Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (11-6) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

The 49ers got a bye in the first round of the playoffs and it came at a perfect time, as the 49ers had several key players dealing with injuries at the end of the season. They’re not at full strength, but no one is at this point in the season and a trio of key 49ers are expected to return this week, defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and safety Jacquiski Tartt. Alexander has been out since week 8, Ford has played just 4 snaps since week 11, and Tartt has missed the past 4 games, so the 49ers are healthier now than they were at any point in the second half of the season, even with players like Ronald Blair and Weston Richburg out for the season. 

What works against the 49ers, however, is the lack of post-season experience from quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo, who is making his first career playoff start this week. The track record of quarterbacks making their first career post-season start against a more playoff experienced quarterback isn’t good, as they are 15-34-1 ATS since 2002, including 5-16 ATS and just 8-13 straight up as home favorites. Last week, first time starting quarterbacks went 1-2 ATS, with the only win being Ryan Tannehill, who barely had to do anything because of a run heavy game plan. The 49ers are a good running team, but will need a balanced attack to cover this 7-point spread against a solid Vikings team. In fact, even with the 49ers being healthier than they’ve been in months, I have this line calculated at just San Francisco -5.5, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Vikings as well.

That being said, I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Vikings. The common narrative is that Kirk Cousins destroyed the old common narrative that he couldn’t win against tough opponents by getting his first career post-season victory last week, but I think the old common narrative is still closer to the truth. It was never that Cousins couldn’t win against tough opponents, as last week’s win was his 8th victory over a team that entered with a winning record since 2015, but that’s compared to 21 losses, including a 4-10 record (4-9-1 ATS) since joining the Vikings before last season. 

One win shouldn’t change the narrative much when you look at years of data, especially since Cousins overall had a pretty average game last week and the Vikings offense was not the primary reason why they won, picking up first downs at a below average 33.78% rate. In fact, if the Saints had won the coin toss in overtime, the Vikings easily could have lost, in which case we’d still be hearing about how Cousins can’t win big games. The Vikings could definitely keep this game close, but it would surprise me if they were able to pull the upset for the second straight week.

San Francisco 49ers 24 Minnesota Vikings 19

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: 2019 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The Vikings qualified for the post-season, but they finished the season just 1-4 against fellow playoff qualifiers, tied with the Bills for worst among playoff qualifiers. Their one win came against an Eagles team that only qualified because they play in the NFC East, while their losses came against the Packers twice, the Seahawks, and even the Matt Moore led Chiefs, back when Mahomes was sidelined with a knee injury. Making this even more concerning is Kirk Cousins’ well-documented struggles in big games. Cousins’ 7-15 record in primetime games (6-15-1 ATS) is well known, but his record in all games against teams with a winning record is even worse. 

Dating back to his first year as a starter in 2015, in games against teams entering with a winning record, excluding any games in week 3 or earlier when a team’s record might not mean much, Cousins’ teams are just 7-21, including just 3-10 since joining the Vikings. His ATS record of 10-17-1 ATS isn’t horrendous, but he’s just 3-9-1 ATS since joining the Vikings. There isn’t much to go off in terms of Cousins’ post-season history, as this is just his 2nd career playoff start, but it’s not a stretch to say his struggles against tough opponents will probably extend into the post-season and his lack of post-season experience could also work against him, facing a quarterback/head coach duo with 14 career playoff starts together in Drew Brees and Sean Payton.

In addition to having significant post-season experience, the Saints are also playing about as well as any team in the league right now. Since Drew Brees’ return from injury in week 8, the Saints rank 3rd in first down rate at 42.03% and 2nd in first down rate differential at +6.61. Their offense has been even better in recent weeks, with a 44.62% first down rate in their past 6 games and a 46.59% first down rate in their past 4 games, both best in the NFL over that stretch. 

It might seem improbable that the Saints can continue that rate going forward, but the Saints had a 43.48% first down rate last season in Brees’ 15 starts and at one point had a 45.69% first down rate through 11 games before slowing down late in the season, possibly due to an aging Drew Brees getting tired at the end of a 16-game season. This season, Brees’ injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as the missed time seems to have him fresher at the end of the season. Now fully past the injury, Brees seems to be heating up just in time for the playoffs. 

The Saints’ defense finished just 15th in first down rate allowed at 35.04% and they lost Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, pair of key defensive linemen, with injury late in the season, but the Saints have more than enough on offense to compensate and they still have plenty of talent on defense. This line is pretty high at New Orleans -7.5, so there isn’t quite enough here to confidently bet on the Saints, especially since a Kirk Cousins backdoor cover seems somewhat likely, but New Orleans should be the right side.

New Orleans Saints 34 Minnesota Vikings 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5

Confidence: Low

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (7-8) at Minnesota Vikings (10-5)

I’m going to do the rest of my picks this weekend as normal, but I want to get a couple quick ones out of the way. There are four games this week where a team is expected to rest starters with their seeding locked in or all but locked in. Two of those games (Baltimore/Pittsburgh and Houston/Tennessee) have one team playing for their playoff lives, so at least one side will be highly motivated in those matchups. In the other two games, the other side is eliminated from the post-season and might not care much about a game against an opponent who is playing a lot of backups. 

This game falls into the latter category (Buffalo/NY Jets is the other). With the Vikings getting eliminated from division contention after their Monday night loss to the Packers, they are now locked into the 6th seed in the NFC and will rest key players for all or most of the game to keep them fresh for the wild card round. The Bears may play hard for pride, but I’m skeptical that they’ll take the Vikings’ backups seriously, with the off-season right around the corner. 

If neither of these teams are going to put much effort into this game, I’m not going to put much effort into this write-up. I would have this line calculated at Minnesota -9 under normal circumstances, so this line at Minnesota -1 is a pretty big difference. The Vikings won’t be able to rest everyone and the Bears might not care about this game at all, so I’m taking the Vikings for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no desire to wager anything of significance on this game. I am going to lock in one line I do like early (CIN +3) before the line shifts. I will consider that for Pick of the Week and will have a full write-up this weekend as usual. 

Update: For some reason, even though it was assumed all week that the Vikings would rest starters in this game, this line swung all the way to Chicago -3 when the Vikings announced they would be resting starters. Again, the Vikings can’t rest everyone and the Bears likely won’t put in much effort for a meaningless game against the Vikings’ backups, so I still like the Vikings for pick ’em purposes, but I have no desire to bet on this meaningless game.

Chicago Bears 17 Minnesota Vikings 16

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +3

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (11-3) at Minnesota Vikings (10-4)

The Packers have a one game lead over the Vikings in the NFC North and they won the previous matchup between these two teams back in week 2, but the Vikings have been the more impressive team on the season. While 7 of the Packers’ 11 wins have come by one score or fewer, the Vikings have just 2 wins by one score or less. As a result, the Vikings have a significant edge in point differential at +119 to +47 and in first down rate differential at +4.78% to +0.70%. The Packers are closer to full strength injury wise, with the Vikings missing feature back Dalvin Cook with injury, but I still have the Vikings a couple points better than the Packers in my roster rankings. Given that, the Vikings have a great shot to win the re-match, after falling just short in Green Bay (21-16), where the Packers are close to unbeatable with Aaron Rodgers under center (43-22 ATS since 2011).

Unfortunately, we’re not getting any line value with the Vikings, as the odds makers seem to recognize that the Packers haven’t played quite as well as their record suggests and, as a result, have made them 4.5 point underdogs in Minnesota. My calculated line is actually Minnesota -4, so we’re getting the slightest bit of line value with the visitors, but not nearly enough to take either side with confidence. This is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Green Bay Packers 20

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +4.5

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Chargers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (9-4) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-8)

The Chargers’ victory in Jacksonville last week was highly impressive. The Jaguars have been an awful team in recent weeks, but the Chargers still gave them their biggest loss of the season by score of 45-10 and they won the first down rate battle by a ridiculous 31.50%, the highest single game margin of the season, eclipsing New England’s week 2 victory in Miami (29.66%). The Chargers are still just 5-8 after going 12-4 last season, but don’t let the record fool you. The core of last year’s 12-4 team is still there and is more or less healthy right now.

Earlier in the season, tight end Hunter Henry (4 games), left tackle Russell Okung (8 games), defensive end Melvin Ingram (3 games), running back Melvin Gordon (4 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), and safety Derwin James (11 games) all missed significant time, but they’re all active now. They have a pair of expected starters on injured reserve, center Mike Pouncey and wide receiver Travis Benjamin, but neither was playing well before going down, so that’s not a big deal.

Even with the injuries they’ve had, the Chargers still rank 5th in first down rate differential at +4.72%, as they’ve managed a +38 point differential despite a -10 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so the Chargers aren’t necessarily going to continue losing the turnover battle going forward. Given that all 8 of their losses have come by a touchdown or less, in several cases swinging on a turnover or two, there’s a good argument to be made that the Chargers would be competing for the AFC West title right now if they had their key players healthy all season.

Unfortunately, we’re starting to lose some line value with them, as the Chargers are only 1.5 point home underdogs this week against the Vikings, after being 3 point underdogs on the early line last week. I don’t like to bet the Chargers at home anyway, as they have no fans in Los Angeles. Since moving in 2017, they are 7-12-1 ATS at home and 15-8-2 ATS on the road. Especially with the Chargers out of the playoff race, I would expect this crowd to be mostly Vikings fans. I only use a 1 point for homefield in Chargers games (instead of the traditional 2.5 or 3) and I have these two teams about even, so my calculated line is Chargers -1. The Vikings are in a potential trap game spot with a big divisional matchup against the Packers on deck, but there isn’t enough line value with the Chargers for them to be worth betting at +1.5. The money line isn’t a bad bet at +105 though, as this game is slightly better than a toss up for the Chargers.

Los Angeles Chargers 26 Minnesota Vikings 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5

Confidence: Low

Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (3-8-1) at Minnesota Vikings (8-4)

The Lions’ season has gone off the rails since losing quarterback Matt Stafford to an injury. They had a record of 3-4-1 when Stafford went down and have lost 4 straight without him to fall out of post-season contention entirely. The Lions ranked 15th in the NFL in first down rate through 8 games at 36.75%, but they have just a 32.59% first down rate in 4 games without Stafford, which is most equivalent to the 25th ranked Dolphins on the season. With a defense that ranks 28th in first down rate allowed on the season at 38.22%, the Lions don’t have much going for them on either side of the ball right now.

The Lions are on to their third quarterback of the season, undrafted rookie David Blough, with backup Jeff Driskel going on injured reserve, but that might not be a bad thing. Driskel was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this season and it wouldn’t be hard for Blough to be a little bit of an upgrade. It’s tough to tell from his up and down debut if that’s the case, however, and he doesn’t have an overly talented roster around him, so it’s not an easy situation for the inexperienced rookie.

The Lions are big underdogs in Minnesota this week, with the Vikings favored by 13 points. That’s about right, as the Lions are one of the worst teams in the league and the Vikings rank 5th in first down rate differential at +4.77% and 9th in my roster rankings. We’re not getting enough line value to take the Vikings confidently, but they seem like the right side as long as left tackle Riley Reiff is able to get cleared from his concussion. If he can’t, I’ll probably switch this pick to Detroit. This is a no confidence pick either way.

Final Update: Reiff is playing, so the Vikings should be the right side.

Minnesota Vikings 27 Detroit Lions 13

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -13

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (8-3) at Seattle Seahawks (9-2)

Prior to last week’s bye week, the Vikings barely escaped as double digit home favorites over a Broncos team that was quarterbacked by third string Brandon Allen. That’s not as concerning as that sounds though. Not only were the Vikings missing key players like wide receiver Adam Thielen, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, safety Anthony Harris, and right guard Josh Kline, but the Vikings actually won the first down rate battle in that game by 10.32%, winning the game despite losing the turnover battle and despite allowing 4 conversions on 4th down. The Vikings had one more combined touchdown and first down in that game, even though the Broncos were able to run 17 more snaps, so I’m not worried about the underwhelming final score in that game.

Now the Vikings are healthy coming out of their bye and that comes at a perfect time, as they have a matchup with the 9-2 Seahawks this week. The Seahawks have obviously played well this season, but it’s definitely worth noting how many of their wins have been close, as teams with more blowout victories tend to do better moving forward than teams with more close victories. Of the Seahawks nine victories, just one came by more than a touchdown. 

If not for missed makeable field goals by the Rams and 49ers, the Seahawks would be just 7-4 right now and in a battle to even make the post-season. They rank 9th in point differential at +29 and just 13th in first down rate differential at +1.19%. The Vikings are significantly better in both metrics at +84 and +5.08% respectively and, entering this game relatively healthy, they have a noticeable edge in my roster rankings as well. My calculated line for this game is even, so I like the Vikings getting a full field goal.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Seattle Seahawks 23 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +3

Confidence: Medium