Two numbers tell you all you need to know about yesterday’s Packers-Vikings game—Green Bay sacked Teddy Bridgewater six times and held Adrian Peterson to 45 rushing yards. If you watched the game, those numbers are just the validation of what you saw, which was a sea of green-gold-white jerseys penetrating the line of scrimmage seemingly at will. And it underscored why this Minnesota team—developing though it may be—is not ready for prime-time.
Minnesota built its 7-2 record prior to this game with a simple formula—play great defense, run Adrian Peterson and rely on Bridgewater just as much as necessary. They do have a genuinely outstanding defense, one that ranked third in the NFL in points allowed coming into the game, with playmakers at every level. But the success running the ball could only have been generated by Peterson. This team’s offensive line is just not very good and it was exposed in spades on Sunday afternoon.
I’m a big fan of Bridgewater and believe he’s developing nicely. He’s got good poise under pressure, and he had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate that on Sunday. He made it through a game under constant duress and playing from behind without throwing an interception. It speaks well to what he’s becoming. It also speaks to the fact Minnesota needs an offensive line.
When a good team—and in spite of their recent struggles, the Packers are most assuredly that—decides it wants to sell out and stop the run, they usually can do it. At the college level, Alabama sold out to stop LSU’s Leonard Fournette and did it. Green Bay did it to Peterson. If you can’t open up the passing game in response, it’s going to be a long afternoon and you can’t open up the passing game without the ability to take deeper drops and give a quarterback real time to scan the field.
Maybe Tom Brady, with his ability to decipher defenses seemingly in the blink of an eye can pull it off. Aaron Rodgers, when playing at his peak, can manage it. Peyton Manning could as recently as a year ago. To ask anyone else, much less a second-year quarterback to do it, is asking too much.
Minnesota is still trending in the right direction. They’re still in great position to make the playoffs and even as a wild-card, could get to the 5-seed and get a shot at the winner of the mediocre NFC East.
I don’t sense that anyone is asking more of the Vikings right now, but their recent surge combined with the Packers’ recent slide, raised the question of whether Minnesota might arrive a year or two ahead of schedule. The Green Bay defensive front seven—a group that’s gotten a deserved amount of flack in recent years—stood up and pushed the insurgents back. The Packers sent a message that they’re still a prime-time team. The Vikings are the equivalent of the nice daytime show that gets good ratings, but need a few more pieces up front before we can shift them to prime-time.
The NFC North has been turned on its head, with the results from NFL Week 5 pushing the divisional revolution further along. Minnesota is rolling at 4-1, Green Bay is flailing at 2-3 and what looked to be the toughest division in football at the start of the year is at least the most surprising.
No one has been a bigger surprise this year than the Vikings, who continued their strong start with a 30-7 thrashing of Tennessee. The Vikes shut down the run on the defensive side and the Titans lacked the capacity to go over the top and create anything offensively. On the flip side, while Christian Ponder did throw two interceptions, the quarterback also had his best game when it came to making plays down the field. He hooked up with Percy Harvin eight times for 108 yards, and Ponder finished 25/35 for 258 yards.
Minnesota hasn’t played a great schedule to date—while they’ve got the impressive win over San Francisco, other scalps have come against Jacksonville and a Detroit team that had to try and fix some dysfunction during a bye week. But the Vikings lone defeat—a last-play loss at Indianapolis, no longer looks so bad in light of what else went down this past Sunday.
When Green Bay jumped out to 21-3 halftime lead in Indy, there was every reason to think the game was over. Then Andrew Luck consistently found Reggie Wayne, getting over 200 yards in the passing game to the veteran receiver alone. Aaron Rodgers looked uncharacteristically off-kilter, including a momentum-turning interception. The Packer offensive line continues to show that it provides the worst protection since Salvatore Tessio handled security for Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather. Rodgers was sacked five times in the second half and Indianapolis eventually pulled out a 30-27 win.
Green Bay’s path doesn’t get any easier with a Sunday night trip to Houston, followed by another road game at now-competitive St. Louis. The Packers not only trail Minnesota by two games, they also trail Chicago by the same, thanks to the Bears utter dismantling of Jacksonville behind a strong running performance by Matt Forte.
And while Green Bay can write off Rodgers’ bad game and put it in the “he’s entitled to one every now and then,” category, there’s no sign the offensive line can even be adequate. Mike McCarthy has a lot of work to do, as the wins everyone expected his team to get seem to have been shipped a few hours northwest.
Let’s go division-by-division with some other thoughts as we sort out last Sunday…
NFC WEST: Is this a four-team race now with St. Louis’ win over Arizona last Thursday night. The Rams did a terrific job in shutting down the run and getting after Kevin Kolb, as the Cardinals’ offensive line finally looked what we expected back in August when this team had no expectations. Seattle got a win at Carolina, although Russell Wilson needs to be advised that while his 19/25, 221-yard game was solid, his two interceptions can’t be tolerated. The Seattle defense can win this team games without the yardage, but they won’t survive with the picks—and wouldn’t have on Sunday if Cam Newton hadn’t bailed them out.
NFC SOUTH: I knocked Newton’s showing for Carolina, and his 12/29 for 141 yards, plus an absolutely terrible throw into the end zone that bounced in front of a receiver wide-open for the game-winner, would back that up. But what’s happened to the Panther running game? It was non-existent, something that’s a patter. If they’d have run the ball, the last drive wouldn’t have mattered. Carolina’s 1-4, and four games back of Atlanta. The Falcons had a play-well-enough-to-win kind of moment in Washington, the kind that teams who have big years find ways to pull out.
NFC EAST: It’s no surprise the Giants beat Cleveland at home. And given New York’s propensity to have some clunkers on their homefield, it wasn’t even a shock they fell behind 17-10. But it certainly must have warmed the heart of Tom Coughlin to see his running game get into full gear, with Ahmad Bradshaw rushing for 200 yards, the team playing no-mistakes football and allowing Eli Manning to be efficient, but not spectacular.
New York moves into a tie for first with Philadelphia. The Eagles’ luck ran out in Pittsburgh when they finally lost a close game. Media coverage focused on Michael Vick’s fumble in the end zone. Fair enough, but the media should also wonder why a talented Eagle defensive front four did absolutely nothing against a weak Steeler line and enabled Ben Roethlisberger to manage the game.
AFC EAST: The New England defense has got to get past this fourth quarter problem they seem to have against good offenses. After building a 31-7 lead over Denver in a way that reminded you of their best Super Bowl teams in 2003-04—running the ball, playing defense, cool efficiency from Tom Brady without completely depending on him—the Patriot defense suddenly allowed Peyton Manning to move up and down the field with ease.
Willis McGahee bailed the Pats out with a dropped fourth-down pass and a crucial fumble, but this was the continuation of a pattern we also saw from New England against Baltimore. Bill Belichick’s team is still up a game in the division—and with the competition between the Jets, Dolphins and Bills, that’s a margin that feels like it’s about five games—so they have time to work on these close-out issues during the regular season.
AFC NORTH: Baltimore isn’t looking impressive, to say the least, as an ugly 9-6 win over Kansas City follows up a narrow escape over Cleveland. But the Ravens are winning games, and their division rival Cincinnati proved that’s not always a guarantee. Cincy could not run the ball against Miami and dropped a 17-13 decision, slipping a game back.
As for Baltimore, they were outplayed by Kansas City—the Chiefs ran it down their throats, Joe Flacco played poorly and the team never got in the end zone. But Kansas City saved them with huge turnovers, including on the goal-line and ill-timed penalties. Baltimore’s got problems, but in getting wins, they’re buying John Harbaugh time to figure out a solution.
AFC SOUTH: Jacksonville and Tennessee look like hopeless cases, and Houston’s Monday Night win over the disintegrating Jets—albeit closer than the experts thought at 23-17—means this division race is not going to have much in the way of storylines. But Indianapolis, whose win we noted above, is shaping up like a team that’s going to be a tough out at home and with head coach Chuck Pagano fighting leukemia, they’ve been given an emotional rallying cry. Stay tuned, this could get very interesting, at least at the fringes of the playoff picture in a weak AFC.
AFC WEST: Denver might be 2-3, but when San Diego lost to New Orleans on Sunday night it means the Broncos are only a game back, and have their road games with Atlanta & New England completed, along with a home game against Houston. If it’s possible for a sub-.500 team to feel like they’re in first place, Bronco fans can indeed feel it.
The Minnesota Vikings have been a consistently successful team over the years, so it can easy to forget they‘ve not only never won a Super Bowl, but haven’t even been there since 1976. Well, I suppose if you’re a fan of the team it’s not very easy to forget, but an organization that has gone .500 or better 24 times in the last 34 years is accustomed to success. Therefore, even though they made the tough decision to bottom out last year, dropping to 3-13 in a rebuilding season, you have to think better days are ahead. Whether those days will arrive in 2012 is the focus here at TheSportsNotebook today as we preview the Vikings…
I’m going to break the mold of previous previews, where we broke them into a section for both the offense and defense. Because Minnesota looks to be two different teams, but one the dividing line isn’t offense and defense. In the trenches they look championship-caliber. On the outside and in the playmaking spots they look like they’d be better suited to playing in the Mid-American Conference.
IN THE TRENCHES: I love this offensive line. Rookie left tackle Matt Kalil was, in my view, the best player on the board in last April’s draft. Phil Loadholt is solid at tackle, and more to the point he’s got a name that makes him sound like a football player. John Sullivan is steady at center, and how can I not love an Irish Catholic with a name like this? So as you see, my passion for this line isn’t all football-based. But it’s still a pretty good group, with the guards being the main weak point. The Viking offensive line would be good enough to block for any competent NFL back, and when healthy, Adrian Peterson is much more than that. Peterson is supposedly going to be back for Week 1 after tearing his ACL at the end of last year, but even if he’s not, Toby Gerhart can at least keep the running game afloat until A.P. is back at full strength.
If you go to the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, it’s even better. Jared Allen had 22 sacks from his defensive end spot and is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Brian Robison generated eight more sacks on the opposite side and Kevin Williams can bring the heat from inside. The linebackers are led by Chad Greenway and round out a good front seven where the middle linebacker spot is the only real weakness.
ON THE OUTSIDE: Percy Harvin is the main target at wide receiver and while he’s talented, he also lacks durability and would be more effective as a #2 target or slot receiver. Jerome Simpson is suspended until Week 4. I’m not sure if that’s a bigger problem than the fact his absence probably doesn’t make any difference. The tight ends are not a factor—Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson both played at Notre Dame. Between them and Sullivan, I have to wonder if somebody at the Vikings is in hock to someone in the athletic department in South Bend.
Antoine Winfield is a quality corner when he’s able to play, but that was only five games last year and at age 35, how much quality is left is a debatable point. Chris Cook is a liability at the other corner, and the safeties are terrible.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 6—I’d really like to go Over, because in my ideal world football success would start with the line play and move outward. But it doesn’t work that way in the NFL, and the incompetence at receiver and defensive back can’t be overlooked. Furthermore, I thought Ponder was an overrated in college and he’s overrated now.** Finally, the division is the toughest in football this year. So I’m going Under.
** It reminds me of the scene in Godfather III where Don Tommasino drives his car up the gate, spots the man who was hired to kill Michael Corleone, makes reference to the man’s past and hisses “You were an assassin then, you’re an assassin now!” If he saw Ponder I’m convinced he would growl that the Florida State quarterback was overrated then and is overrated now. How’s that for an off-the-wall movie tangent put in a Bill Simmons-style footnote?
Editor’s Note:The Twin Cities are having a rough go of it in the sports world right now, and TheSportsNotebook asked contributor Isaac Huss, a native of the Minneapolis/St. Paul and diehard fan to communicate the distress the fans are feeling on matters big and small.
By all accounts, Thursday night should have been celebratory for Minnesota sports fans.
The longsuffering Minnesota Vikings had just chosen the best player available (Matt Kalil) as well as a player at their greatest position of need (left tackle). On top of that, they were able to get three extra draft picks out of the deal by trading down one spot so Cleveland could take a player the Vikings didn’t want or need.
But if you think Vikings fans were able to rest easy because of their team’s good fortune, think again. I think the mood of the night was aptly summed up by some dude at the bar who, immediately after cheering the Kalil pick, yelled out, “Great! Now, go ahead and move to L.A.”
And who could blame him? It’s hard getting excited about your team when in a few short months it might no longer be your team anymore.
Just a week ago, the Vikings’ new stadium plan was left for dead, presenting the biggest threat thus far that the franchise might become the next purple-and-gold-clad pro sports team to leave the great white north for Los Angeles, California.
And while there’s still a chance they’ll work out a stadium deal, you can see the reason for the muted enthusiasm regarding the Kalil pick. It’s a bit like trying to get excited about your high school girlfriend finally getting her braces off, knowing that her newfound perfect smile is soon gonna kick you to the curb in favor of the captain of the football team.
And that pretty much sums up life as a Minnesota sports fan. It’s not that Minnesota sports haven’t had any success in recent years, and there certainly are more cursed franchises and sports cities out there. But perhaps no sports region in America has had such a roller coaster ride of near-successes coupled with agonizing failures as Minnesota.
I was born in suburban Minneapolis in 1985, so I was just old enough to experience (as much as a 6-year-old can, anyway) the Twins’ World Series championship in 1991, the last championship among the four major pro sports teams in MN (other than the Twins, no other championships since the Lakers played in Minny circa 1950).
The Twins had also won in ’87, so all I knew at that point as a baseball fan was success. That quickly changed as the Twins suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons beginning in ’93, right about when I was old enough to realize what was going on.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves were still figuring out how to play that sport called basketball, as it took them nine seasons to earn a winning record since their first game in ‘89. Then the North Stars hockey team left for Dallas in ’93, just as I was getting used to them posting seven straight losing seasons.
In terms of wins and losses, the Vikings were the shining stars, posting only one losing season from ’86-’00. And that’s about all you need to know about Minnesota pro sports. If the Vikings are your best sports team, you are in for a world of hurt.
And not because there weren’t successes. The Vikings have been to three NFC Championship games in my lifetime, 1998, 2000, and 2009. But since we were so high, it made the fall all the more painful. Those were perhaps the three worst losses of my sports-watching life, and each for different reasons.
Let’s start with 2000. The Vikings had a good, yet flawed team. But that team didn’t even bother to show up on that fateful January day, laying a goose egg against the Giants in losing 41-0. And when a 41-0 loss a game from the Super Bowl is only your team’s third-most-agonizing NFC championship game in a decade, you start to want them to leave town.
Much more agonizing was 2009, as the heartbreak was delayed until the waning moments of the game. Driving late, the Vikings had crossed midfield with the score tied and a chance to win against the favored Saints in a hostile Superdome. A 12-men in the huddle penalty and a Brett Favre interception sent the game into overtime, where New Orleans prevailed.
And the granddaddy of them all was in 1998 when the 11-point favorite Vikings team lost at home to the Falcons, blowing a 7-point fourth quarter lead thanks to a missed 38-yard Gary Anderson field goal (his first miss all year) and a curious decision by coach Denny Green to run out the clock with 30 seconds left, perhaps forgetting that he had the highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL at his disposal (I hadn’t forgotten).
Since ’09, the Vikings followed Favre’s deterioration to win a combined nine games the last two seasons. And to add injury to insult, franchise running back Adrian Peterson’s knee was annihilated in a meaningless loss late last year, threatening the career of one of their few players who was worth watching.
So if the Vikings were a braces-faced girlfriend, my friends, family members, hell, even complete strangers would probably be screaming at me to dump her. But somehow I stick with her even though she might leave me at any time.
Because who else is there? The Twins have been the next-best local team of my lifetime, even with that near-decade of futility to finish the ‘90’s, thanks to a ten-year run which included nine winning seasons and six division championships.
But anyone who roots for the Twins, or the Yankees for that matter, knows where this is going. Four of those division championship seasons ended with first-round playoff losses to the Yankees, the last two being series sweeps.
Which offers a glimpse into the ever-growing inferiority complex of Minnesota sports fans in relation to big-market teams, specifically New York teams. It seems whenever we have something good going for us, we run smack dab into a big-market bully who beats the crap out of us and steals our lunch money for good measure.
In addition to playoff failures, which include the Twins’ v. Yankees and should also include the Timberwolves v. Lakers, no Minnesota sports fan can enjoy watching a young star rise on one of our teams without worrying that a richer franchise (not to mention one with a more appealing climate and market) will lure it away in free agency.
Torii Hunter and Marian Gaborik come to mind as players who fled town for L.A. and New York, respectively, simply for bigger bucks, while Johan Santana was traded to the New York Mets for fear of losing him to free agency (which surely would have happened). More heartbreaking was former Wolf Stephon Marbury’s trade demand (before he went completely nuts) based on the fact that Minnesota is, in his words, “too cold.”
Even the contract extension the Twins gave to Joe Mauer, while refreshing at the time that we were able to keep a hometown hero from the clutches of the evil Steinbrenner empire, was driven up by the threat of losing him to the point he may prove to be too costly in the long run.
However, money may have been no object had Mauer not come down with a mysterious leg ailment last year which limited him to his least-productive year as a pro. Combine that with Justin Morneau’s concussion problems which have deprived him of most of his MVP-caliber productivity, and the Twins are spending upwards of $30 million/year on oft-injured former MVP’s.
Add that to a pitching staff which has gone into steep decline ever since Santana’s departure and you have a team coming off a 99-loss season which might be even worse this year.
But it wasn’t just Santana’s departure. A sometimes-forgotten but no less devastating event preceded the Santana trade, and seems to have set off a string of calamities from which virtually no Minnesota sports team has been able to avoid: Francisco Liriano’s elbow injury.
In the summer of ’06, Liriano had set the sports world on fire by posting a 12-2 record, a 1.96 ERA, and 137 strikeouts in 115 innings. He was arguably the most unhittable pitcher in the league already in his first season in the majors. But he injured his elbow in August of that year and required Tommy John surgery, and hasn’t been the same since.
The Twins won 17 fewer games the following year. Then, in 2010, posted 94 wins only to lose Morneau to a concussion for the rest of the season and bow out to the Yankees in three games in the playoffs. Since then, the Twins’ best pitcher, Scott Baker, as well as their best pitching prospect, Kyle Gibson, were found to need Tommy John Surgery themselves.
And the Angel of Devastating Injuries struck elsewhere. The Minnesota Gophers basketball star Trevor Mbakwe, the aforementioned AP, and most recently Wolves star Ricky Rubio each tore ACL’s in a four-month span this past winter. Since Kevin Love suffered a concussion that ended his season eight games early, the rest of the Minnesota pro athletes have reportedly been afraid to leave their hotel rooms, and have been smearing slaughtered loons’ blood on their doorposts.
I can’t stress the catastrophic nature of Rubio’s injury enough. Here’s a franchise whose lone memorable player, Kevin Garnett, was traded for pennies on the dollar only to see him win a championship the following season in Boston, and continue to dump on his former team whenever he gets the chance.
Rubio presented an opportunity to forget Stephon once and for all, finally move on from KG, and to team with Love and try to reverse a legacy of losing. And he was doing it. Until an L.A. Laker named Kobe “inadvertently” (ok, fine, it was an accident..) destroyed his knee. We can only hope this isn’t Liriano all over again.
Nope, it’s hard to be a Minnesota sports fan these days. Just in case you’re wondering how the rest of our sports teams have been doing, the Wild just became the first team to have the NHL’s best record in December to miss the playoffs. Oh, and the Gopher football team hasn’t finished better than sixth in the conference since ’03, fourth since ’86, or third since ’67. But at least we have a sweet new stadium!
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Minnesota Lynx’s 2011 WNBA Championship. But forgive me if it seems like celebrating your little sister’s 8th preschool “graduation” after her six older brothers all dropped out of high school. Yay Lynx!
Finally, the Gopher hockey team was admittedly decent again this year, which is great except nobody cares about college hockey outside of Minnesota and wherever the hell Ferris State is.
So you can see how one might be secretly hoping the Vikings put us out of our collective miseries and move to Tinseltown. But then there’s this: if the Vikings move away, that means we might have to start rooting for the Packers… And let’s be honest, nobody wants that.