NFL Handicapping: Vikings a Legit Super Bowl Contender?
by Trevor Whenham - 10/11/2012
If you had asked me six weeks ago to guess which team would be in first place in the NFC North at this point in the season, I would have needed four guesses before I picked the Vikings. At least. Yet here we are on Oct. 11, and the Vikings are sitting at 4-1, have already exceeded their three wins from last year, and are tied with the Bears at the top of the division. Even more impressive, they have a two-game lead over the Packers and three games over the Lions. Strange things always happen in the NFL, and this is as strange as any of them.
When a team gets off to such an unexpected start, bettors really need to take notice. The public is going to pay more and more attention as the record inflates and the media spotlight on the team brightens. If the team is really good and worthy of the attention then there could still be value in betting on them despite the increased attention. If the start is more of a fluke than a true indicator of their talent, though, then the value could be in betting against their inflated odds. Either way, a team like the Vikings is interesting to smart bettors.
Let’s take a look at what they have done and what that might lead us to expect going forward:
Who have they beaten?
Two of the wins weren’t particularly impressive. They beat Jacksonville in overtime in their opener, and then they beat up on the Titans last time out. Those two teams can’t beat themselves in a scrimmage right now, so the only thing beating them proves is that the Vikings aren’t as bad as those squads.
The other two wins, though, are really quite impressive. Detroit is not in form right now, but going on the road to beat a conference rival — and holding the Lions potentially explosive offense to just 13 points — is impressive no matter what. That holds nothing, though, in comparison to beating the 49ers. San Francisco has looked pretty close to perfect in four of their games. Scary, really. Against the Vikings, though, they couldn’t seem to do anything. They were an entirely different team. The offense struggled for the only time this year, and the defense wasn’t nearly as effective as they had been before and have been since. The Vikings were very ready for the game, and they showed no fear. It was the most impressive performance by any team all year — and I never would have guessed that the Vikings were capable of it.
Who a team plays has a bigger impact on how they perform than anything else. On that front the Vikings are in reasonably good shape — at least until their bye week in Week 11.
They travel to Washington this week to play a team with injury issues and serious concerns on both lines. Minnesota can win that one. They can also win at home against Arizona and Tampa Bay. Their next two are tougher, but neither a trip to Seattle or a home contest against the Lions is particularly intimidating based on what the team has done so far. The 4-1 record is stunning, but 8-2 or 7-3 would be even harder to believe — but is very possible.
The last six, though, are much tougher — two each against Chicago and Green Bay, and trips to St. Louis and Houston. If this team isn’t for real, then, they could get off to a big start before the bye and still miss the playoffs.
Last year Ponder looked like a deer seconds away from a date with a bumper every time he took the field. It was hard to believe he had a future in the league, so his progress this year is truly remarkable.
His completion percentage is up 15 points this year to a very nice 69 percent. His passer rating is up more than 25 points. Last year his TD-to-Interception ratio was 1:1. This year he has six touchdowns and just two picks. His yards per attempt of 6.8 is still a little lower than I would like to see, but in one short season Ponder has gone from a liability to a key to the team’s success.
Among many other things this seems to be a clear sign of the importance of a full offseason this year compared to the lockout-ruined one last year.
Last year Leslie Frazier did not seem to be doing a great job. This year it seems like he really is.
It’s not like he suddenly learned how to coach. So, what’s the difference? The biggest is simply time. Frazier was a rookie last year — at least as a full-time coach as opposed to an interim boss. This year he’s in his second year. So is his offensive coordinator and QB coach. There was a change at defensive coordinator, but last year’s DC is still with the team as linebacker coach so there is still continuity there.
Just as players can take a big step forward in their second year coaches can as well as their system becomes established. Really, if a coach doesn’t make a big step forward in their second year after a rough first year then they probably aren’t likely to.
After failing to cover their first two games, the Vikings have covered each of their last three. Not only have they covered, but they have done so by a very wide margin each time. If they weren’t covering spreads, or if they were barely doing it, then it would be harder to trust them in their next couple of outings than it is now because they have more of a margin for error right now.
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