Why the Minnesota Vikings can make the playoffs in 2012 (ESPN Insider)
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One of the consequences of the NFL's 2002 switch to a playoff structure with four division winners and only two wild-card teams per conference was a reduction in the number of times a single division would yield three playoff teams.
From 1978 to 2001 (sans the strike-shortened 1982 season), this happened in 45.6 percent of the conference playoff brackets. By contrast, in the 10 seasons since the structural change, this has occurred only 15 percent of the time.
It was thought that the NFC North might have a chance to rack up one of these rare instances in the 2012 season because it has the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions (playoff teams from 2011), along with the Chicago Bears -- a team that very likely would have made the playoffs last year had it not been for injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.
As good a shot as those teams give this division at earning the honor of three playoff teams, those odds have actually increased with the surprising development of the Minnesota Vikings. The Purple and Gold's 3-1 record might not have convinced many that this team has strong playoff potential, but a review of the game tape and metrics indicates Leslie Frazier's squad is a bona fide postseason contender.
It starts on the defensive side of the ball. It used to be that Minnesota would rely on the power of the Williams Wall to stop opposing rushing games in their tracks. Today's Vikings defense might not quite reach that level of run-plugging dominance, yet in many ways this group might be just as good collectively as its much-heralded predecessor.
Some of the proof for this can be found in the overall rushing stats, as Minnesota ranks tied for seventh in rush yards per game allowed (85.3), tied for fifth in rush yards per attempt allowed (3.3) and tied for second in rushing touchdowns allowed (one).
Those numbers are strong, but there is another metric that indicates this defense is doing an even better job than those stats suggest.
Through four games, the Vikings defense is allowing opposing ball carriers to gain only 5.5 yards per attempt on rush attempts where the runner was given good blocking (which is roughly defined as when the blockers do not allow the defense to do anything to disrupt a rush attempt).
This metric is known as GBYPA, and the two league leaders in this category at the end of the 2011 season (Baltimore and San Francisco) finished with 6.0-yard GBYPA marks. What this means is that even when the other team is able to create lanes for its ball carriers, the Vikings defense excels at not allowing those rushes to turn into big gains.
Minnesota also has displayed an ability to stop the passing game, as it ranks sixth in the league in passing YPA allowed (6.5), seventh in sacks (12) and tied for third in net yards per pass attempt (a stat generated by Pro-Football-Reference.com that adjusts passing YPA totals by sack yardage).
The Vikings' offensive highlights don't quite reach the level of the defensive ones, but there are still more than a few areas the unit can hang its hat on.
Chief among these is the improved performance of quarterback Christian Ponder. Ponder ranks 10th in ESPN's Total QBR metric and is ahead of Robert Griffin III, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning. In fact, at this moment, Ponder has the highest Total QBR of any quarterback in the NFC North. This is not to say Ponder is going to stay ahead of those quarterbacks in Total QBR for the rest of the season but rather to illustrate the level at which he is capable of playing.
Ponder also is doing a very good job of protecting the football, something evidenced by his 1.6 percent bad decision rate (BDR, which is a metric that gauges how often a passer makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team). This is a huge improvement over his 4.3 percent BDR in 2011 that ranked tied for 32nd in the league and is a major factor as to why the Vikings have committed only four turnovers, a total that is tied for seventh best in that category.
As well as Ponder has played, though, the Vikings are still a run-first team, and the 122.8 rushing yards per game average shows that part of the offense certainly has held its own since the return of Adrian Peterson from last year's devastating knee injury.
The Vikings' ground attack actually might have a lot of room for upside, given that Peterson has a 6.8 GBYPA total, a mark that is lower than the 7.5 GBYPA he posted last season.
One of the reasons for the decline is that Peterson is trying to freelance too much rather than follow the blocking, which is odd, considering that Minnesota's blockers have a 49 percent good blocking rate (GBR) that is only slightly lower than their league-leading 49.6 percent GBR in 2011. If Peterson starts trusting the blocking more often, this rushing attack could become even more dangerous.
The passing game also has upside potential with the addition of vertical threat Jerome Simpson. This showed up in Sunday's game against the Lions when Simpson racked up 57 yards in pass interference penalties on vertical pass attempts (vertical passes being aerials thrown 11 or more yards downfield) and caught a critical 27-yard pass late in the fourth quarter against Detroit. Minnesota did not have this type of downfield threat during Simpson's suspension, so look for the Vikings' aerial attack to take a big step forward now that he is back in the lineup.
Minnesota also is excelling in the area of special teams. Rookie kicker Blair Walsh has missed only one field goal and ranks tied for fifth in field goals made (9), and the Vikings rank second in punt return average and tied for third in kickoff return average.
Finally, Minnesota has a somewhat favorable remaining out-of-division schedule (vs. Tennessee Titans, at Washington Redskins, vs. Arizona Cardinals, vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at Seattle Seahawks, at St. Louis Rams and at Houston Texans). There aren't any pushovers in the NFL, but it would not be a surprise to see the Vikings post at least three wins in those out-of-division contests. If those are combined with a couple of wins in the five remaining NFC North battles, it would add up to a total of 8-10 victories, a mark that would keep Minnesota in strong contention for a postseason berth.