Vikings-Saints: Will History Repeat Itself?

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Fear is deeply rooted into the id of every Vikings fan. We’re used to watching everything go wrong that possibly could. In recent Vikings history, playoff appearances have been sparse, which adds to the heartache from each mounting loss. The 10-9 loss to the Seahawks and a 24-10 snoozefest in Lambeau are the only playoff appearances separating our consciousness from that fateful cross-body interception on Sugar Bowl Drive. So it’s impossible not to think about it. What if history repeats itself? What if Case Keenum throws a back-breaking interception to seal a Saints win? It makes sense, if only for peace of mind, to compare today’s teams to those teams, why the game went the way it did, and the chances of something similar happening.

Ok folks, find a belt to bite down on because this is going to hurt. The first thing we need to do is diagnose the cause of that 2009 NFC Championship loss. I’m not going to dive into the officiating or the ensuing scandal – we’re keeping this analysis to the play on the football field. The most memorable factor of that game was the turnover differential. The Vikings fumbled it six times, lost three, and Brett Favre threw two picks. Meanwhile, the defense was only able to generate one fumble recovery and no INTs. We can use expected points (how many points teams score on average in a certain situation), and change in expected points before and after a play (EPA) to measure their impact.

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Sure enough, the five most impactful plays were the five turnovers, the worst of which occurring from the New Orleans 4 yardline. But stacked up with those turnovers is a number of failed 3rd down conversions, especially the ones on the cusp of scoring range. For example, a failed 3rd & 4 on the Saints’ 47 yard line hurt the Vikings about twice as much as the infamous 12 men in the huddle penalty on Naufahu Tahi. Similarly, a conversion on 3rd and 10 in the early 2nd quarter had a similar impact in expected points. The Vikings out-converted the Saints on 3rd downs in general, out-rushed and out-passed them, but the turnovers were enough to screw it all up.

So turnovers and key 3rd downs decided the game – that’s probably not a newsflash, but nice to confirm. How are the current Vikings and Saints in those crucial contexts? We’ll look at the more recent games, since those will give us the best idea of who the team is now. In the last 4 games:

3rd Down Run % 56% (17th)
3rd Down Pass % 33% (13th)
Def 3rd Down Run % 39% (2nd)
Def 3rd Down Pass % 28% (1st)
Giveaways 4
Takeaways 5

As for the Saints:

3rd Down Run % 45% (22nd)
3rd Down Pass % 28% (19th)
Def 3rd Down Run % 75% (27th)
Def 3rd Down Pass % 38% (24th
Giveaways 5
Takeaways 7

 

Much like the 2009 Saints, the 2017 Saints have made up for underwhelming defensive efficiency with game-changing takeaways. Meanwhile, Minnesota has been a superior 3rd down team in every category. Our giveaway and takeaway numbers are fairly average, while theirs are a little more volatile. With the struggles the Saints have had defending the run on 3rd down of late, it makes 3rd and short convertible, instead of something to avoid. That will make a huge impact in planning and play calling.

So we have a Vikings team that’s more well-balanced against a Saints team that’s winning in an impactful but an unsustainable way. Sound familiar? We also have a turnover-prone quarterback who is having an uncharacteristically clean season. Brett Favre threw seven interceptions in the 2009 regular season, same as Keenum this year. In the previous 5 seasons, Favre averaged about 20 picks a year. Keenum’s INT% is much lower than Favre’s was. He’s still crushing his career averages, but a regression to the mean would be a less drastic fall.

DVOA is an aggregate stat that measures the percentage difference between your team’s production and an average team. Positive is good for offense, and negative is good for defense. The 2009 Vikings had a decent defense (-1% DVOA) carried by elite offense (+12.9%). The 2017 Vikings have a pretty similar offense by this stat (+12%), but with an elite defense (-13%) paving the way. The Saints of today (+21% offense, -8% defense) look a lot like a lesser Saints of 2009 (+24%, -0.4%) in this regard. DVOA offers a strong hunk of evidence that these Vikings are better than those Vikings, but these Saints have moved a little in the wrong direction.

So for history to “repeat itself,” it would require the Vikings to have an even more fluky game than the 2009 NFC Championship. Case Keenum would have to out-choke Brett Favre in a scheme where he likely won’t have to press downfield too much. We’ve never seen a meltdown like that from Keenum, even on his worst days in Houston and Los Angeles. The Vikings would have to match or exceed the 3 lost fumbles from that day, and it would probably take bad injury luck as well. Of course, one team could perform at an entirely different level than they have all season, but upset losses don’t tend to look that way. Instead, the simplest and most likely result is a game where the Vikings seem to come through in the clutchest moments, and any detrimental mistakes on offense are erased by this elite defense. All culminating in our first NFC Championship game since that cursed Sunday night.

Thanks for reading!

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