Are The Vikings The Hottest Team In The NFL?

Photo Courtesy: Andy Kenutis

To make a deep run into the playoffs, they say you have to be the hot team. To have momentum. A hot team can upset a higher seeded team and run through the playoffs like Eli Manning in 2007 or Joe Flacco in 2012. There are counterexamples, like the 2008 Cardinals, who lost four of their last six regular season games, yet still made it all the way to the end of the Super Bowl. But there’s a reason for this logic beyond nebulous concepts of “momentum”.

A lot can change over the course of one season. With injuries, position moves, scheme adjustments and streakiness, a rematch of a September game can look like two completely new teams. For this reason, it makes sense to evaluate teams over the last four weeks or so. That’s not a measure of momentum, it’s just that the last four games are the best indicator going forward.

So let’s throw out September, October and November. Throw out the Vikings’ wins against New Orleans, Los Angeles and Atlanta and their loss to Pittsburgh. They’re all different teams now. In the last four weeks of the season, the Vikings went 3-1. Lots of teams went 3-1, and the Chiefs have rattled off 4 straight. So we have to take a bit of a deeper look to sort all that out.

Who Is The Hottest Quarterback?

There’s a bunch of ways to evaluate quarterbacks because there are a lot of facets to a quarterback’s game. By ESPN QBR, we can look at overall performance while factoring in garbage time, down/distance and rushing yards. Passer rating and yards per attempt give us some stabilizers in case QBR shows us something crazy. Average depth of target is helpful to contextualize how aggressively each QB is being asked to play. Here’s those ranks in the last 4 games among playoff-bound QBs:

 Quarterback QBR Rate Y/A aDOT
Big Ben 1 2 1 8
Tyrod Taylor 2 6 5 5
Blake Bortles 3 7 3 7
Drew Brees 4 3 2 12
Alex Smith 5 5 4 9
Tom Brady 6 8 9 2
Matt Ryan 7 9 6 6
Marcus Mariota 8 11 10 1
Case Keenum 9 4 8 10
Cam Newton 10 12 11 3
Jared Goff 11 1 7 11
Nick Foles 12 10 12 4

Keenum’s passer rating is really nice in December, but other stats color that a bit. Low QBR, Y/A and aDOT indicate a player who has thrown a lot of short, high percentage passes and feasted on YAC. Sure enough, only 51% of his yards have come in the air – 4th lowest in the group. Luckily, Brees, Goff and Ryan are the three below him in that last stat, and Keenum’s overall body of work eclipses Newton’s and Foles, even in QBR, which credits Newton for his runs. So this is a workable strategy.

Ben Roethlisberger is probably the hottest QB in the playoffs right now. Brees (or the Saints offense as a whole depending on who you credit) is the hottest in the NFC. But the things holding Keenum back aren’t unique enough to him to cause any worry that other NFC contenders don’t share.

Who Has The Hottest Running Game?

There’s probably some cliche about running games being the key to the playoffs or something, but this year could be different. Philadelphia should be the only cold weather destination in the NFC playoffs. New England, Pittsburgh and Kansas City should have some chilly games on the other side, and ultimately, this is still worth looking at. We’ll use yards per attempt, success rate, and contextualize with how much of their production came on 15+ yard runs.

Team YPA Success Explosive Runs (15+)
LAR 5.10 51% 8-212
CAR 4.41 54% 6-187
KAN 4.38 47% 8-170
NWE 4.21 57% 4-69
PIT 4.17 48% 7-136
BUF 4.04 40% 9-188
PHI 4.03 35% 4-81
ATL 3.90 55% 6-118
MIN 3.90 45% 6-109
JAX 3.64 46% 3-69
NOR 3.59 39% 5-125
TEN 3.20 46% 1-15

Despite resting Todd Gurley and company in week 17, the Rams have a white hot run game heading into the season. Carolina, Kansas City and New England are also hot. The Patriots are interesting – they’re not particularly flashy, but have a gaudy success rate, which is a great way to give Tom Brady open-ended opportunities. The Vikings fall somewhere in the middle, with below average success rates and YPC, but the occasional explosive play makes up for it. The Titans are completely out of place.

Who Has The Hottest Defense?

Defense wins championships, or something. Some teams will have to contend with juggernaut offenses throughout their postseason journey, or risk a high-variance shootout with it all on the line. How have these defenses stacked up the last few weeks? We’ll look at success rate allowed (run and pass) and explosive plays allowed (run and pass, 10+ yards).

Team Pass success Run success Explosive Pass Explosive Run
MIN 30% 39% 3% 8%
LAR 35% 40% 8% 13%
NE 38% 56% 5% 14%
JAX 41% 49% 7% 16%
NO 42% 51% 10% 11%
CAR 43% 42% 10% 12%
PIT 43% 59% 10% 15%
BUF 45% 47% 4% 14%
KC 45% 50% 7% 10%
PHI 46% 44% 9% 11%
TEN 51% 36% 7% 9%
ATL 55% 45% 10% 6%

The Vikings have the hottest defense remaining in contention by a large margin. Whoever comes to Minnesota will have to come up with some extra clever ways to move the ball against the Vikings. Having the “hot” defense is a great way to propel yourself through a conference with a tough reputation.

LA’s defense could probably hold a candle to Minnesota’s, which would make for a grindy divisional game (though they’ve allowed some breakaways). Atlanta is in dire straits. Philadelphia’s defense, seen as the unit that could save them from Nick Foles, is cooling off. New England and Pittsburgh both have achilles heels in the run game that could prevent the AFC Championship from being a rematch of 2016’s.

The Vikings aren’t the hottest team in football. I’d give that to the Rams or Steelers. But the defense is as good as it’s ever been, and the offense has maintained a non-detrimental (see: Nick Foles) level of play over the last stretch of the season. That bodes well for a Super Bowl push, and while the Rams may be hotter on the whole, no team has fewer significant weaknesses, or more balance, than the Minnesota Vikings.

Thanks for reading!

Shout out to Sharp Football, ProFootballFocus and Pro Football Reference for the stats.