Skol Scale Vol. 19: Playoff Ready

Drew Mahowald presents the 19th edition of the Skol Scale following the Minnesota Vikings’ Week 16 shutout win over the Green Bay Packers.

The Minnesota Vikings are poised to earn a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs for the first time in eight years this Sunday. Barring an unforeseen miracle, Minnesota will host a playoff game in the divisional round at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Mike Zimmer’s squad is as hot as any team in the NFL, winning 10 of its last 11 games. They’ve won with offense. They’ve won with defense. They’ve won against highly respected playoff teams. Their resume is arguably the most complete in the league.

But the last two weeks specifically have shown that the Vikings are ready for playoff football.

Minnesota’s Week 14 loss at Carolina snapped an eight-game winning streak and dropped the team to 10-3. It was one of the worst performances of the season for the Vikings, and they still had chances to steal a win late in the game. Alas, the Panthers survived and handed a devastating loss to Minnesota.

The Vikings’ response to that loss would define how ready this team is for the playoffs. Time and time again, the NFL has seen teams with long winning streaks collapse after getting that streak snapped. Look no further than the 2016 Vikings after the 5-0 start.

Minnesota needed to respond with force against Cincinnati and Green Bay — both inferior teams. And the Vikings did just that.

Week 15’s win over the Bengals was over halfway through the first quarter. U.S. Bank Stadium was bouncing as the Vikings cruised to a 34-0 lead before completing the demolition by a 34-7 score. Andy Dalton looked like a deer in headlights all day long while Pat Shurmur’s offense hummed through a talented Bengals defense.

The Vikings’ dominance, especially on defense, carried over to Lambeau Field for their Week 16 win over the Packers. Mike McCarthy and Brett Hundley had no answers for the plethora of talent in the Vikings defensive backfield. On one play, Minnesota’s defensive backs held man-to-man coverage for 13 (!!!!) seconds while Hundley scrambled around trying to find someone open. He never found anyone and threw the ball away.

The Packers’ only real success was two long scrambles on broken plays by Hundley. That’s it. Green Bay could not move the ball in any other fashion.

Offensively, it wasn’t pretty, but the Vikings got the job done in the single-digit temperatures. Case Keenum made enough throws to keep the offense afloat while the running game did enough to force the Packers to commit to stopping it.

Over the last two weeks, the Vikings have outscored opponents 50-7. Complete domination. That is how you respond after a long winning streak is snapped. And that is why this team is playoff ready.

Now to this week’s Skol Scale.

Be sure to check out BetOnline before placing a wager on Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Bears.

The Good

Harrison Smith: What more can we say about this guy? He’s flat-out elite at every aspect of playing the safety position. He sets the against the run. He blankets running backs and tight ends in coverage. He reads screens like a freaking hawk. He blitzes with incredible efficiency. He’s unbelievable, really.

Pro Football Focus recognized Smith’s performance against Green Bay in the same way, awarding him with the perfect game grade on their scale: 99.9.

The Rest of the Secondary: Smith played the most complete game of the season from the safety position, so I had to single him out. But the rest of the secondary shut the lights out at Lambeau Field too. Per BJ Reidell’s coverage chart, Xavier Rhodes allowed three receptions on six targets for 18 yards. Trae Waynes allowed three catches on eight targets for 36 yards. Mackensie Alexander allowed one catch on five targets for 10 yards. Terence Newman allowed two receptions on four targets for 17 yards. Andrew Sendejo allowed one reception on two targets for five yards. And finally, Smith allowed three receptions on six targets for 21 yards and two interceptions.

Together, that’s 13 completions on 31 targets for 107 yards and two interceptions — a passer rating of 24.53. Remember, throwing an incomplete pass literally every attempt is a passer rating of 39.6.

Hundley should have just thrown every pass into the stands — it would have been more efficient.

The Bad

Injuries: Nick Easton’s season-ending ankle injury and Riley Reiff leaving Saturday’s game early are reasons for concern moving forward for the Vikings. This team folded like a cheap lawn chair last season when offensive line injuries began piling up. Obviously, this situation is nowhere near as severe, but it’s important to note the value of a healthy and effective offensive line when you have one.

Skol Scale Figure: 10

The Skol Scale has maxed out for the first time in its history. The shutout win at Lambeau confirmed my initial belief that the loss against Carolina was more of an anomaly than a sign of tougher times to come. This defense travels to any stadium and dominates — which doesn’t actually matter much anymore, because the only stadium the Vikings *might* have to travel to the rest of the season is Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

Speaking of Philly, the Eagles’ performance over the past few of weeks is another reason the Skol Scale has jumped to 10. Since Week 13, the Eagles have:

  • been embarrassed by the Seattle Seahawks (who are on the outside looking in at the NFC playoffs prior to Week 17)
  • defeated the Los Angeles Rams on the road, but lost their starting quarterback in the process
  • barely squeaked past the 2-13 New York Giants and the 6-9 Oakland Raiders behind new starting quarterback Nick Foles.

At this point, Philadelphia will have to host either New Orleans, Los Angeles, Carolina, Atlanta or Seattle their division round game. Without Wentz, none of those matchups is a slam dunk for the Eagles.

It’s quite likely that the NFC Championship game is played at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Zimmer’s squad is playoff ready, while the most dangerous team ahead of the Vikings in the NFC does not appear playoff ready. The Vikings have built the most momentum heading into the playoffs out of any team in the NFL. It’s time to buy in.

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Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald is the No. 1 Jim Kleinsasser fan and No. 1 Little Caesars pizza enthusiast on planet Earth. That about sums it up.

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  1. 9, because Keenum and McKinnon are both now having up and down games, while Thielen and Murray have cooled off.