Skol Scale Vol. 16: Situational Football Wins Championships

Drew Mahowald presents the 16th edition of the Skol Scale following the Minnesota Vikings’ gritty road win against the Atlanta Falcons.

The Minnesota Vikings are scorching hot.

The Minnesota Vikings are also the best team in the NFC.

The Minnesota Vikings control their own destiny for home-field advantage in the playoffs — through the Super Bowl.

Not bad, right?

Mike Zimmer’s squad continues to put together solid wins week in and week out, casually dominating opposing teams that are generally recognized as formidable teams. Since the bye week, the Vikings have handled a 4-4 Washington Redskins team on the road, a 7-2 blazing hot Los Angeles Rams team, a 6-4 Detroit Lions squad gunning for the division at Ford Field and a 7-4 Atlanta Falcons team that won the NFC 11 months ago.

How does Minnesota get it done so easily against playoff teams? Easy: situational football. In particular, the Vikings have excelled in both third-down situations and red zone situations.

Through Week 13, Minnesota ranks in the top 10 in third-down offense (1st, 46.0%), third-down defense (1st, 27.2%), red zone offense (8th, 58.1% touchdowns) and red zone defense (3rd, 38.7% touchdowns).

It’s extremely rare for an NFL team to rank highly in all four of these categories — and even more rare that a team can rank best in the NFL in both third-down categories, yet here we are.

For reference, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots also ranked in the top 10 in each of the aforementioned categories in 2016. The 2015 NFC Champion Carolina Panthers ranked in the top 13 in each category. When New England won the Super Bowl in 2014, it ranked in the top 15 in every category and in the top 10 in all but one. Seattle, the Patriots’ Super Bowl opponent in 2014, ranked in the top 10 in both third-down categories.

Do you see the trend?

Efficiency in both third-down situations and red zone situations generally equals success. Minnesota has placed an enormous emphasis on situational football all season long. Zimmer’s defense doesn’t have the turnover numbers or the defensive touchdown numbers that everyone expected — and that’s okay. Instead, the Zim Reapers (or Zfense?) has been flat-out dominant on third down. No gambles, no risks, no mistakes — just terrifically sound, fundamental football.

Offensively, Pat Shurmur has been a wizard calling plays in the red zone for Minnesota. The Vikings have jumped from 28th in red zone touchdown percentage in 2016 to eighth in 2017 largely because of Shurmur’s innovations in the red zone. Misdirections, reformations, read options, you name it — Shurmur has included all kinds of wacky concepts into his red zone sets, and it has worked beautifully.

The Vikings are Super Bowl contenders for many reasons, but their situational football success is reason No. 1. If they stay this efficient on third down and in the red zone, they will remain a Super Bowl contender. Period.

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 Panthers.

The Good

Pat Elflein: The rookie center turned in one of his best performances of the season on Sunday against the Falcons. He sped up in space to make blocks on screens (which is nothing new), opened holes for Latavius Murray on the ground and kept Case Keenum clean in pass protection. Elite third-round value for general manager Rick Spielman.

Second-Half Case: Any time you complete 13 of 13 pass attempts, you’re probably doing something right. Keenum fixed some of his first-half miscues and grilled Atlanta’s defense in the second half, particularly on a 15-play, 89-yard scoring drive that resulted in a touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph. It’s time to stop worrying about the Case Keenum “collapse.” It’s not happening, folks. This is Case Keenum.

Third-down defense: Atlanta entered Sunday’s game as the top third-down offense in the NFL. Minnesota entered Sunday as the No. 1 third-down defense. The Falcons finished the game 1-for-10 on third down. ONE FOR TEN.

Hitman Harry: We’re 12 games into the season and Harrison Smith’s passer rating allowed in coverage is still worse than the quarterback throwing the ball into the ground on every play. According to BJ Reidell’s coverage chart, Smith has allowed a passer rating of 35.76 this season. Meanwhile, 39.6 represents the passer rating of an incomplete pass. In other words, it’s statistically a better option to spike the ball rathern than throw the ball at Harrison Smith.

Rhodes Closed: Julio Jones finished with 24 yards on two receptions Sunday, including one reception for 13 yards on three targets at Xavier Rhodes. The Falcons schemed hard away from Rhodes on Sunday. Rhodes didn’t necessarily have to be elite on the field to shut down one of the top receivers in the NFL. His reputation alone is making the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta freaking Falcons wet himself.

The Bad

Um, nothing: The Vikings made both of their extra-point attempts against the Falcons, so I’ve officially run out of real concerns about this team. Honestly, I’ve tried to think of something to be concerned with about this team and I can’t do it. If you have something, please let me know in the comments. I’m out of ideas.

The Skol Scale Figure: 9.5

I know, I know, a win on the road against the Atlanta Falcons didn’t move the Skol Scale figure from last week. I’m not here to say the win doesn’t mean anything, but one more daunting road task remains ahead. If the Vikings can clip the Panthers in Charlotte this weekend, I can wholeheartedly guarantee that the Skol Scale maxes out. Full 10.

The Panthers are a bit of a weird team. At 8-4, they have put together solid third-down numbers this season (sixth offensively, third defensively). However, they rank 17th and 27th in the red zone. Minnesota handled the Panthers with ease last season, sacking Cam Newton eight times and forcing a couple of turnovers. Sure, both of these teams are different now. But the Vikings certainly match up better with Carolina than they did with the Falcons.

Oh, yeah I almost forgot. It’s Everson Griffen versus Matt Kalil this week. If I were you, I’d make sure you have your popcorn ready and just watch that one-on-one battle all day. Let’s hope the Carolina coaching staff demands excellence from Kalil, because he’ll need it against Griffen.

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Be sure to check out Ep. 141 of the About the Labor podcast for more elite Vikings content! 

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Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald is a student at Saint John's University (MN) majoring in Media Communication. He proclaims himself as the number one fan of Little Caesars pizza and Jim Kleinsasser. The first Vikings game Drew remembers watching is the 41-0 blowout loss to the Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship game. Despite this, he has developed a deep knowledge and passion for the team. When he isn't writing about the Vikings, Drew is usually out golfing with friends or eating Little Caesar's pizza. You can find more of his work at, the SB Nation affiliate Minnesota Timberwolves blog, or on Twitter at @DrewMahowald.

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One Comment

  1. All valid, but can we win as the frontrunner? Can a regional team that competes every ten years when scrutiny is turned up? When the media coverage goes from 10-20 guys to fifty-75 can we deal with it? When everyone tells us how great we are are we satisfied as players? When there’s no chip on the shoulder, no knocks to display, no us against them can we get it done?