Drew Mahowald presents the 20th edition of the Skol Scale following the Minnesota Vikings’ 23-10 win over the Chicago Bears to wrap up the regular season at 13-3.
The Minnesota Vikings aren’t just playoff bound.
They’re already divisional round bound. At home.
Minnesota wrapped up the regular season by winning 11 of its final 12 games to enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Mike Zimmer’s team has exceeded any and all expectations set forth before the season by even the biggest of homers.
The Vikings have earned the reputation as the Super Bowl favorite in the NFC, thanks to an unfortunate injury to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. Zimmer’s stingy defense allowed the fewest points and yards in the NFL this season while posting the best defensive third down conversion rate in NFL history. Meanwhile, Pat Shurmur’s offense has maximized its talent, whether it be undrafted wide receiver Adam Thielen surpassing 1,200 receiving yards en route to Pro Bowl recognition or the revival of longtime backup quarterback Case Keenum’s career.
Minnesota’s well-balanced attack on both sides of the ball is further enhanced by one of the most electrifying home-field advantages in the NFL at U.S. Bank Stadium — also the location of Super Bowl 52. If Philadelphia slips up in the divisional round, the Vikings will have home-field advantage through the Super Bowl.
This Vikings playoff run feels different from runs in the past. In 2015, the Vikings were on the right end of a ton of close games against middling teams that helped them reach 11-5 and an NFC North title. In 2012, the Vikings rode to a wild card spot solely on the back of Adrian Peterson.
The 2009 Vikings team was the definition of a ‘Super Bowl or Bust’ team. Brett Favre was initially supposed to be in Minnesota for one year, and that year was his last shot at another ring. The Vikings faithful couldn’t count on the following years for more playoff success — that run was it. As we all know, 2009 ended in complete heartbreak, but that heartbreak wasn’t felt only because the Vikings collapsed when they nearly had a berth in the Super Bowl. Many were heartbroken because it was that team’s one chance. There was no “we’ll get it next year” mindset.
This current Vikings team has a different feel to it.
Zimmer, general manager Rick Spielman and salary cap guru Rob Brzezinski have formed a roster that is poised to contend for championships well after this season. Minnesota’s defense might be the most talented in the NFL, and it’s accompanied by an offense that ranked top 10 in several significant categories behind a journeyman backup quarterback. Additionally, many of the Vikings’ cornerstone franchise players — Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, Adam Thielen, Riley Reiff, Dalvin Cook and Pat Elflein — are under contract for multiple seasons following the conclusion of the current playoff run.
And that is why the fan base needs to buy in. Forget about the so-called inevitable collapse. Forget about the unfortunate history that has plagued this franchise. This front office, this head coach and this roster have created something special that will last well past this season.
The Vikings are certainly set up to succeed in this postseason. But it’s the strong foundation supporting it that brings a different feel to this playoff run that the Vikings fan base has not felt in decades.
Now to this week’s Skol Scale.
Zimmer’s Defense At Home: This defense is elite regardless of where it’s playing, but it’s particularly elite in the friendly confines of U.S. Bank Stadium. Zimmer’s unit has allowed an average of 12.5 points per game at home, and not one of the team’s eight home opponents managed to score 20 or more points. Additionally, the Vikings allowed eight touchdowns all season at home — three of which could be credited to garbage time defense.
#Vikings defense allowed 8 TDs at home this season, and at least 3 came in garbage time against prevent defense.
Wk 1: Saints TD w/ 1:56 left down 17
Wk 7: Ravens TD as time expired down 15
Wk 15: Bengals TD w/ 6 min left down 34 pic.twitter.com/Y1Oue3moxN
— Drew Mahowald (@DrewMahowald) January 4, 2018
Third Down Success: Another important reason the Vikings are poised for a deep playoff run is their success on third down. Defensively, the Vikings set a new NFL record for third down conversion rate allowed (25.2%). Meanwhile, the offense converted 43.5% of its third downs, good enough for third in the NFL. Part of the reason the Vikings defense has been so dominant is the extra rest it receives thanks to the long drives constructed by Shurmur and the offense.
Red Zone Efficiency: More situational football — this time, the red zone. Both sides of the ball rank in the Top 10 in the NFL in the red zone. Minnesota’s defense is third in the NFL in red zone touchdown rate allowed, as opponents scored touchdowns on just 16 of 40 (40%) trips in the red zone. Offensively, the Vikings scored touchdowns on 33 of 57 (57.9%) trips to the red zone, good enough for ninth in the NFL.
Pat Shurmur Calling Plays: No, I’m not concerned about the offense and you shouldn’t be either. Minnesota just scored three touchdowns against a borderline Top 10 defense in the Bears and ran up 34 on Cincinnati in three quarters just a few weeks ago. Shurmur’s play designs and play calls, particularly in third-and-short situations, have made the game easy for Case Keenum and the rest of the offense. In each game this season, Shurmur, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have established a rushing attack that the opponent must account for, which is why Keenum has been one of the most efficient play-action quarterbacks all season.
Does Keenum have his weaknesses? Sure. He’ll miss a few throws here and there, particularly down the field. But as long as Shurmur is calling plays, this offense has more than enough fire power to win when accompanied by the aforementioned Zimmer defense at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Nothing: For now, there are no real weaknesses to worry about on this squad. The Vikings are the NFC favorites for a reason and as long as outcomes are decided at U.S. Bank Stadium, Vikings fans should feel confident about their team’s chances.
Skol Scale Figure: 10
The Skol Scale reached its maximum of 10 last week and, quite frankly, the scale would be even higher now if it was possible. The Rams lost on purpose in an effort to secure the No. 4 seed and matchup with the Eagles instead of the Vikings in the divisional round. However, the Saints’ collapse against the Bucs prevented that from happening.
Meanwhile, Carolina looked like doo-doo against the Falcons in a scenario that would have earned the Panthers a home playoff game had they won. And of course, Philadelphia has taken a large step backward following the Carson Wentz injury a few weeks ago.
Things appear to be aligned well for the Vikings in this playoff race. If they execute on a similar level to what we all saw in the regular season, Minnesota will play in the Super Bowl.
More Skol Scale Figures
Still a 10. Philly is the weakest #1 seed in recent memory, the Rams tried to tank to avoid us and it failed. New Orleans and Carolina looked bad. Our defense sucked the life out of the Bears. We will play the Rams next week. Philly will play the Saints. I have foreseen it. pic.twitter.com/0sDHnQGgDn
— Seth Toupal (@sethtoups) January 3, 2018
8 – Which is about as high as I get as a Vikings fan in the postseason. 3-1 vs. current NFC playoff field, #1 Philly struggling and vulnerable, and the road to Super Bowl goes through Minneapolis in my opinion.
If not now, when?
— Matthew Krier (@matthewkrier) January 3, 2018
9 – I think this is the best #Vikings D I have seen for sure, Hitman is a top 3 player in the league. Feeling as confident as I can, still think Forbath costs is in playoffs somehow. pic.twitter.com/me4TNZza3n
— JD Cameron (@J_D_Cameron) January 4, 2018
A pretty high 9(9.5-9.9). Best defense in the NFL, a solid run game with a good O-line, a capable QB in Keenum. No other teams are really super dominant or has as deep a roster like how the Vikes are/have. As long as we play at home, I don’t think any team really stands a chance
— Joshua (@NorsemanJosh) January 3, 2018
8. I think we're the favorite in the NFC but there's still a lot of unknowns with Keenum under playoff pressure. Can he make big throws with the game on the line late in the 4th? Not sure we have a large enough sample size yet.
— Sean Lamers (@SeanLamers) January 3, 2018
5. Fall back to neutral because everyone still playing is 0-0
— AdamWest (@aweste1) January 3, 2018
10. As far as I'm concerned, the Vikes are the most complete team, top-to-bottom. No glaring weakness. Many other teams have a hindrance.
— Nick Dostal (@NDostal23) January 3, 2018
All stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com