The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is always a strange one. Schools are off, offices are barely at half-capacity, the weather is usually terrible, and the gyms are still bracing for all the imminent newcomers. It’s a seven-day stretch where binge watching, binge eating, and binge drinking are all at peak levels. Nothing really gets accomplished, so we fill the time by looking back at the year that was while looking ahead for the year to come.
This year’s Week 17 NFL slate fits the mold of our annual period of holiday purgatory. Sure, there are a few important games. But most of the matchups involve teams either looking back at what went wrong or looking ahead for their postseason run. The stakes are relatively low in most of the season finales. There isn’t even a do-or-die Sunday night game this year.
Fortunately, Sunday’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears does have some meaning. The Vikings need a Week 17 victory to clinch the #2 seed and a first round bye. Meanwhile, the Bears…will be the other team playing at US Bank Stadium.
Since the home team is looking forward to January a lot more than their opponents, let’s make ten New Year’s resolutions for the Vikings as we look to ring in 2018 on a high note.
Resolution #1: Count your blessings.
With the news that Sam Bradford might return to practice next week, the Vikings could have three viable options at quarterback heading into the postseason. (Please save your Kyle Sloter hot takes for another time. I’m trying to be serious here.) Having three players at the ready if called upon should be welcome news to Vikings fans! But in typical #VikingsTwitter fashion, we have instead thrown ourselves deeper into the never-ending mudslinging that is the Great Vikings Quarterback Debate.
Can’t fans of a franchise that has been quarterback-starved for much of its existence simply be grateful for what they currently have? We all know that Case Keenum will (and should) be QB1 on Sunday, and for up to three playoff games after that. Barring something catastrophic with his health or play, Keenum deserves the chance to lead this team to their ultimate goal.
For some perspective, take a look back at the 2012 postseason. The Vikings had to start Joe Webb in place of the injured Christian Ponder.
Read that last sentence again. I want to make sure it sinks in. Christian Ponder. Joe Webb. Yeesh.
I’m not saying that you need to blindly throw your support behind Keenum and assume he can do no wrong just because the team is 12-3. There have been plenty of instances where Keenum has missed targets and reads, including last week in Green Bay. But he has shown more than enough to merit the starting gig for the remainder of the stretch run. So the next time you find yourself getting into it with another Vikings fan about the merits of your preferred quarterback over theirs, just remember that it could be much, much worse. Save the offseason debate of who should be the starting quarterback next September for the offseason. Right now the Vikings have some really important football to play.
Resolution #2: Don’t be too proud to admit that you have flaws and work to improve upon them.
So the Vikings are 12-3. They’re flush with quarterback depth. They’re pretty healthy overall. They have one of the best defenses in the league. But they sure as hell aren’t perfect.
Our friend Daniel House of Vikings Corner had an excellent film breakdown of the Packers game that illustrated what the Vikings did well and what they could improve upon. I agreed with House’s takeaways from that game, especially on offense. He explains:
[Keenum] has a tendency to struggle when trying to find his second read in the shallow soft spot of coverage. The Packers ran Cover-2 a few times and Keenum was unable to find open targets off deep curls. Instead, he was locked into the underneath shallow concepts.
In Keenum’s defense, it’s a lot tougher to progress through your reads if you don’t have the time to do so. Adam Thielen is wide open for the first down on this play, but Mike Remmers and Jeremiah Sirles both get beat and Keenum has to rush a throw to Stefon Diggs instead.
Pat Elflein hasn’t practiced yet this week, which means we could see a makeshift line of Riley Reiff, Sirles, Joe Berger, Remmers, and Rashod Hill from left to right on Sunday. As we have seen before, one change in the line can have a negative ripple effect throughout Pat Shurmur’s offense.
The play calling from Shurmur seemed a bit off last week as well. Perhaps the weather and sloppy turf caused him to get a little conservative, especially in the red zone. There were also a couple of slow-developing misdirection plays that looked like they probably worked a lot better on the practice field.
You have to give credit to what the Packers defense was able to do without some of their big names on Saturday. For the most part they handed off coverage and sniffed out screens very well. But there were still several opportunities that the Vikings missed to extend drives and put the game out of reach.
Or maybe the Vikings coaches knew that Brett Hundley wasn’t going to do much damage, so they tried a few new things out and still did enough to secure the victory. Last week’s game reminded me of Bill Simmons’ Milton Berle Theory: Shurmur may have pulled out just enough to win. (If you’re unfamiliar with the theory, I recommend you peruse this old Simmons article and search for Berle’s name. It’s a great Hollywood urban legend.)
Resolution #3: Simplify your life wherever you can.
Minnesota’s defensive game plan should be fairly simple on Sunday: make the Bears try to beat you with Mitchell Trubisky. Chicago’s offensive line is in rough shape heading into the game—their usual right side starters, Josh Sitton and Bobby Massie, have not participated in practice this week. Trubisky has the fourth worst quarterback rating in the league when pressured according to NFL Matchup. The Vikings have only six sacks over their past four games, so Sunday seems like a good opportunity to pad those numbers.
However, the pressure has been better than those numbers would indicate, and some of the recent decline in sacks may be by design. Hundley was only dangerous when he escaped the pocket and scrambled last week. Mike Wobschall wrote that the Vikings will adjust their pass rush scheme to contain Trubisky and try to minimize the damage he can do rolling out and scrambling. It’s a smart idea—Mike Zimmer should like his secondary’s chances against luminaries like Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy, and Dontrelle Inman. It would still be nice to knock Trubisky around a few times and force him into some mistakes though.
Resolution #4: Always try to find the good in others.
The Bears offense is pretty lousy. Football Outsiders has them ranked 27th in DVOA. They’re 30th in total yards and 31st in passing yards. But Trubisky is playing better since making his NFL debut against the Vikings in Week 5. Offensive Coordinator Dowell Loggains is still keeping things fairly simple for his rookie signal caller. Play action, rollouts, and routes that don’t require Trubisky to scan the entire field are very common in the Chicago offense.
The Vikings should employ two mantras on the defensive side of the ball: “confuse” and “contain.” Pre-snap movement made it tough for the similarly inexperienced Hundley last week; I would expect Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr to line up in all sorts of different places on Sunday to keep Chicago guessing. But again, they still need to be mindful of Trubisky’s ability to make plays on the ground. He has 246 yards rushing and is averaging just over a yard less rushing per game than Tarik Cohen this year.
Speaking of Cohen, he and Jordan Howard are still a formidable backfield combo that can amass yards in a hurry. The Vikings held them in check the first time around, limiting the duo to 88 total yards from scrimmage. A repeat performance should make it extremely difficult for the Bears to put up points.
Resolution #5: Don’t take things for granted.
Moving the ball consistently will be a tough task against a Bears defense that’s top ten in the league across the board in yardage allowed. Although Chicago won’t have the head start of sacking a one-legged Bradford four times en route to the baseball-like 3-2 halftime score in Week 5, the Bears defense has been playing well lately. They have held their last three opponents to under 300 yards and have forced at least one turnover in six straight games (11 total over that span). Kyle Fuller is having a great bounce-back contract year at corner. Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Danny Trevathan, both of whom missed the first matchup against the Vikings, have been all over the field in the middle of the defense. Akiem Hicks could be a nightmare against the reshuffled Minnesota line. It might be a good idea for the Vikings to employ some of the same rollout and play action concepts that the Bears use for Trubisky to ensure Keenum has time to find open receivers.
Resolution #6: Don’t make the same mistakes you made in the past.
Although Chicago’s defense is solid, one of the big reasons the Bears kept it close in October was by fooling the Vikings with a fake punt for a touchdown. They also pulled off an intricate razzle-dazzle two-point conversion to tie the game early in the fourth quarter. Chicago has absolutely nothing to lose this week; the Vikings need to expect the unexpected and be prepared for any tricks the Bears may have up their sleeve.
Resolution #7: Remain in the present.
As in, your present division. Minnesota is looking to go 5-1 in the division for the second time in three years. Performing well against the teams you play twice a year is a crucial part of success in the NFL.
Case in point: the Bears are on the verge of getting swept by the NFC North. It’s too bad they don’t play in the AFC North, a division they went 4-0 against this year. (They’re 1-10 against everybody else.) To make things even weirder, Chicago has beaten two of the three teams the Vikings have lost to this year (the Steelers and Panthers). Minnesota is clearly the better team but Chicago has given other contenders all they can handle a few times.
The Vikings seem fully aware that they can’t take this game for granted. Hopefully that will translate to improved execution on the field.
Resolution #8: Don’t wait to tell others that you love them. If you do, it might be too late.
John Fox, we love you. Your 1-4 record against the Vikings and atrocious 14-33 overall record in Chicago has been incredibly enjoyable for your NFC North rivals. We’re going to miss your terrible decision making and lack of any discernible long-term strategy when you’re inevitably fired in the 24 hours following this game. If it isn’t too much to ask, John, we have one final request before you leave: could you put in a good word for Jeff Fisher as your successor? We’d love to keep the Bears streak of four consecutive last place finishes in the NFC North going, and we think Jeff is the perfect guy for the job.
Resolution #9: If you want something done right, do it yourself.
Don’t depend on other teams to get you the first round bye. Those other three games that could clinch the #2 seed for the Vikings are all in the late afternoon window. The Rams, one of the three other teams that could clinch the bye for the Vikings with a win, are resting most of their star players. So if the Vikings don’t want to sweat it out for an extra three and a half hours on Sunday, they better take care of business themselves.
Besides, it’s New Year’s Eve. We all have parties to get tipsy at. We don’t want to be scoreboard watching. Right, Zim?
Mike Zimmer on New Years Eve plans “If we win I’ll be a little tipsy by 7 o’clock”
— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) December 28, 2017
Resolution #10: Don’t take unnecessary risks, especially with your health.
So let’s say the Vikings take care of business and get a comfortable lead in the second half like they did in their last home game. As soon as the game is in hand, get those backups in! The Vikings already lost Nick Easton for the season last week. Hopefully they can put another inferior opponent away early at home and coast to their 13th victory of the season injury-free.
A win on Sunday would be momentous on a lot of fronts. The Vikings have won 13 games in a season only one other time in franchise history. That other time was pretty damn fun and very memorable (for both very good and very bad reasons). I think they’ll get lucky number 13 on Sunday. It might not be the wire-to-wire beatdown that we saw against Cincinnati, but in the end I don’t think the Bears can hang with a Vikings team that has only one blemish on their home record for 60 minutes. This team has an opportunity to be something special. They also have an opportunity to do the same thing on the first and last days of 2017: finish the Bears off with a convincing Week 17 home win.
But this time around, there’s still plenty left to do in Minnesota. So let’s get the W, rest up over the bye week, and make one final resolution: to see just how happy this new year can be.
Vikings 26, Bears 13
And now for the rest of my Week 17 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
STEELERS over Browns
We’re on the verge of seeing two 0-16 teams in the span of a decade. This is truly the golden age of football.
Cowboys over EAGLES
This game means nothing for either team, but I’m sure Jason Garrett wouldn’t mind having a winning season on his resume when he’s begging to keep his job this offseason.
LIONS over Packers
Same thing as the previous game, but swap out Garrett for Jim Caldwell.
COLTS over Texans
Let’s all just pretend this game never happened.
PATRIOTS over Jets
New England won’t have to leave home until the Super Bowl. And they won’t have to get out of second gear to win this game. (Mostly because the referees will probably bail them out if they struggle at all.)
Redskins over GIANTS
One last chance for Kirk Cousins to audition for his next team, and one last chance for Eli Apple to not participate in a game for his current team before getting traded for 10 cents on the dollar in the offseason.
FALCONS over Panthers
Atlanta is playing for their lives at home, and Carolina could realize they’re locked into the fifth seed by halftime if the game in Tampa gets out of hand. I’ll take the Falcons even though I’m fully aware they’re having a very tough time getting out of their own way this season.
Bills over DOLPHINS
Even if Buffalo wins this game, they need the Ravens to lose or the Titans and Chargers to lose to make the playoffs. Believe it or not, starting Nathan Peterman that one week in LA may not have been the best idea!
RAVENS over Bengals
I guess Cincinnati could play spoiler two weeks in a row. But I think we’ll see people trying to talk themselves into the myth of Playoff Joe Flacco in the week leading up to their Wild Card loss.
Chiefs over BRONCOS
Patrick Mahomes II fanboys, rejoice! It’s your chance to watch him in a meaningless game and project that extremely small sample size onto how he might perform next year!
TITANS over Jaguars
Jacksonville already has the #3 seed locked up. I know the Titans whooped them in Week 2, but that was before Tennessee sucked and Blake Bortles was quasi-competent. If I’m the Jags, I’d much rather see the Titans at home next week than any of the other possible options.
CHARGERS over Raiders
The Chargers could still make the playoffs, and if they do they could be dangerous. But when you’re on your fourth kicker of the season, maybe that’s a sign it just isn’t your year.
49ers over RAMS
The Rams have already announced that they’re benching a lot of their best players. It seems like they’re really gunning for that fourth seed. Perhaps they’re angling for a game in Philly if they make it to the Divisional Round instead of a rematch at US Bank Stadium? Or maybe they just realize Jimmy Garoppolo is unbeatable and don’t want to get embarrassed right before the playoffs? Probably the second one.
Saints over BUCCANEERS
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 12-4 on the season and trying to finish strong on an 8-game win streak. I could see the Bucs hanging around for a while at home, but nobody is better at pissing away winnable games.
SEAHAWKS over Cardinals
On one hand, I’d love to see Seattle miss the playoffs because I’m sick of them and F those guys. On the other hand, the thought of Blair Walsh blowing a playoff game for a different team kind of intrigues me…
Last week: 14-2
Season so far: 157-83