You could say the Minnesota Vikings had no business playing in the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia after needing a Minneapolis Miracle to get there. But they entered play as the NFL’s best defense in points and yardage allowed and were three-point favorites on the road. They left Philly 31-point losers.
Eagles’ offensive coordinator Frank Reich picked apart the best third-down defense in football -- getting first downs on 10 of 14 third-down tries. Shutdown cornerback Xavier Rhodes summed it up succinctly, saying the Vikings’ defense played like “trash.”
The defense wasn’t the only problem on Sunday, though. Quarterback Case Keenum finally turned into the pumpkin everyone expected this Cinderella season, and Vikings’ general manager Rick Spielman should not ignore the result when addressing the Vikings’ roster at quarterback -- or lack thereof.
With 23-year-old Kyle Sloter out of Northern Colorado the only quarterback on the roster going into next season, the Vikings will once again have to answer the quarterback question this offseason. Some would say Keenum has earned the starting job, but given his latest performance, the Vikings should let him test the free agent market.
Upon throwing a pick-six after his arm was hit by Cameron Graham, who beat right tackle Rashod Hill on just about every play, Keenum fell apart. Before the pick-six, Keenum completed four of six passes for 60 yards and a touchdown. Afterward, he completed just 57.1 percent of his 42 passes, gaining just five yards per attempt on average, with no more touchdowns and another interception. That is not the performance of a quarterback worth $21.3 million per year. That was the franchise tag salary for quarterbacks in 2017, and the least the Vikings could pay Keenum to return next season.
With Sam Bradford’s $18 million coming off the books along with 13 other players entering free agency, the Vikings have a little over $60 million in cap space next season. That’s enough to do more than just retain two of their three quarterbacks, and with Kirk Cousins and Drew Brees potentially available in free agency, the answer to the quarterback question is even more difficult.
The Vikings should be pretty confident in allowing Keenum, Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater to test free agency. Bradford and Bridgewater haven’t proven they can stay healthy as starters, and while there are plenty of NFL teams who would love to have either, Bradford and Bridgwater couldn’t be entering free agency at a worse time for them.
Keenum, on the other hand, will be considerably over-valued on the free agent market, and will likely be overpaid by a desperate team. The Vikings would be smart to let him go elsewhere and pay the undervalued Bradford and Bridgewater to return. But if Spielman does intend to bring back Bradford to start and Bridgewater to back him up, he best protect his injury-prone investments.
The additions of tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers vastly improved the offensive line play of the Vikings. As of Week 5, Pro Football Focus ranked the healthy Vikings’ O-line 20th overall and 15th in pass-blocking, after finishing last season ranked 23rd in pass-blocking. But the Vikings’ offensive line wasn’t healthy going into the NFC Championship Game, and the Eagles showed the value of having the league’s top offensive line, keeping Nick Foles upright and, at times, allowing him seven seconds to throw the football against the Vikings’ four-man, pass rush.
While the Vikings offensive line improved in pass protection, run blocking was still an issue, which isn’t something Spielman must address with running back Dalvin Cook coming back from injury. But if Bradford and Bridgewater are his quarterbacks, he’ll want to add some depth to the offensive line if he hopes to keep either of them healthy. Playing Remmers out of position at left guard in the NFC Championship Game and forcing backup Sharod Hill to take on the Eagles’ sacks leader probably wasn’t how Spielman drew it up prior to the season.
Spielman will likely have another hole to fill on the offensive line, too. Right guard Joe Berger has hinted that he intends to retire. With a lack of interior, offensive lineman available through free agency, it’s likely Spielman and the Vikings will address the offensive line through the draft. R.J. White and Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports think Spielman will target the former college teammate of Pat Elflein, Billy Price. But if Spielman can save some money by retaining the undervalued Bradford and Bridgewater, he could potentially sign the best guard in football.
Carolina’s Andrew Norwell, 26, is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and lining him up next to the second-year center Elflein and the veteran Reiff (or Remmers) would certainly increase the chances of Bradford and Bridgewater staying healthy and effective. Spielman could then address the issue of depth through the draft, even selecting Price and easing him into a starting role so he’s ready when Nick Easton becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season.
It’s time to let the soon-to-be-40 Terrance Newman ride off into the sunset, while 33-year-old run-stuffer Tom Johnson should probably be retained given the lack of availability at his position in free agency. There’s no one on the depth chart behind him at left defensive tackle, and he could be retained at a reasonable price.
Marcus Sherels made $2 million to catch kicks this season, and at 30, averaged just 9.5 yards per punt return -- down from a career high of 13.9 yards per return last season. That position is better filled by a young draftee and likely will be.
Jerick McKinnon wants a bigger role running the ball and has likely played his last game in purple and gold, while kicker Kai Forbath probably earned a raise with his play in the Divisional Playoff Game against New Orleans.
The Vikings are so close to contending for a championship, and adding a guy like Norwell should put their offensive line in the top third of the league and protect the brittle Bradford and Bridgewater. Depth is the biggest concern, and given Spielman's success using the draft to add talent, the Vikings should enter next season even better than this season.
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For the first time in a long time, the Minnesota Vikings gave fans joy instead of pain in January. Immediately dubbed the “Minneapolis Miracle” by KFAN play-by-play broadcaster Paul Allen, Stefon Diggs soared for Case Keenum’s Hail Mary pass on a play called “Seven Heaven” and ran it in for a 61-yard touchdown with no time left on the clock to beat New Orleans and advance to the NFC Championship Game. But the Vikings weren’t the only team in Minnesota playing big games in January. Both the Wild and Timberwolves were in action on Sunday, and both are in contention.
Minnesotans aren’t used to their professional sports teams being competitive. Hell, they aren’t used to their professional sports teams staying in Minnesota. Minnesota has never had a football, hockey and basketball team (and baseball team, technically) in contention this far into their respective seasons as it has in 2018. With the Wild on a five-day bye and the Wolves just a half game behind San Antonio for third place in the Western Conference, Minnesota will be making history every day the Vikings survive. For the first time ever, Minnesota has championship caliber teams contending in all four major, American sports.
Minnesota had two sports teams in contention in January of 2005, and if it weren’t for the NHL strike that cost us all the 2004-05 season, Minnesota would have likely had three contenders at once. The Vikings advanced out of the Wild Card round by winning in Green Bay, but lost in Philadelphia in the Divisional Round on Jan. 16. The Timberwolves entered that day 18-17 and second in the Northwest Division. The Wild were 30-29-20-3 the previous season and then 38-36-8 in 2005-06.
On the same day the Vikings were shutout by the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game in 2001, and the Timberwolves were running fifth in the Midwest Division with a record of 21-17. The Wild, however, entered Jan. 14, 2001 with a record of 14-19-8-2 -- last in the Northwest Division and tied for second to last in the Western Conference. The Timberwolves went onto the playoffs; the Wild did not.
In January of 1988, the North Stars were bringing up the rear in the Norris Division and sitting second to last in the Clarence Campbell Conference while the Vikings were going into the NFC Championship Game they’d lose to Washington. The Timberwolves didn’t exist.
On Jan. 11, 1970, the Minnesota Vikings were blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl while the North Stars entered play with a record of 9-15-13, good for third in the West Division but worse than every East team. The Minneapolis Lakers, though, had already been the Los Angeles Lakers for a decade. They were 21-22 at that point in the season, en route to the playoffs.
The last time any local fan base had contenders in all four major, American, professional sports in January was just last year. As the New England Patriots marched toward another Super Bowl win, the Boston Celtics were running third in the Eastern Conference and the Bruins were second in the Atlantic Division. Both the Celtics and Bruins went onto the playoffs. The Red Sox went on to the playoffs, too, and as of April 23, Boston still had a chance to win all four major, American, professional sports championships in the same calendar year.
Before that, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins won their respective championships in 2009, but didn’t and still don’t have a professional basketball team to continue the Steel City’s dominance.
All four of Philadelphia's major professional sports teams played in a championship game or series in their respective sports, but not in a calendar year. The 1980 Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series in October, but the Philadelphia Eagles lost Super Bowl XV in 1981. The 1979-80 Philadelphia 76ers lost the NBA Finals, and the 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers lost the Stanley Cup Finals.
The last and only time a local fan base enjoyed winning championships in three of the major, American, professional sports was in 1935, when the Detroit Lions, Red Wings and Tigers all won their respective championships. The Detroit Pistons didn’t exist.
No local fan base has enjoyed winning championships in all four of the major, American, professional sports in the same calendar year. But things are lining up well for Minnesota, as Minneapolis hosts the Super Bowl this year, and the Vikings opened as 3.5-point favorites on the road at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.
If the Timberwolves can secure the three seed in the Western Conference, they could avoid playing Oklahoma City and Golden State in the NBA Playoffs, increasing their chances of winning an NBA Championship against a less competitive Eastern Conference.
The Minnesota Wild aren’t even in a bad position with the top Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. They’d visit nearby Winnipeg in the first round of the playoffs and just beat them 4-1 on Saturday.
The Twins are also gearing up for a run at a championship by bolstering their bullpen. The addition of Fernando Rodney and, surprisingly, Addison Reed, to the backend of the bullpen will push guys like Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey and Ryan Pressly into lower leverage situations. If they can land the top free agent starter on the market, Yu Darvish, to go along with Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana, they’d be legitimate contenders, regardless of Miguel Sano’s status given sexual assault allegations against him.
As it stands, Minnesotans are enjoying the best days in the history of Minnesota sports and will continue doing so for as long as the Vikings allow.
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This year there were three Thanksgiving NFL games (up from the traditional two) and the playoff picture is starting to clearly emerge. This late in the season two of the games were a bit inconsequential but there was a good battle in the NFC Central - the MN Vikings vs. the Detroit Lions.
It was no surprise to many that the MN Vikings outpowered the Lions, despite a really strong 4th quarter comeback by Detroit’s QB Matthew Stafford. The Vikings look unstoppable in the NFC except for perhaps, the other dominant team in the division (more on that in a minute). The NFL is really starting to see that the Vikings have a super star receiver in Adam Thielen who already has 1000 yards receiving with another five games to play. Despite losing rookie sensation Dalvin Cook in game 4 the Vikings remain strong in the running game and have a top five defense. The 9-2 Vikings remain dominant on top of the Black and Blue division (NFC Central) and are legitimate contenders this year.
That being said, the 9-1 Philadelphia Eagles remain the team to beat in the NFC. Skeptics say the Eagles (who were 7-9 last season) had an easy schedule this year but beating winless teams (like they did vs. the 49ers) and beating teams that you should beat is all part of the NFL. There is a reason “any given Sunday” is a known colloquialism. Winning is hard in the NFL and you just never know if this is the game that winless opponent you are going up against has an amazing game and puts up 45 points. So if you make mistakes and lose to teams you should not lose to -- you won’t make the playoffs. And the Eagles are just not making mistakes like that. Much of the credit needs to go to greatly improved Eagles QB Carson Wentz. He’s spreading the ball around, avoiding pressure and is blindsiding defenses with pinpoint accurate throws.
The wild card here is the New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees is on fire and just won't stop throwing TD's. But -- much like the Packers, the Saints only have Brees. If Brees has a single bad or mediocre game the Saints lose big time. They don't have a deep bench (as folks say in basketball) which is why I expect them to easily make the playoffs and then not make it past the divisional round. This is a bit pessimistic of me as many are picking the Saints to be a true contender. Fair enough. I just don't buy it.
The 7-3 Rams are good but -- well, not good enough to beat the Vikings or the Eagles. The Vikings have already crushed the Rams once this season 28-7 and the Eagles will beat them in the upcoming match up in December. So, I fully expect the Rams to make the playoffs and lose in the divisional round.
The Cowboys and the Packers were expected to be in the playoff running this year but Dallas has had a string of lackluster offensive games and I think will miss the playoffs with an 8-8 record and the Packers season ended the moment Aaron Rodgers was injured. Sorry Green Bay fans. Even as a MN Vikings fan I actually really like Aaron Rodgers and am happy to see him succeed but if he goes down, your team loses. A lot.
As for the Carolina Panthers, as long as Cam Newton remains healthy the Panthers (7-3) should make the playoffs but nothing about their team screams "true Super Bowl contenders." I know they went 15-1 two seasons ago, made it to the super bowl and lost but even that team was generally acknowledged to be the worst team to ever start at 11-0. I kind of feel the same way about the Panthers this season. Their decent record will take them to the playoffs but they’ll have an early exit.
Finally, rounding out the NFC contenders - the Seahawks, the Atlanta Falcons both at 6-4 and the Detroit Lions at 6-5 but all of them have been playing too inconsistent to be a deep playoff threat. Similar to the Panthers, I can see any or maybe all three teams making it to the wild card match ups if things suddenly turn sour for the Rams and the Saints but don’t believe any of them will make it to the championship game.
NFC Championship game: MN Vikings vs. The Philadelphia Eagles
Who wins: Even chances. I suspect this will come down to who has the healthiest team. The Eagles have a much better offense. The Vikings have a slightly better defense. As the saying go, “Defense wins Championships.”
That may be true. But offense wins Super Bowls.
As for the AFC, that’s even easier. The Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) and the Tennessee Titans (6-4) have all shown moments of extremely exciting, smart football. But similar to the Seahawks and the Falcons - consistency is the problem. Really good but inconsistent teams usually make it to the playoffs and rarely advance to the championship game.
The Chargers, Ravens and Buffalo Bills are all begging for scraps at the table and I could see any one of those teams pulling out three or four more wins and making it to the postseason. But - again - consistency.
And it all comes down to the fact I don’t see any of the AFC teams beating the two big boys on the block - The New England Patriots (8-2) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-2).
I feel like the Steelers are good this year, but not as good as their 8-2 record implies. And I feel the opposite about the Patriots. New England should probably be 9-1 or maybe even 10-0. A few lucky breaks for opposing teams and NE ended up with two loses. I just don’t see anyone in the AFC beating Tom Brady’s Patriots.
AFC Championship game: New England Patriots vs. The Pittsburgh Steelers.
Who will win: The Patriots in a blowout win over the Steelers.
Which brings us to:
Unless something goes spectacularly wrong, which can always happen in the NFL, I expect Super Bowl 52 to be the NE Patriots vs. either the Vikings or the Eagles.
The Super Bowl is actually in Minneapolis, MN this year. As a Vikings fan I would love to see them play the Super Bowl in their home town. But - alas - I suspect it will be the Patriots and the Eagles with Tom Brady and winning his sixth ring.
But I hope not.
I hope it’s the Vikings! Unless, of course, they get waylaid by that silly Vikings curse that always waylays them!
There were plenty of NFL teams that made playoff statements in Week 9 -- some good, some bad. No team made a bigger statement than Philadelphia, though.
The Eagles (8-1) have been fantastic and should end up the top playoff seed in the NFC. The rest of Philadelphia’s schedule isn’t easy, with two games against Dallas, one at Seattle and one at the Rams. But with eight wins already and a home game against the Bears and the hapless Giants on the schedule, the Eagles should win more than 10 games. If the offensive line holds up and Carson Wentz stays healthy, the Eagles might win 14. As for their opponent in Week 9...
The Broncos are a mess when they have the ball, and their defense was picked apart for 51 points by Wentz. Worse yet, the Broncos will take their sixth loss of the season at home against the Patriots next week. The Denver defense can’t carry this team to the playoffs if the turnovers continue, unless Kansas City collapses.
MVP candidate Alex Smith was stymied by an overachieving Dallas secondary and pass rush, and Kareem Hunt was taken out of the game by his own coach. He had just nine carries. The Chiefs were sloppy pre-snap, wouldn’t establish a running game nor stop the run. The Chiefs will make the playoffs, but I like the Steelers’ and Patriots’ schedules (and quarterbacks) better the rest of the way.K
The Steelers (6-2) have the Andrew Luck-less Colts next, the Titans at home, and the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers followed by the reeling Bengals in Cincinnati. The Patriots are the only team remaining that should beat them, but we’ve already seen Pittsburgh fall to the Bears this season and struggle with the really good Jacksonville secondary.
Despite an ugly loss to Kansas City in Week 1, the Patriots could still end up the AFC’s top playoff seed. They play the Dolphins and Bills twice, and the Jets once. The Broncos and Raiders won’t likely pose problems for the Patriots, either.
The Panthers’ Cam Newton was better than reigning MVP Matt Ryan on Sunday, and Christian McCaffrey displayed why the Panthers don’t need Kelvin Benjamin, who was traded to Buffalo for third- and seventh-round draft picks. If Newton and McCaffrey stay healthy, the Panthers are champions of the NFC South.
The Panthers (6-3) have just one blemish on their record, which is a home loss to New Orleans. They’ll get a chance to redeem themselves on Dec. 3 in New Orleans, after facing the hapless Dolphins and Jets with a bye week sandwiched in between. The Saints (6-2) have three tough games upcoming: at Buffalo, hosting Washington and at the white hot Rams prior to hosting Carolina. They also have two games against the Falcons, who were a Julio Jones drop away from making a positive playoff statement in Week 9. Instead…
With losses to the Bills and Dolphins already this season, the Falcons have lost too many of the games they need to win to make the playoffs. Atlanta can still make a positive playoff statement either next week against the Cowboys or the week after in Seattle, but that’s looking less likely with every snap. If the offensive woes continue, the Falcons will lose either one of their two games against the high-octane Saints and/or another against the Panthers, which will make them miss the playoffs.
The Rams (6-2) put up 51 on the terrible Giants, but they also put up 35 on Dallas in a win that could break a tie for a Wild Card spot. The Rams are dangerous on both sides of the ball and on special teams, too. Jared Goff is starting to show why he was selected number one overall now that he has weapons in former Bills Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. Speaking of the Bills…
Buffalo’s loss to the Jets on Thursday to kick off Week 9 of the 2017 NFL season was certainly a Thursday Night Football anomaly, but it left the Bills 4-3 with two games left to play against the Patriots. The Saints visit next week before the Bills visit the Chargers and Chiefs. That’s seven losses right there, so the Bills will miss the playoffs.
The Bills’ misfortune on Thursday night will open the door for the Jaguars to make the playoffs. Despite a Week 1 loss at home to the Titans, the Jaguars can win their division. They will take their revenge at Tennessee in the final week of the season to win the AFC South -- if they haven’t won it by then already. The Jaguars get the Chargers, Browns, Cardinals and Colts over the next four weeks. Tennessee hosts Cincinnati and visits the Steelers and Colts before hosting the Texans.
This was originally published at GCNLive.com.