The year was 2013. Leslie Frazier was amid his final campaign as a purple-clothed skipper, and Minnesota opened the season with losses to the Lions, Bears, and Browns.
The Vikings were roped into shootouts during those three contests, and one would surmise that inserting quarterback Christian Ponder into shootouts was foolhardy. It was.
Frazier’s defense allowed 96 points in three games to teams (DET, CHI, and CLE) that would finish the 2013 season with a combined record of 19-29 (.396). We don’t know how the Packers, Colts, and Titans will conclude 2020, but we do know their cumulative record through three weeks is 8-1 (.889).
That 2013 squad was bottoming out and prepping for a new era of Vikings football – one that would be minus Leslie Frazier. Current coach Mike Zimmer took over a few months later and has since propelled Minnesota to the NFL’s eighth-best record during his tenure.
That’s not to proclaim the 2020 version of Vikings football has been bountiful. It hasn’t. Minnesota is embroiled in an 0-3 start for only the sixth time in team history. The best-case scenario for these Pandemic Vikings when using those seasons as precedent is a 6-10 record. In 2002, Minnesota lost three games out of the gate and compiled a 6-7 r ecord thereafter. Thother four versions of 0-3 Vikings teams finished worse than 6-10.
As for 2020, most Vikings faithful have decided this will be a springboard season to 2021 – one that aspires to have a fully-healthy Danielle Hunter and 2020 rookies that have matured. Some have clamored for a brand new, sexy quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft, which is actually possible given Minnesota’s current win-loss trajectory. But with Kirk Cousins handsomely paid and under contract for two seasons after this one, that hypothetical man would likely have to sit and learn instead of playing on Day One.
The 2020 season is now likely hapless, but a pathway to the postseason is achievable, although it’s an extremely narrow one. Only six NFL teams have made the postseason after starting 0-3 albeit in the old six-team-per-conference format. The NFL tweaked the playoff criteria this offseason a now a total of 14 teams will play January football rather than 12.
Realistically, Minnesota can afford to lose three to four more games. But if more losses flood the standings, it’s a wrap.
Where Do the Losses Come from?
Well, a lot of places – if the last three weeks’ sample size of performance is the yardstick.
Should the Vikings somehow only drop three more contests, they would finish 10-6 and make the playoffs, probably as a wildcard. Four losses (9-7) give the franchise a very decent possibility at playing in the postseason whereas five more losses (8-8) is a total coin flip. Had the NFL modified this playoff system in 2018, the Vikings would have given the nod with their 8-7-1 record.
Sure-fire losses – based on the purple product we’ve seen thus far – are probably Week 4 at Seattle, Week 14 at Tampa Bay, and most likely Week 8 at Green Bay. The Packers game a Lambeau Field is coming off a bye week, it’s a division game, and a lot can change in a month among two NFL teams. We’ll see.
Also on the schedule are matchups versus the Dallas Cowboys (Week 11) and the New Orleans Saints on Christmas Day. And, that doesn’t even account for two Bears slugfests that will inevitably be typical NFC North bouts.
Therefore, we know the Vikings will lose three more games, almost verifiably. The kicker is how soon and how many after that.
AFC Losses are a Silver Lining
And this can be perceived as the shiniest of silver linings. Nothing is ever good about a loss, especially during a season that’s comprised of only 16 games.
If the Vikings are locked into a playoff tiebreaker with an NFC North foe like the Bears or Packers, the tiebreaker first evaluates the head-to-head matchup. Sometimes that’s an even 1-1 split, and the next criteria is division record. In the event that is the same, the following component is the conference record. So, quite a way down the line is the record versus AFC opponents.
Should the Vikings claw their way back to a 9-7 record or so and the other team pinching at the seven-seed is a squad like the Rams or Cardinals, the tiebreaker again assesses head-to-head meetings. After that, the mathematics immediately pivot to conference record.
Here’s the moral of the story: If it was preordained that the Vikings would lose games this season (or any year), it’s best that those defeats come at the feet of AFC teams. The tiebreaker attributable to games versus AFC teams is simply not as important as NFC-on-NFC showdowns.
It All Rests on the Defense
Minnesota won’t be sniffing the playoffs or any damn thing outside of a high draft pick if it doesn’t quickly expedite the maturity of its young defense. In Week 3 versus Tennessee, Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense did more than enough to secure a win. It was the type of game that was such an obvious victory for Minnesota in prior years. So, when the defensive output now goes pear-shaped, the nausea is accelerated. Mike Zimmer-led teams that score north of 24 points or so usually exit with victories. For context, under Mike Zimmer, the Vikings are 40-7-1 (.844) when scoring 24+ points.
This defense – yes, it’s young – must calcify. The pendulum in the Titans game swung defiantly in Tennessee’s favor when tailback Derrick Henry scored back-to-back touchdowns in the third quarter. In seasons of yesteryear, it would have been totally stunning to see an opposing offense impose its will on the 2014-2019 Vikings. In Week 3, Henry’s scores acted as a confirmation of cynicism for Vikings loyalists rather than shock and awe.
The offense and its firepower can likely put the 2020 Vikings in position to win nine games, but Mike Zimmer, his son, and Andre Patterson must develop an elixir to its suddenly flimsy defense. Given Zimmer’s track record and defense-first specialties, this should not be impossible.