a bad feeling that the Patriots will slice them up this week.