The 10-2 Vikings are currently 2.5-point underdogs against the 5-7 Lions for Sunday's game in Detroit. Wait, what?
On paper, it's a pretty shocking line. Then again, it seemed a bit odd when the Cowboys were slight favorites over the Vikings in Minneapolis a couple weeks ago, and the result of that game was a 40-3 Dallas win.
This spread tells you basically all you need to know about how Vegas feels about this Vikings team, whose last nine victories have come by eight points or fewer. Minnesota's +10 point differential — plus-64 in ten wins, minus-54 in two losses — is the worst figure ever for a 10-2 team by a fairly wide margin. Clearly, the markets don't believe the Vikings can keep this up, even if they've found a way to be 9-0 in one-score games this season.
Two things can be true. The Vikings have smart coaching and veteran experience, they've placed a major emphasis on situational football, and they're now extremely comfortable playing in close, intense games. That experience helps in those crucial situations. However, any team who is this successful in close games — and has such mediocre underlying metrics (20th in Football Outsiders' DVOA, 18th in offensive EPA per play, 15th in defensive EPA per play) — is bound for regression at some point. It's simply impossible to master the art of winning close games.
Although the Vikings have created some of their own luck with situational intelligence and talented players, they've also clearly benefited from random occurrences that have been out of their control.
- The Lions missed an ill-advised field goal in the final minutes in Week 3.
- Will Lutz double-doinked a kick to end the London game in Week 4.
- Ihmir Smith-Marsette fumbled a game away for the Bears in Week 5.
- A needless Commanders penalty on the Vikings' game-winning field goal allowed them to drain the clock out in Week 9.
- The Bills fumbled a snap in Week 10, among a million other things.
- The officials helped the Vikings in Week 12 against the Patriots, missing a hold on Kene Nwangwu's kick return touchdown and strangely overturning Hunter Henry's second touchdown reception.
- Jets WR Braxton Berrios dropped a catchable pass that could've been a game-winner on Sunday.
I think it's reasonable to expect the Vikings to win more close games than they lose going forward because of their experience and confidence in those situations. But if they keep playing with fire by allowing 400-plus yards per game, going through extended offensive lulls, and failing to put teams away, they're going to get burned at some point. The Eagles and Cowboys losses also hang over their head and will continue to do so until they beat one of those teams in the playoffs.
The Lions' recent play is another big reason why they're home favorites on Sunday. Dan Campbell's team is hitting its stride, having won four of its last five. Since consecutive blowout losses to the Patriots and Cowboys in mid-October, Detroit is 4-2 with a four-point loss to the Dolphins and a three-point loss to the Bills. The Lions rank 13th in DVOA, led by top-ten marks on offense and special teams. They also rank ninth in offensive EPA per play and sixth in points per game.
For most of the season, the Lions had a good offense that was held back by a truly abysmal defense. But there are signs that they're improving on that side of the ball, having held three of their last five opponents — the Packers, Giants, and Jaguars, who admittedly aren't offensive powerhouses — to 18 points or fewer.
Remember, this is a Lions team that led the Vikings 24-14 after three quarters at U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 3.
With all of that context, it's not actually all that shocking to see the Lions favored in this game.
From the Vikings' perspective, it's good bulletin board material and nothing else. All they're focused on this week is preparing to go sweep the Lions and clinch the NFC North title. If they continue winning games and can start to play better down the stretch of this regular season — maybe even winning by more than eight points once or twice — they'll start to get more respect.
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