Minnesota Vikings (1-5) at Green Bay Packers (5-1)
The Vikings have just one win, but there is reason to believe they’ll be a lot better than that going forward, coming out of last week’s bye. In many ways, they remind me of last year’s Atlanta Falcons, who started 1-7, but won 6 of their final 8 after their bye week. The Falcons had a first down rate differential of +1.33% in their first 8 games, but had a turnover margin of -11 that was the 2nd worst in the league at the time, which made winning any games very difficult.
Fortunately for those Falcons (and these Vikings), per play success stats like first down rate tend to be much more consistent and predictive in the long run than stats like turnover margin that only tell what happened on a small percentage of a team’s snaps. The Falcons weren’t drastically better in first down rate differential over their 6-2 stretch at +2.02%, but their turnover margin improved to +6, making it much easier for the Falcons to win games.
If anything, the Vikings have been better this season than the Falcons were last year during their 1-7 stretch, as the Vikings rank 4th in the NFL this season with a +2.73% first down rate differential, adjusted for schedule. The Vikings haven’t been killed by the turnover margin quite as much as last year’s Falcons, but they still rank 3rd worst in the league at -7, as they’ve recovered just 35.71% of fumbles, while quarterback Kirk Cousins has thrown interceptions at a rate 2.5 times higher than his career average and over 3 times higher than his previous 3 seasons. Both of those things are unlikely to continue. Also unlikely to continue is the Vikings allowing 19 of 19 field goals against and their -31.8% 4th down conversion rate disparity.
It’s not hard to see how that has led to the Vikings losing otherwise winnable games, as they were a failed 4th down conversation away from clinching the game in Seattle and lost by 1 to the Titans in a game in which the Titans made 6 of 6 field goals, including a trio from 50+ and a 55-yard game winner. The Vikings could easily be 3-3 right now, despite a relatively tough schedule, and that doesn’t even take into account that the Vikings fared much better on a per play basis than the final score suggests in losses in Green Bay and Atlanta, or that the Vikings were missing top offensive player Dalvin Cook before the bye in that Atlanta loss and have been without guard Pat Elflein since week 1. Both players are expected to return this week.
The Vikings’ defense is a real concern, especially with defensive end Yannick Ngakoue being traded and several injuries to their cornerback depth, and I definitely don’t think they’re as good as their raw first down rate stats would suggest, but even with their defensive problems, I still have them as a middle of the pack team in my roster rankings and defense tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offense. Like last year’s Atlanta Falcons, the Vikings are an offensive led team, which makes their chances of improving significantly going forward much better than if they were a defensive led team.
The Falcons made a statement right away out of their bye last season, winning convincingly by score of 26-9 as 13.5-point underdogs in New Orleans in one of the biggest upsets of the season. The Vikings have a chance to do something similar this week in Green Bay (though it wouldn’t be quite as big of an upset) and even if they don’t I like their chances of keeping this one close. The Vikings lost by 9 to the Packers in Minnesota back in week 1, but that was a weird game where the Packers out snapped the Vikings 76-49 because they won the turnover battle by 1, they converted a 4th down, they forced a safety immediately after their failed 4th down conversion, and they stopped the Vikings on a 4th down try of their own.
On a per snap basis, the Vikings won the first down rate battle by 10.23% and the yards per play battle by 0.9, which tends to be much more predictive than things like turnovers and 4th down performance. On the season, in addition to their edge in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+2.73% vs. -0.05%), the Vikings also are just behind the Packers in net yards per play (0.3 vs. 0.2) and DVOA (10th vs. 18th). This game is in Lambeau, but with no fans in attendance, that doesn’t make much of a difference, so my calculated line is just Green Bay -4 and that’s before taking into account any situational factors.
Not only are these two teams closer than their records would suggest, but the Packers are also in a tough spot, having to turn around and play again in 4 days in San Francisco against a 49ers team that beat them twice easily last year and ended their season in the NFC Championship game. Favorites cover at just a 44.0% rate all-time before a Thursday night game and for the Packers the look ahead effect could be even greater, given that they’ve already beaten the Vikings once this year and have likely been looking forward to their nationally televised revenge game with the 49ers since the schedule came out.
The Vikings, meanwhile, should be totally focused, coming out of a bye, with a much easier game against the Lions on deck. Underdogs cover at a 62.7% rate before being favorites when their opponents will next be underdogs and even that doesn’t hold true in this matchup, the logic still stands that the Vikings will be much more focused for this game than their opponents. On top of that, divisional home favorites of 3.5+ are 36-48 ATS over the past 30 seasons against a team they’ve already beaten and, for what it’s worth, underdogs are 9-5 ATS over the past 30 years off of a bye when their opponents will next play on a short week, although that’s obviously a small sample size.
The Packers have a lot of injury uncertainty, with key players like left tackle David Bakhiari, safety Darnell Savage, and wide receiver Allen Lazard being legitimately questionable for this matchup, but even if they all play, I like the Vikings enough to make this my Pick of the Week and if all three of those players don’t play, there’s a good chance the Vikings could pull the straight up upset. I am glad I was able to lock this in at 7 earlier in the week because sharp action has pushed this line down to 6. I would still like the Vikings at 6, but not as much and at that number, the injury inactives will be more important.
Green Bay Packers 30 Minnesota Vikings 28
Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7
Confidence: Pick of the Week