Arizona Cardinals (4-2) at Minnesota Vikings (4-2)
Wow. Who would have thought when these two teams met week 7, it would be a game of 4-2 teams with potential future playoff ramifications. In a year that has once again been full of surprises, these two are probably the league’s two most surprisingly good teams. However, as I’ve said all along, I believe one team is for real and one isn’t.
When Arizona started 4-0, I called them one of the worst 4-0 teams ever and mentioned that I did the same thing with the Broncos in 2009. The Broncos, much like the Cardinals this year, were one of my preseason picks to be among the worst in the league. After the Broncos started 2-0, 3-0, 4-0 etc, I started calling them the worst 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, etc team ever because of how they were winning. I got some negative comments and hate mail for that. The Broncos started 6-0 that year and ended the season 8-8. The Cardinals could see something similar happen.
So many things pointed to the Cardinals’ early start being a fluke. One, Larry Fitzgerald is their only good offensive player. If numbers are more your thing, this team ranked tied for 27th in the league in yards per play differential through 4 games (they are now 28th). They had won 3 games by 3 or fewer points, giving them only a +30 points differential. Contrary to popular belief, winning close games does even out over time.
This team was 10-1 in their last 11 games decided by a touchdown or fewer. Before that, they were 2-8 in their last 10, with essentially the same group of guys. Teams that win more than 67% of their close games win about 50% of those types of games the following season and the same is true midseason. Teams that win a game by 7 points or less are 586-541 (52.0%) since 1989 in their following game if that game is also decided by a touchdown or less. The only exception, historically, has proven to be an elite quarterback, but the Cardinals don’t have that. I’ve bet against them heavily in each of the last 3 weeks, dating back to a near loss at home to Miami and I’ve been right each time.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is for real. They are 8th in the league in yards per play differential and 7th in rate of sustaining drives differential. Last year, in the 9 games in which Ponder led the team in passing attempts, the team scored 22.9 points per game. Despite their 3-13 record, they had a Pythagorean Expectation of 6 wins, despite injuries to several key players.
Now Ponder is healthy and improved, behind a better offensive line. The coaching staff is finally using Percy Harvin properly and he’s emerged as one of the better receivers in the league. Meanwhile, their defense is much improved thanks to the return of Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook, as well as young players playing better. After ranking 20th in the league in yards per play allowed last year, their young defense has broken out and now ranks 3rd.
They had a setback last week in Washington, but I don’t think their season is doomed because of one bad game. Unlike the Cardinals, their important stats check out. Besides, the Redskins in Washington aren’t an easy opponent. They’ve been competitive in every game this year. The Vikings did manage still control the ball better, with 27 first downs to Washington’s 20. Washington actually punted 3 times to 2 for Minnesota. Washington won because they won the yards per play battle 6.6 to 5.3 and the turnover battle 3 to 1. The yards per play battle means something, but the turnover battle doesn’t much so much given the inconsistency of turnovers. They’re still the favorite to be this year’s team that goes from 5 or fewer wins to the playoffs, although Washington is creeping up on them fast.
The problem is that this line indicates that Arizona isn’t for real and Minnesota is because it’s at -7. If you take the difference between Minnesota’s yards per play differential and Arizona’s and divide by .15 and add 3 points to San Francisco’s side for home field advantage, you get a line of 9.5, which suggests 2.5 points of line value with the Vikings.
However, one issue I noticed with using solely this metric, which a lot of bettors do, is it puts too much value on teams that get a lot of big plays, but can’t sustain drives (or conversely, teams that don’t allow a lot of big plays, but can’t get off the field defensively). Think about it. You pass for 30 yards and then gain no yards on your next 3 plays and have to punt. That’s 7.5 yards per play, which is incredibly impressive, but you didn’t sustain a drive. So I’ve essentially created a new statistic called, rate of sustaining drives, not to replace the traditional metric, but to see if any teams are much better in one than the other.
Basically, how I created it is I took first downs and divided it by first downs + turnovers + punts + failed 4th downs. Basically, what it essentially measures is, on any given 1st and 10, how often does a team get another 1st down or sustain the drive. Turnovers (whether traditional or on downs) and punts are obviously failures to achieve 1st and 10. This measures first downs divided by chances at a first down (first downs + failures to achieve 1st and 10).
You can also do this for the defense, how often they can get the opposing team off the field on any given 1st and 10. The statistic is in the form of a percentage and you can subtract the offensive one from the defensive one to get the differential. For example, Minnesota is at +4.1%, while Seattle is at -0.8%. The difference between the percents is 4.9, divide by 1.5 this time (which conveniently works very well with the numbers) and add 3 points either way for home field and you get a line of Minnesota -5.5. I don’t think we really have line value either way.
It’s also worth noting this line has shifted 3 points since last week, which doesn’t make any sense since Minnesota lost. Arizona also lost and that was bad and they also lost Kevin Kolb, but I don’t think either of those things is worth a 3 point line value. Kolb was leading a miserable offense anyway. Arizona’s defense is still really good despite their recent struggles. Because of that, they should be able to keep this a close game and I like getting 7 with them. Dating back to last year, just 4 of their 10 losses have come by a touchdown or more. As long as we’re getting a touchdown with them, it’s a small play on the road team to cover, but fail to come up with a victory.
Public lean: Minnesota (new thing I’m adding, siding with the odds makers on bets is not a bad thing to do since they make so much money, so I’m listing this here to allow readers to “fade” the public, if they so choose, in this example, the odds makers win if Arizona covers)
Sharps lean: ARI 18 MIN 4
Final update: Sharps really like Arizona. I’ll add a unit. Arizona should be able to keep this one close.
Minnesota Vikings 17 Arizona Cardinals 13
Pick against spread: Arizona +7 (-110) 2 units