Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-9) at Detroit Lions (5-10)

I thought the Vikings were an underrated team for much of the season, but I have mostly stayed away from betting them in recent weeks due to the absence of key linebacker Eric Kendricks. The Vikings still have a very productive offense that ranks 3rd in first down rate over expected at 2.88%, which is important because offensive performance tends to be much more consistent week-to-week than defensive performance, but their offense takes a hit this week without Dalvin Cook and their defense has fallen to 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.19% and hasn’t stopped much of anybody without Kendricks. 

Making matters worse, the Vikings will also be without their top cornerback Cameron Dantzler and top defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo this week, among other absences on defense, giving them one of the least talented defenses in the league on paper. Their offense can trade points with a lot of teams, even without Cook, but I have the Vikings ranked 18th overall in my roster rankings due to the absence of Cook and their absences on defense, which is a significant fall from where they were at their highest point, especially when you consider how many other teams also have significant injury absences right now.

Detroit has struggled for most of the season, ranking 29th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -3.19%, and they have had injury problems in recent weeks as well, culminating in a humiliating 47-7 home loss to the Buccaneers last week. The good news for the Lions is that they’re actually getting healthier. Matt Stafford didn’t play most of last week, but is expected to start this week, as is center Frank Ragnow, returning from a 2-game absence, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, returning from a 4-game absence, and possibly linebacker Jamie Collins, returning from a 1-game absence. 

The Lions’ defense has been awful this season, allowing the highest first down rate over expected in the league at +4.38%, but their offense hasn’t been bad, ranking 10th at +1.19% and playing noticeably better with Matt Stafford in the lineup. As I mentioned earlier, offensive performance is much more consistent and predictive week-to-week. The Lions rank 23rd overall in my roster rankings, just a few spots down from Minnesota, and have the ability to trade points with a Vikings team that might actually have a worse defense than Detroit does. My calculated line is Minnesota -1.5, so we’re getting good line value with the Lions at +4.

On top of that, this is a good spot for the Lions, coming off of last week’s blowout loss. Teams tend to be overlooked and motivated in that spot, covering at a 57.8% rate all-time after a loss by 35 points or more. That’s especially true with home underdogs who previously lost as home underdogs, as they cover at a 53.8% rate, including a 61.7% rate after a loss by 24 points or more. I like to see that the Lions have players willing to play through injury in a meaningless game, led by Stafford, as it seems they’re ready to give much more effort than they did last week, while the Vikings could have one foot in the off-season after a disappointing, injury plagued season. Between the line value and the good spot, there is enough here for the Lions to be worth a bet, but the possibility of a in-game re-injury by Stafford is enough to keep this a smaller play.

Minnesota Vikings 34 Detroit Lions 33

Pick against the spread: Detroit +4

Confidence: Medium 

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-8) at New Orleans Saints (10-4)

One interesting metric that I look at is called variance, which measures the variance in a team’s performance from week-to-week. The Saints have been among the league leaders in this metric this year, ranking 4th, meaning they’ve been one of the least consistent teams in the league week-to-week. Sometimes this is due to sheer randomness and there isn’t a good explanation for it (like the 2nd ranked New England Patriots), but the most common reason for a team being inconsistent week-to-week is injuries, as having several key players in and out of the lineup over the course of a season will lead to significant week-to-week variance in performance.

That has been the case for the Saints, who have been among the most injury prone teams in the league this season, with key players on both sides of the ball both missing time, but also returning at various points in the season. The Saints are probably the best team in the league when everyone is at full strength (they were the pre-season #1 in my roster rankings), so, even with some key injuries, they’ve managed to go 10-4, but their play has slipped a little bit in recent weeks, resulting in back-to-back losses after a 10-2 start.

In some ways, both losses were understandable and slightly excusable. The first loss came in a game in which the Saints were facing an unfamiliar rookie quarterback with no pre-season tape on him and it came before a much bigger game against the Chiefs, so it was understandable they would be caught off guard, while the second loss came against a Chiefs team that is currently favored to win the Super Bowl, so losing to them isn’t a big deal, and both losses did come by only a field goal. However, both games required a borderline garbage time touchdown by the Saints to cut the deficit to 3 and the Saints lost the first down rate battle by a combined 4.38% in those games. 

Those two losses dropped the Saints to 6th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.57% and their injury situation is going in the wrong direction as well. Drew Brees has returned, but he might not be fully 100% and, at less than 100%, he isn’t a big upgrade over Taysom Hill, while the Saints have key players on both sides of the ball that are out that were not out when Hill was starting, most notably #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas and stud safety Marcus Williams. Overall, they’ve fallen to 9th in my roster rankings, which certainly isn’t bad, but they’re not the dominant team they looked to be a few weeks ago. 

With that in mind, I think we’re getting a little bit of line value with the visitors, with the Vikings coming in as 7-point underdogs. The Vikings are also a little underrated themselves. They aren’t nearly as good without top linebacker Eric Kendricks, who is once again out on defense, but their 7th ranked schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+2.31%) is significantly better than their record and is only slightly behind the Saints.

The metrics the Vikings have struggled in are metrics that are much less predictable week-to-week, like their net -15.55% fourth down conversion rate, their -19.19% net field goal conversion percentage, their 41.18% fumble recovery rate (28th in the NFL), their 2.99% interception rate (28th in the NFL) that is significantly higher than quarterback Kirk Cousins’ average from the past 5 seasons (1.90%), and their -4 return touchdown margin. I don’t want to bet on the Vikings without Kendricks, especially since the better team usually covers on a short week (favorites of 6+ cover at a 62.8% rate when both teams have had 4 days of rest or fewer), but the Vikings should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

New Orleans Saints 33 Minnesota Vikings 28

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (6-7) at Minnesota Vikings (6-7)

Typically, I like to go against significant week-to-week line swings, as they tend to be overreactions to a single week of play. This game features one, as the Vikings have gone from being favored by 6 points on the early line last week to 3 points this week. The Vikings lost last week, but they played relatively competitively with a talented Buccaneers team, so that line movement is probably primarily due to the Bears’ big 36-7 win over the Texans last week. The Texans seemed to barely try in that game though, with their season essentially being ended the week before in heartbreaking fashion in a last second loss to the Colts, so I don’t give the Bears too much credit for that one, especially since the Texans are one of the worst teams in the league right now due to several key absent players.

My calculated line is Minnesota -4.5 and my line likely would have been around there regardless of how the Bears played last week, so the line movement from 6 to 3 is a big deal, as I probably would have been on the Bears at +6. Both of these teams are 6-7, but the Vikings have played better than their record, ranking 7th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.37%. The metrics they have struggled in are metrics that are much less predictable week-to-week, like their net -9.36% fourth down conversion rate, their -21.21% net field goal conversion percentage, their 39.39% fumble recovery rate (29th in the NFL), their 3.00% interception rate (28th in the NFL) that is significantly higher than quarterback Kirk Cousins’ average from the past 5 seasons (1.90%), and their -4 return touchdown margin

Even though we’re getting some line value with the Vikings, I wouldn’t recommend a bet because they’re in a couple bad spots. For one, they have a much tougher game on deck in New Orleans, while the Bears have a very easy game against the Jaguars. Favorite cover at just a 45.5% rate when they next face an opponent with a winning percentage 60% better than the team their opponent will face next week. Making matters worse, the Vikings game against the Saints is next Friday, so the Vikings will be on a short week. Favorites cover at just a 43.7% rate all-time before a Thursday or Friday game. I’m still on the Vikings for pick ‘em purposes, but this is a no confidence pick.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Chicago Bears 20

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -3

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)

The Vikings have jumped to 6-6 after their 1-5 start, but I still think they’re a little underrated, as a lot of the metrics that suggested they’d be better after their 1-5 start still suggest they can be better going forward. They have a net -18.2% fourth down conversion rate, a 38.71% fumble recovery rate (30th in the NFL), a 3.31% interception rate (28th in the NFL) that is nearly double quarterback Kirk Cousins’ average from the past 5 seasons (1.90%), and -4 return touchdown margin, all metrics that tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which is a much more consistent metric, the Vikings rank 8th in at +2.13%, and, while their defense will have a big absence this week with top linebacker Eric Kendricks injured, they still rank a respectable 13th in my roster rankings, suggesting that, even without one of their best defensive players, the Vikings still are a little better than their .500 record.

The Buccaneers also have been better statistically than their record would suggest, ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.33%. They’re “just” 7-5, but three of their five losses came by one score or less and four of their five losses came against other teams in the top-4 in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (The Saints twice, the Chiefs, and the Rams). However, they have been led by their defense more than the Vikings, which is a concern because defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance. 

The Buccaneers’ defense, which ranks 5th in first down rate allowed over expected at -3.25%, has somewhat covered for an offense that has been inconsistent and ranks 11th in first down rate over expected at +1.08%, but their defense might not be able to do that going forward, not just due to the inherent unpredictability of defensive performance, but also because the injuries are starting to pile up, with talented starting cornerback Jamel Dean joining stud defensive tackle Vita Vea on the sidelines. The Vikings, meanwhile, rank 7th in first down rate over expected at +1.76%, so they’ve been the more efficient of these two offenses this season. 

The Buccaneers’ offense has the talent to be a lot better offensively than they’ve been, but they’ve underachieved thus far, in large part due to the fact that quarterback Tom Brady seems to be slowing down after all these years. He’s still a capable quarterback, even at age 43, but if you look at his performance over the past three seasons, you can see a steady decline and he should be producing a lot more with the talent he has around him in this offense. 

Given all of this, there are reasons to be tempted to bet the Vikings, as we’re getting seven points with a team who has statistically been more efficient on offense this season, but I’m going to keep this as a low confidence pick only because of the chance that Tom Brady and this offense live up to their potential, at least for a week, as they’ll be rested coming out of their bye week, which also likely gave them some extra time to build needed chemistry on this offense. 

With the bye included, the Buccaneers haven’t won a game in close to a calendar month (November 15th) and Tom Brady’s history off of a loss (46-22 ATS) is well noted at this point, so he should be as fully focused as possible. That doesn’t matter if Brady continues to be far from the quarterback he used to be, especially against an underrated Vikings team, and he hasn’t been as good at covering the spread after a loss when he’s favored by this many points, but the possibility that this offense has their best week of the season after a bye against a defense missing it’s top linebacker is enough for me to keep this as just a low confidence pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 Minnesota Vikings 23

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low

Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-10) at Minnesota Vikings (5-6)

The Vikings started just 1-5, but there were a lot of reasons to believe they’d be significantly better going forward, as they were struggling primarily due to metrics that are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and they had faced a tough schedule. The Vikings have more or less been as I’ve expected since their tough start, winning four of the past five games to bring their record up to a respectable 5-6, but the metrics that showed the Vikings had a good chance for significant improvement going forward still show that.

The Vikings have a 89.66% field goal percentage against, a net -18.2% 4th down conversion rate, and a -6 turnover margin (4th worst in the NFL), which is primarily due to their league worst fumble recovery rate (33.33%) and Kirk Cousins’ interception rate (3.44%) being nearly double his interception rate in his previous 5 seasons (1.90%). They’ve also faced a tough schedule overall, even if it’s gotten easier in recent weeks, and, overall, they rank 8th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.15%. That lines up with my roster rankings, which also has them 8th.

It’s not hard to see how struggling in those aforementioned metrics 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+ yards and a 55-yard game winner. The Vikings could easily be 7-4 against a tough schedule right now if they had held on to win those two games and that doesn’t even take into account that they won the first down rate battle in losses to the Packers, Falcons, and Cowboys. They’re far better than their record suggests.

This line is high at 10, but I think it should be even higher, as the Jaguars are arguably the worst team in the league. Most expected them to be one of, if not the worst teams in the league coming into the season, due to the complete teardown of this roster over the past couple years since the AFC Championship. They threw some people off the scent by randomly winning their first game of the season against the Colts, but have proven to be as bad as expected, losing ten straight games by 10.5 points per game. 

The Jaguars rank 31st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -4.90% and dead last in my roster rankings, as their already depleted roster is missing several key players, including quarterback Gardner Minshew, talented guard Andrew Norwell, top edge defender Josh Allen, and their top-3 cornerbacks CJ Henderson, Sidney Jones, and DJ Hayden. I have this line calculated at Minnesota -13, as they should win this game easily. This isn’t a great spot for the Vikings, as they have to go to Tampa Bay after this one and favorites of 10+ are 65-83 ATS since 2002 before being underdogs, but the Jaguars have another tough game on deck against the Titans and teams are 58-97 ATS since 2014 before being home underdogs of 6 or more. Even at this big number, the Vikings are worth a bet.

Minnesota Vikings 33 Jacksonville Jaguars 17

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -10

Confidence: Medium

Carolina Panthers at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (4-7) at Minnesota Vikings (4-6)

The Vikings are just 4-6, but there is plenty of reason to believe they’ll be better going forward. Not only have they faced an above average schedule thus far, but a lot of the metrics they’ve struggled in are ones that are very unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, including a league worst 96.00% field goal percentage against, a net -21.2% 4th down conversion rate, and a -4 turnover margin, which is primarily due to their 31st ranked fumble recovery rate (37.50%) and Kirk Cousins’ interception rate (4.00%) being over double his interception rate in his previous 5 seasons (1.90%). 

It’s not hard to see how struggling in those aforementioned metrics 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+ yards and a 55-yard game winner. The Vikings could easily be 6-4 right now if they had held on to win those two games and that doesn’t even take into account that they won the first down rate battle in losses to the Packers, Falcons, and Cowboys. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Vikings rank 7th at +1.83%, which lines up with my roster rankings, in which they rank 11th. We’ve seen the Vikings go 3-1 since their 1-5 start, largely due to regression in those aforementioned metrics, and I would expect to see that continue going forward.

The Panthers are also better than their record though, ranking 18th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.24%, as they’ve faced a tough schedule and have only lost by more than one score twice, both against the Buccaneers, who rank #1 in schedule adjusted first down rate differential. My calculated line is Minnesota -4, so we’re not getting any real line value with the Vikings at -3.5. There also aren’t any relevant situational trends in this matchup, so which side I take for pick ‘em purposes is going to be solely dependent on the eventual status of some players who are questionable to suit up. 

For the Panthers, it’s starting left tackle Russell Okung and starting right guard John Miller, who could return from absences of 6 games and 2 games respectively to bolster this offensive line, while the Vikings have their top wide receiver Adam Thielen uncertain, after a week of inconclusive and conflicting COVID test results. I’m taking Minnesota for now, but I’ll almost definitely have an update before gametime. If Thielen can manage to get cleared and the Panthers don’t get their offensive linemen back, I’ll be more confident in Minnesota, but if the opposite of that happens, I’ll probably flip to Carolina.

Update: It’s all bad news on the injury report for the Vikings, with Thielen out and both Okung and Miller back for the Panthers, giving them a fully healthy offensive line for the first time in weeks. This line has shifted to Minnesota -3, which is right where I have this calculated, but I think I’m going to side with the Panthers slightly. A push is probably the most likely outcome.

Minnesota Vikings 30 Carolina Panthers 27

Pick against the spread: Carolina +3

Confidence: None

Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (2-7) at Minnesota Vikings (4-5)

I have picked the Vikings for three straight Pick of the Weeks since their week 7 bye and they have covered in all three games. The metrics that made me think the Vikings were underrated like the field goal percentage against (100%), net 4th down conversion rate (+31.8%), fumble recovery rate (35.71%), and Kirk Cousins interception rate being double his career average (5.3% vs. 2.4%) still have some room for regression, at 95.83%, +16.7%, 38.10%, and 4.5% respectively, so I think they’re still underrated. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which minimizes the effect of the metrics mentioned above, the Vikings rank 10th at +1.62%, which lines up with my roster rankings, which have them 9th. They were a 4th down conversion from winning in Seattle and they lost by 1 to the Titans in a game in which the Titans hit three field goals from 50+ yards, so they could easily be 6-3 right now, despite a tough schedule.

However, the Vikings aren’t as underrated as they used to be, as this line, favoring them by a touchdown at home, is right about where it should be, given that the Vikings will hardly have any fans at this game. That line being accurate is partially because the Cowboys are underrated themselves though. The Cowboys obviously haven’t had a good start to their season, especially since losing quarterback Dak Prescott for the season, but aside from Prescott, the Cowboys are getting a lot healthier on the rest of this roster, after being decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball. 

Their two stud offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’El Collins remain out for the season along with Prescott, but backup quarterback Andy Dalton returns from a 2-game absence to at least give them an NFL caliber quarterback under center and they will also benefit from the presence of stud right guard Zack Martin (1 game missed), starting linebackers Leighton Vander Esch (4 games) and Sean Lee (7 games), top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (7 games), and other minor players who have all returned from injury as well. In fact, my numbers suggest the Cowboys are slightly better than 50/50 to cover this spread against a solid Vikings team. This is a no confidence pick, but if I had to pick a side, I would go with Dallas.

Minnesota Vikings 30 Dallas Cowboys 24

Pick against the spread: Dallas +7

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (3-5) at Chicago Bears (5-4)

A couple weeks ago, coming out of their week 7 bye, I compared the Vikings to the 2019 Atlanta Falcons, who went 1-7 before their bye week before going 6-2 in their final 8 games. 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, leading to the 1-7 record. Likewise, the Vikings had a schedule adjusted +2.73% first down rate differential, but struggled to win games for other reasons and went just 1-5 in their first 6 games.

Fortunately for the Vikings (and last year’s Falcons), 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. 

The Vikings weren’t killed by the turnover margin quite as much as last year’s Falcons, but they still ranked 3rd worst in the league at -7 through week 7, as they recovered just 35.71% of fumbles, while quarterback Kirk Cousins threw 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 were unlikely to continue. Also unlikely to continue was the Vikings allowing 19 of 19 field goals against and having -31.8% 4th down conversion rate disparity. 

It wasn’t hard to see how that had 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 have easily been 3-3 over their first 6 games, 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 in that Atlanta loss.

Seeing the Vikings as very underrated, I bet them my Pick of the Week in back-to-back weeks and they rewarded me both times, pulling an upset by 6 points as 7-point underdogs in Green Bay and then beating the Lions by 14 points as 3.5-point favorites. Unfortunately, the public and the oddsmakers are starting to catch up, as evidenced by this line shifting from Chicago -1.5 on the early line last week to Minnesota -3 this week, but we’re still getting good line value with the Vikings, who remain at least somewhat underrated.

Despite their tough schedule, they could easily be 5-3 right now and they still have several significant stats that should improve going forward, including their league leading 95.45% opponent’s field goal percentage, Kirk Cousins’ 4.78% interception rate, which is still double his career average, and a 30th ranked 37.50% fumble recovery rate. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Vikings rank 7th and, while they might not be quite that good, they also rank 12th in my roster rankings, so they should continue playing at a high level going forward.

This line value is also in part due to the Bears being overrated. Everyone knows the Bears’ five wins have all come by one score, including four games that all came down to the final play and a pair of nearly impossible comebacks, but what’s not mentioned enough is that in three of their four losses, they were down by 16 points, 21 points, and 21 points in the 4th quarter before some meaningless late scores, against the Colts, Titans, and Rams, comparable caliber teams to the Vikings.

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Bears rank 22nd at -0.67% and there is reason to believe they’ll be worse than that going forward. They’ve been very reliant on a defense that ranks 7th in first down rate allowed over expected to cover for an offense that ranks 31st in first down rate over expected, which is a problem because defensive performance is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance. 

Their offense also may even be worse than their rank suggests, as they will be without a trio of starting offensive linemen, left guard Mike Daniels, center Cody Whitehair, and right tackle Bobby Massie, as well as feature back David Montgomery. If their defense doesn’t play well every week, this team doesn’t have much of a shot to win games and even talented defenses can be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. 

Even with this line moving to -3, I still think this line is off significantly, as I have the Vikings calculated at -6. The Bears have next to no homefield advantage in Chicago without fans and the disparity between those two teams’ is massive (Minnesota ranking 5th and Chicago 31st) on offense, which is by far the more predictive side of the ball. The Vikings should be able to win by at least a field goal pretty easily, so I’m rolling with Minnesota as my Pick of the Week for the third straight week. They’re not as underrated as they’ve been, but the Bears are overrated and there isn’t another great Pick of the Week option this week.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (3-4) at Minnesota Vikings (2-5)

This line was finally reposted at Minnesota -3.5, after confirmation that Lions quarterback Matt Stafford would be able to play despite being placed in the COVID contact tracing protocol earlier in the week. Earlier in the week I liked the Vikings at that number and I like them even more now that Stafford will be playing despite not practicing all week. The Lions are also now without starting safety Tracy Walker and starting left guard Joe Dahl due to injury and likely will be without top linebacker Jarrad Davis as well, in addition to top defensive end Trey Flowers and top wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who were ruled out earlier in the week.

The Vikings have just two wins, but they beat the Packers last week and, while that was in part due to the Packers looking ahead to a big rematch against the 49ers on a short week, the Vikings being competitive with high level teams is no fluke. They were a 4th down conversion away from beating the Seahawks and the Titans needed to go 6 for 6 on field goals, including 3 for 3 on 50+ yard field goals, to beat the Vikings by a single point. In total, the Vikings have allowed 19 of 19 field goals against, which is highly unlikely to continue going forward.

The Vikings could easily be 4-3 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 to the Falcons and to the Packers in their week 1 matchup, or that the Vikings were missing top offensive player Dalvin Cook in that Atlanta loss. In terms of first down rate differential, when adjusted for schedule, the Vikings rank 3rd in the NFL at +3.19%. While I don’t think they’re quite that good, I have them 14th in my roster rankings, and there’s definitely a strong case for them being significantly better than their record.

The Lions, meanwhile, are 3-4, but one of their win came in an improbable comeback against the Falcons, another came by 3 in Arizona in a game in which they won the turnover battle by 3, but lost the first down rate battle by 8.96%, and the third came against a banged up Jaguars team that is one of the worst in the league. Their four losses, meanwhile, have come by a combined 51 points, giving them a -29 point differential, 22nd in the NFL.

In schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they are even worse, ranking 30th at -4.12%, as they haven’t played that well against a relatively easy schedule, and that doesn’t even take into account all of the Lions’ absences or the disruptions to their week this week. The Vikings should be favored by at least a touchdown, so we’re getting great value with them at 3.5. There isn’t a great choice this week, but the Vikings are my Pick of the Week.

Minnesota Vikings 35 Detroit Lions 27

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

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