Can The Vikings Win In The Playoffs With Case Keenum?

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Vikings fans are parched. We haven’t experienced a Vikings playoff win since Brett Favre lit up Tony Romo’s Cowboys 34-3 at Mall of America Field in the HHH Metrodome. Both starting QBs and the stadium that game was played in have retired since the Vikings last won a game in the postseason. Since then, we’ve experienced in-season meltdowns, Joe Webb catastrophes and a frigid missed field goal. Now, the Vikings are 9-2 with a stranglehold on the NFC North and eyeing a playoff bye, all with journeyman-turned-renaissance-man Case Keenum at the helm. But the playoffs are different. What does it take to win a playoff game, and more importantly, does Keenum have that?

If we look at the last 5 years (11 playoff games per year), we can get a decent sample of what winning playoff QB performances look like. Predictably, there’s a massive range among the 55 winners. Russell Wilson put up a gaudy 149.2 passer rating and 12.18 yards per attempt en route to a drubbing of a broken Carolina Panthers team. Eight days later, he played the worst statistical game of these 55 with a 44.3 passer rating, considerably worse than any effort Case Keenum has put forth this year, and beat the Packers en route to his 2nd straight Super Bowl. Neither game is really an outlier. In fact, Keenum’s worst statistical game (the loss at Pittsburgh where he had no practice reps) surpassed Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl 50 marks against Carolina and three of Russell Wilson’s victories. So in an “any given Sunday” context, Keenum can steal a playoff game even at the worst we’ve seen of him in purple.

But playoff wins aren’t really a threshold. There’s no fine line that defines a “playoff winning” performance. Every game is different. While Keenum could probably thrash a team like Connor Cook’s Raiders or Ryan Lindley’s Cardinals, he likely won’t get such a cushy opportunity. So let’s look at the sample as a whole. These are the statistical averages of playoff wins in various categories since 2012:

Passer Rating Y/A ANY/A
99.80 8.06 7.50

Respectively, only five, four and four QBs are averaging higher marks on their own 2017 seasons- it takes a lot to win consistently in the playoffs. Keenum falls just below this on his season average. But that’s a highly misleading way to look at it, since single games don’t adhere to season averages. Case Keenum put up a gnarly 13.0 ANY/A in week three against Tampa Bay immediately after his 3.74 ANY/A debacle in Pittsburgh. His 7.35 average doesn’t tell us whether we get week 3 Keenum or pre-bye Keenum, where he strung together four consecutive sub-7 Y/A performances. Game-by-game, here’s whether or not Keenum has surpassed these averages:

Opponent Rating Y/A ANY/A
@PIT
TAM X X X
DET
@CHI (2nd half) X X
GNB
BAL
@CLE (London)
@WAS X X X
LAR X X
@DET X X X

The Tampa, Washington and recent Thanksgiving games were inarguably playoff-winning performances, and I doubt anyone would balk at such praise. The Chicago and LA games are less clear, but thinking back, it’s hard to indict his performance. Against Chicago, Keenum was able to avoid turnovers and move the ball despite a mid-game switch against a stout defense. The Rams game, while statistically unremarkable, was a showing for Keenum under pressure. Only Y/A, the stat that ignores touchdowns, asserts that he’s below the threshold, which is a weak indictment at best. So we’ll include these as positives, meaning 4.5 of Keenum’s 9.5 games have been of playoff winning quality. The others fell well below that threshold in every category, and don’t leave much room for debate.

Keenum is known for being inconsistent, but he’s having a career year. Prior to this year, he’d only logged five other games (out of 24) that pass the playoff test, and only two of those were wins. Of the 55 playoff wins we were looking at, only 11 were won with a passer rating lower than 80. Pre-Minnesota Keenum had 14 games fail the same test, and has four such stinkers this year (including both losses).

To win in the playoffs, you need to put together a performance at least close to those averages. If Keenum can string together three or four of those games (like he just did post-bye), he can possibly take the Vikings deep into the NFC playoffs. But if he falters, he could falter so hard that it sabotages what is otherwise a winnable playoff opportunity. Still, there’s no doubt he’s capable.

A final note: While Keenum is absolutely capable of performing to a playoff-winning level, that won’t necessarily guarantee a win. Matt Ryan put up over 12 yards per attempt and a 144 rating in a losing effort in Super Bowl LI. Russell Wilson has lost two playoff games that pass this test with flying colors (his playoff career is bonkers). The Vikings lost a wild card game in 2015 despite Teddy Bridgewater outproducing Russell Wilson by 23 points of passer rating. The playoffs are weird, variable, and ultimately the QB can only control so much of the game result. Case Keenum has shown he can do enough to give the team a decent shot to win in the playoffs. Whether he will, or whether that will actually lead to a win or even a string of wins, can’t possibly be predicted.

Thanks for reading!

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