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Minnesota Vikings at the Bye: 5 Reasons They'll Make the Playoffs and 5 Reasons They Won't

The Vikings are a hard team to decipher as they head into their bye week with a 3-3 record.

It's hard to know what to make of the 2021 Minnesota Vikings as they sit at 3-3 during their bye week.

For the most part, the talent is there on both sides of the ball. I though this was a playoff team coming into the season because of the experience and skill of the roster, and technically they do occupy the NFC's No. 7 seed right now. They've got a quarterback playing at a high level, a top-tier collection of offensive weapons, and a defense with playmakers at all three levels. That has shown up at times, as the Vikings are the only team to go toe-to-toe with the undefeated Arizona Cardinals so far. They also blasted the Seahawks in the second half of their home opener and led the Lions and Panthers by double-digits before making those games unnecessarily close.

However, just as easily as they could be 5-1 if they had closed out the Bengals and Cardinals, they could also be 1-5 after narrowly avoiding disaster the last two weeks. They've struggled to put teams away, and with a much more difficult schedule coming up, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the Vikings over their final 11 games.

Let's dive into what we've seen so far — and what to expect down the stretch — by listing five reasons the Vikings will make the playoffs this season and five reasons why they won't. Their playoffs odds via three major sites are 46.2 percent (ESPN's FPI), 39 percent (FiveThirtyEight), and 42.5 percent (Football Outsiders), so that's close enough to 50/50 to give both sides equal merit.

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Let's start with the bad so we can end on an optimistic note.

Five reasons why the Vikings WON'T make the playoffs

No. 1: The offensive line is still a concern

It's possible that this is the Vikings' best offensive line since 2017. It's also possible that it's nevertheless a liability that could cost them games later this year, particularly against the front sevens of teams like the Bears, Rams, and Steelers.

Through six weeks, the Vikings rank 23rd in PFF run blocking grade and 25th in pass blocking grade. Those grades include tight ends, backs, and receivers, but are weighted towards the offensive line, as they're the ones who block on every single play. They haven't allowed many sacks this year, but part of that is due to Kirk Cousins being tied for the fifth-quickest average time to throw among NFL quarterbacks. The Vikings are also the fifth-most penalized team in the league, and 16 of their 44 penalties have come from the offensive line.

Brian O'Neill has lived up to his contract extension and is emerging as an excellent leader and captain, but there are question marks everywhere else. Christian Darrisaw's tape in his first career start against the Panthers was somewhat concerning in regards to his pass protection technique. He's absolutely an upgrade over Rashod Hill and should continue improving over time, but there will likely be significant ups and downs during the final 11 games as the rookie faces some excellent edge rushers.

As usual, the interior trio is the biggest concern. All three of Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, and Oli Udoh have PFF grades in the 56/57 range and have given up double-digit pressures. Cleveland has been inconsistent, Bradbury is who he is at this point — an asset in the running game and on screens but a poor pass blocker — and Udoh, after a strong start, has recently been the biggest weak point of all. Udoh was destroyed against the Browns, seems to make mental errors on a weekly basis, and only two offensive linemen in the league have more penalties than his six. The physical tools are there, but calls from the fanbase for rookie Wyatt Davis to get a shot at right guard will get louder and louder if Udoh can't get going again.

No. 2: The Vikings remain far too conservative on offense

With 3:39 left in their game against the winless Lions in Week 5, the Vikings were up 16-6 and had the ball in Detroit territory. Game over, right? Not so fast. They played that series as conservatively as possible, setting up a missed Greg Joseph field goal. Suddenly it was 16-9, the Vikings kept it on the ground again, Alexander Mattison fumbled, and they were trailing 17-16 a minute later. Only at that point did they actually get aggressive.

With 8:30 left against the Panthers last week, the Vikings were up 28-17 and had the ball. Once again, they played it safe and didn't put an inferior team away. That included a run on 3rd and 8 from the Carolina 33 up 28-20. After a punt, that game was suddenly in overtime and the Vikings were lucky to win the coin toss.

There are other examples of the Vikings' conservative play-calling and decision-making, too. They run the ball far too often on 2nd and long, and seem to give up on plenty of 3rd and longs as well. How much of that is Klint Kubiak and how much is Mike Zimmer's influence is unclear. Then there are things like having 37 seconds and two timeouts left in the first half against the Lions and Zimmer deciding to pack it in and go to halftime without trying to score.

You just can't play like that and expect to win many games in the NFL. It may not have cost them against the Lions or Panthers, but better teams could easily punish the Vikings for their lack of aggressiveness if they keep this up.

No. 3: The schedule is really tough

According to DVOA, the Vikings have the third-toughest remaining schedule in the NFL. At least they're not alone in that struggle, as the rival Packers and Bears are the two teams ahead of them on that list. That's what happens when the NFC North has to play the NFC West and AFC North, two of the best divisions in football.

The Vikings haven't exactly had it easy so far, with tough matchups against the Bengals, Cardinals, and Browns that all resulted in losses. But the challenge gets a lot stiffer the rest of the way. It starts with a massive four-game post-bye stretch of facing the Cowboys (5-1), Ravens (5-1), Chargers (4-2), and Packers (5-1). Going 2-2 there has to be the goal, but even that won't be easy at all. Then comes a slightly more doable three-game stretch, although the Niners on the road and the Steelers at home are far from automatic wins. Then the Vikings close with a divisional flurry: at Bears, vs. Rams, at Packers, vs. Bears.

Even if the Vikings have the talent to finish on a 7-4 run and earn a wild card spot, the schedule is going to make that quite difficult.

No. 4: There are question marks at corner, especially for the next three-plus games

If there's one position on the Vikings' defense that is the most worrisome, it's cornerback. And that was probably true even before Patrick Peterson landed on injured reserve with a pulled hamstring. Now, for at least the next three games, the Vikings will be without their top cover corner and will turn to the up-and-down combo of Bashaud Breeland and Cameron Dantzler at outside CB. If either of them get banged up — which has already happened to Breeland a couple times — you're talking about Kris Boyd, Harrison Hand, or a practice squad guy stepping in.

Oh, and here's who they're facing the next three weeks:

  • Cowboys (Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup)
  • Ravens (Lamar Jackson, Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman, Sammy Watkins)
  • Chargers (Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams)

Not ideal! Breeland has been quite good over the past two weeks, but the context of playing against Jared Goff and Sam Darnold can't be ignored. Prior to that, he was the worst corner in the NFL by most statistical measures. Dantzler has been inconsistent dating back to his rookie season, and was burned on the Panthers' second fourth-down conversion of their final drive last week. Both players have shown flashes, but they're facing major challenges over the next few weeks and the depth behind them is rough.

No. 5: The Vikings' special teams are once again an issue

Through five games, it looked like the Vikings' special teams, despite some hiccups, were vastly improved from last year's historically bad performance. Offseason changes at coordinator, kicker, punter, and both returner spots were generally looking good.

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Then came the Panthers game, where the Vikings missed two game-sealing field goals, had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown, and committed two penalties on punt returns. That performance dropped them all the way from 15th to 29th in special teams DVOA, which is only two spots above their No. 31 finish from last season. So yeah, that phase of the game is still a serious concern, if not an outright weakness.

Joseph's four missed field goals lead the league, although he does also lead all kickers in attempts. He notably missed an extra point and a short game-winner against the Cardinals, and his two misses against the Panthers weren't close. I'm not sure the Vikings have found their answer at kicker yet. New punter Jordan Berry has been fine, but the return game still hasn't provided much of a spark outside of a nice gain last week by Ameer Abdullah...who is no longer on the team. Perhaps rookie Kene Nwangwu, recently activated off IR, can be a boost in that area. Ryan Ficken and the Vikings have a lot to prove on special teams going forward.

OK, on to the optimism...

Five reasons why the Vikings WILL make the playoffs

No. 1: Kirk Cousins is playing well and has elite weapons at his disposal

It's an oversimplification, but it contains a lot of truth: the Vikings are always going to go as far as Cousins takes them. So far, the veteran quarterback has been great. He ranks third among all QBs in PFF grade and has a strong 13 to 2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Cousins hasn't been particularly aggressive pushing the ball downfield, resulting in low numbers in average depth of target and yards per attempt. Metrics like QBR, EPA, and CPOE have Cousins closer to the middle of the pack among passers as well. But he's not taking sacks, he's not turning the ball over, and he is continually showing up in big moments late in games and putting the Vikings in position to win. As long as that continues, the Vikings are going to be in just about every game they play, even against great teams.

Cousins has plenty of help, which is key. Dalvin Cook has missed a couple games to injury but clearly remains one of the league's top running backs, going over 100 yards from scrimmage in three of his four starts. Justin Jefferson's second season is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's here to stay as a legit top-ten, maybe top-five receiver in the game. He's currently sixth in receiving yardage. Adam Thielen is an elite red zone weapon whose big games against the Bengals and Panthers showed he can still get it done at a high level. Perhaps most exciting is the emergence of K.J. Osborn, who is already the Vikings' most productive WR3 in five years. Osborn's versatility, route-running, hands, and blocking ability have all been major assets. Tyler Conklin has been solid stepping in for Irv Smith Jr. as Minnesota's No. 1 tight end.

If the line holds up — a notable if, as referenced in the first section of this piece — this offense should continue putting up yards and points all year.

No. 2: A defense loaded with veteran talent is starting to put it all together

Heading into this season, one of the biggest reasons why I was bullish on the Vikings was their rebuilt defense. With a combination of guys coming back from injury or opt-out and a huge free agent class, this defense had all the makings of a top unit with Zimmer leading the way.

Things didn't get off to such a hot start. The Bengals were effective through the air and on the ground in the season-opening overtime loss. Cincinnati's two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the first half would go on to become a troubling theme for the Vikings defense, for some reason. The Cardinals then racked up 34 points and nearly 500 yards against Minnesota the following week, with Kyler Murray throwing for 400 of those. Those struggles continued in Week 3, as the Seahawks scored on each of their first three possessions in getting out to a 17-7 lead.

Something must have flipped at halftime of that game, because the Vikings' defense has been dominant ever since. They shut out Russell Wilson and Seattle in the second half and put clamps on the Browns, Lions, and Panthers over the past three weeks. Through six weeks, the Vikings' defense is tied for first in sacks and ranks sixth in DVOA, fourth in PFF grade, and fifth in EPA per play.

They've gotten contributions from all over, but the catalyst has been the defensive line. Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, Dalvin Tomlinson, and the combination of Michael Pierce and Armon Watts have all played remarkably well this season. Eric Kendricks is still one of the best all-around linebackers in the league, and Anthony Barr should only get better as time goes on after getting over his knee injury a few weeks ago. On the back end, Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, Harrison Smith, and Xavier Woods have all played well. Losing their top outside corner in Peterson hurts, but getting great play at every other position should help make the jobs of Breeland and Dantzler easier.

This defense looks legit. It better be, with a string of games against some of the league's best offenses around the corner.

No. 3: Mike Zimmer's third down mastery hasn't gone anywhere

Having good players on defense is only one part of the equation. Pairing those players with great coaching is why the Vikings have been as strong on that side of the ball in recent weeks as they have. Zimmer may have lost some of his shine as one of the league's top defensive minds after last year's disaster, but he shouldn't have. No coach in NFL history could've turned the Vikings' 2020 defensive personnel into a quality unit. The Vikings have a quality roster again, and we're once again seeing what Zimmer is capable of as a game-planner, schemer, and play-caller.

Most notably, the Vikings are back in a familiar spot at the very top of the league in defensive third down percentage. They've allowed a conversion on just 29.2 percent of opponents' third downs, which is a direct credit to the blitzes, pressure packages, and deceptive looks Zimmer throws at teams. Last year, despite the defense being made out of rookies and backups, the Vikings were ninth-best on third downs. They've been below 40 percent in opponent conversion rate for seven straight years, including league-best finishes in 2017 and 2018.

That alone is a reason to be confident in the Vikings going forward. If they can get teams to third down, you can feel pretty good about Zimmer finding a way to get it to fourth.

No. 4: The competition for the No. 6 and 7 seeds in the NFC is fairly weak

The clear top five teams in the NFC are Arizona, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Green Bay, and the Rams. Despite being 2-3, the Falcons are 32nd in DVOA and can probably be ruled out. Washington, Philadelphia, Seattle, Detroit, and the Giants all appear to be bad as well. 

So that leaves the Saints, Bears, Vikings, 49ers, and Panthers fighting for two playoff spots. Which team out of that group scares you the most? All five have top-12 defenses according to DVOA, but the Vikings probably have the best quarterback and skill position group out of the lot. Minnesota already has a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Panthers and will play the 49ers and Bears (twice) later in the year. The Vikings' biggest disadvantage against the non-Bears teams is the difficulty of their schedule. 

10-7 will almost certainly get a team into one of those spots, and it's possible 9-8 would get it done. That means the Vikings just have to survive this upcoming stretch at 5-5 and then go 5-2 or 4-3 in their final seven. Losing the very winnable Bengals and Cardinals games has shrunk their margin for error, but it's absolutely doable if they put it all together on offense, defense, and special teams.

No. 5: It's an even-numbered year

Need I say more?

The Vikings have never missed the playoffs in an even-numbered year under Zimmer. Does that mean anything? No. Is it fun to believe that it does? Of course. They got off to a slow start this season, but I've got a funny feeling that these Vikings are going to find a way to win enough games down the stretch to sneak into the dance.

It all starts on Halloween night at U.S. Bank Stadium against the red-hot Cowboys. 

I can't wait.

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