Sep 062013

Minnesota Vikings (0-0) at Detroit Lions (0-0)

The Lions and Vikings are among the teams I picked to have big win changes, the Lions in a positive direction and the Vikings in a negative direction. Part of this has to do with the fact that the two teams did the opposite last season, with the Lions going from 10 wins to 4 and the Vikings going from 3 wins to 10. Ordinarily, we can expect teams that have big win changes to have an opposite change of about half the following season, so a 6 win decrease is, on average, followed by a 3 win increase. This is because the NFL has such a short season that, when teams have big win changes, it has more to do with bad or good luck than an actual change in talent level.

However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Both teams have other signs of impending win changes. The Lions won just 4 games last year despite outgaining opponents by the 2nd most yardage in the NFL, by over 1000 yards. This is largely because they surrendered a ridiculous 70 points on return touchdowns, without scoring once in that fashion. If you take that out of the equation, the Lions would have outscored their opponents on the season (they also were terrible in close games, something that should turn around in 2013). That alone should get them to 8 wins.

That return touchdown margin should even out for 2 reasons. The first is that their special teams, which were responsible for 4 of those return touchdowns allowed, should improve. That type of thing is inconsistent on a year to year basis largely because special teams personnel is inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. The Lions have changed their punter, kicker, and both of their return men. The rest of their special teams personnel should look largely different as well. I’m not worried about their special teams being as bad as they were last season and that won’t just help eliminate that 10 touchdown gap, but it’ll help give them better field position.

The second reason is that I think they’re unlikely to allow 6 return touchdowns on 33 turnovers again, a ridiculous 18.2% rate. Ordinarily, teams who turn the ball over 33 times allow an average of 2 return touchdowns off of them over the course of the season. They’re probably score at least once or twice on return touchdowns this season, something they didn’t do last season. Add in the fact that the Lions suffered the 9th most injuries in the NFL last season and recovered the 2nd lowest percentage of fumbles recovered on the ground and this is a team that will be much closer to the 10 wins they had in 2011 than the 4 wins they had in 2012.

Minnesota is in the opposite situation. They excelled in close games, winning 5 out of 6 games decided by a touchdown or fewer. As a result, they won 10 games despite a point differential of +31 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 8.8 wins. Record in games decided by a touchdown or less tends to be very inconsistent and almost always evens out in the long run. For instance, they were 2-9 in such games in 2011.

There’s no reason to believe they’ll be that bad again in 2013, but at the same time there’s no reason to believe they’ll be as good as they were in 2012 again either. In terms of DVOA, they ranked 14th in the NFL last season and most importantly for their chances of making the post-season again in 2013, they ranked 9th in the loaded NFC in DVOA. I think that’s a more accurate assessment of their 2012 season: that they were the 9th best team in the NFC, but snuck into the 6th seed because of some “clutch” close wins.

I have reason to believe they won’t even be the 9th best team in the NFC this season. Keep in mind, the teams ranked 15th-17th in DVOA were also NFC teams, as were the teams ranked 19th-20th. The difference between being the 9th and the 14th best team (Tampa Bay) in the NFC last year was not very significant and if a few more things don’t go quite the Vikings’ way, they could be one of the worst teams in the NFC.

One thing that probably won’t go quite the Vikings’ way again is injuries. Last year, they were 2nd in the NFL in adjusted games lost, essentially losing the equivalent of over 2 important players for the entire season fewer than the average NFL team. That tends to be unsustainable so the Vikings should suffer more bad luck in terms of injury in 2013. They’re already without defensive tackle Kevin Williams for this game, as well as key fullback Jerome Felton. It also doesn’t help that they lost Antoine Winfield, who was an invaluable member of their secondary last season, to free agency (as a cap casualty) and then eventually retirement.

The other thing that probably won’t go quite the Vikings’ way again this season is the MVP, Adrian Peterson. Peterson played at a non-human level in 2012, coming up 9 yards short of the single season rushing record and becoming the 2nd running back since 1982 to average 6.0 yards per carry or more and carry the ball 300 or more times. It was arguably one of the best single seasons a running back has ever had. It’s a season that no running back will probably match for a long time and unfortunately for Vikings fans, that probably includes Peterson.

No running back in NFL history has ever rushed for 2000 yards twice in a career. No running back has even rushed for 1900 yards twice in a career. Among the top-16 in single season rushing yard totals there are 15 unique names. Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, and OJ Simpson have both rushed for 1800 yards more than once in their career, but only Dickerson did it in back-to-back seasons and he was 23-24 in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. Peterson is going to try to do it when he’s 27-28.

Furthermore, of the 28 other players to ever rush for 1700+ yards in a season, only 3 exceeded their rushing total the following season. In fact, the average 1700+ yard rusher rushed for 615 fewer yards the following season. Sure, some of them got seriously hurt, but it’s not like it would be impossible for Peterson to get hurt and even when you take out the 4 players who didn’t make it to 200 carries the following season, they still averaged 474 yards fewer the following season. On top of that, those players also averaged 7/10ths of a yard fewer per carry, going from 5.1 yards per carry to 4.4 yards per carry. Finally, only 5 players in NFL history have had 3500 rushing yards in a 2-year stretch and only 2 have had 3600.

Now, Peterson is definitely not going to have a bad year. In fact, he’s still my pick to lead the NFL in rushing, but you can lead the NFL in rushing with 1600 yards. I think there’s a decent chance that Peterson gets to 1662 rushing yards, which would give him the 2nd most rushing yards all-time in a two year span, but either way there’s a very good chance Peterson is rushing for at least 400 yards fewer this season. Plus, remember, in Peterson’s 6 year NFL career, he’s rushed for fewer than 1400 yards 4 times. Last season was the best of his career, but he didn’t suddenly become a significantly better player.

Christian Ponder largely was a game manager for the Vikings last season, averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt, hitching his wagon to Peterson and having him drag him into the post-season. How improbable was it that the Vikings made the playoffs despite this kind of quarterback play? Well, since 2006, 22 teams have averaged 6 yards or fewer per attempt. Of those 21 teams, 20 won 5 or fewer games, none won more than 7 and as a group they averaged 4.0 wins per season and 14.8 points per game. The Vikings won 10 games and averaged 23.7 points per game. I know the Vikings technically averaged 6.1 YPA, but I don’t really think that extra 1/10 of the yard was what got them the extra 6 wins. That’s why Peterson got my support for MVP, even though it’s near impossible for a running back to truly be the most valuable player in today’s NFL. Peterson was last year. He probably won’t be this year.

However, without Peterson rushing for an absurd amount of yardage this season, the Vikings could be in a lot of trouble if Ponder doesn’t improve statistically. Ponder could be a better quarterback going into his 3rd season in the NFL, but he was a very NFL ready quarterback coming out of Florida State. He was never a quarterback who had a lot of issues with the non-physical parts of the game (touch, accuracy, decision making, reading defenses), but he’s physically limited and that’s not something that really improves as your career goes along. He’s averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt throughout his career and considering how much he struggled last season without Percy Harvin, he could be even less than that this season. Harvin went down for the year midway through the 9th game of the season and Ponder averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt in games 9-16 last season. Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson come in, but the former has been very injury prone of late, while the later might not even start as a rookie.

The Vikings could easily be this year’s team that goes from the playoffs to 5 wins or fewer and the Lions could easily be this year’s team that does the opposite. Unfortunately, the odds makers seems to know this as well, which is why Detroit’s over/under win total is actually higher than the Vikings’ and why this line is Detroit -5. It takes away a lot of the line value here, but it also re-affirms my stances on these two teams. The odds makers usually know what they’re doing. It’s not a big play, but the Lions should win this game by at least a touchdown so I will make a play on them.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

Detroit Lions 23 Minnesota Vikings 13

Pick against spread: Detroit -5

Confidence: Medium

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