NFL Playoffs 2016: 5 reasons the Minnesota Vikings still make it

The Minnesota Vikings were once 5-0. They are now 6-6 and in eighth place in the NFC. Vikings fans should not despair, however. Here are five reasons they will still make the playoffs.

The Minnesota Vikings started the 2016-17 NFL season with such promise. Last season, head coach Mike Zimmer led the team to a 11-5 season and an NFC North title. The Vikings came into this season as presumptive Super Bowl contenders.

A superstar running back and developing, young quarterback behind an experienced offensive line was a recipe for offensive success. There was little question the defense would be one of the best in the NFL. A 5-0 start to the season reflected these beliefs.

Then the wheels fell off.

Of course, by “wheels” I mean offensive line and by “fell off” I mean catastrophic injury. Starting left tackle Matt Kalil was placed on IR following a hip injury in Week 2. A triceps injury in Week 4 ended the season of starting right tackle, Andre Smith. Former All-Pro Jake Long, who was signed to mitigate the losses of Kalil and Smith, went down with an Achilles injury only one month after joining the team.

It’s not just the offensive line, however. The Vikings best wide receiver, Stefon Diggs, has been periodically dinged up throughout the season. Harrison Smith, who may be the best safety in the NFL, now may be out for the season. Starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lost during the preseason. Even Mike Zimmer can’t stay healthy.

Not to mention the non-trivial fact that Adrian Peterson hasn’t played since Week 2 due to a knee injury.

And yet the Minnesota Vikings remain in the playoff hunt. Here are five reasons why they will still make the playoffs.

5. The Vikings may be getting a bit healthier

The greatest detriment to the Minnesota Vikings this season has been a complete inability to remain healthy. The team currently has five offensive starters on injured reserve. As noted above, this includes three tackles, quarterback and running back. The majority of these injuries occurred early in the season, hampering the Vikings from the start.

But it’s not only those who are out for the season which has retarded the Vikings’ offensive progress.

Stefon Diggs has missed time with a variety of injuries. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was hindered by rib and clavicle injuries earlier this season. Left guard Alex Boone and center Joe Berger both missed games due to concussions. Jerick McKinnon, who took over the starting running back spot following the injury to Adrian Peterson, missed multiple weeks with an ankle injury.

Not only has this hurt the Vikings offensive depth but also continuity.

The team may finally be getting healthy, however. Diggs and Rudolph both appear to be back to full health. Boone and Berger have returned. And soon McKinnon could once again be providing depth behind Peterson, who may soon return to the field.

The Vikings’ depth may have been permanently damaged, but a return to health for those still available is a boon for their offense.

Aug 1, 2016; Mankato, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano instructs his team in drills at training camp at Minnesota State University. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

4. Tony Sparano

So much turnover and inconsistency of offensive players creates a difficult situation not only for the players on the field but also for the coaches attempting to prepare a makeshift lineup for the field. A lineup operating behind an offensive line devoid of quality depth and with numerous backups forced to start at unfamiliar positions. An offensive line which severely limits the Vikings offense.

The job of piecing together a competent offense was made even more difficult when offensive coordinator Norv Turner abruptly resigned halfway through the season.

Much of the responsibility for creating a competent offensive line, and thereby a functional offense, has fallen to Tony Sparano. Following stints with the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders after a fairly successful run as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Sparano landed as offensive line coach of the Vikings.

Sparano knows how to coach. He has brought a new attitude to the Vikings offensive line. He has an eye for talent and has improved the performance of the lines he has coached in the past. And while his line has surrendered 29 sacks on the season and ranks as one of the worst in the NFL according to Football Outsiders, Sparano has done a nice job in steadying a unit which has been constantly turning over.

Given the remaining quarter of the schedule with a line which remains the same, there is little reason to believe Sparano will not be able to make a consistent performer out of the Vikings line and help turn around their moribund offense.

Dec 4, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) reacts after a play in the second half against the Denver Broncos at EverBank Field. The Denver Broncos won 20-10. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

3. The Vikings have an easy remaining schedule

The Vikings are 6-6 on the season and need to win their four remaining games in order to secure a spot in the playoffs. The four teams remaining on the Vikings’ schedule are the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers, and the Chicago Bears. They have a combined record of 17-31. They are all winnable games for the Vikings.

Furthermore, while the Vikings currently sit in eighth place in the NFC and outside the playoffs, they remain firmly in the picture.

Despite losing six of their last seven, the Vikings are only two games behind the Detroit Lions in the NFC North. The Lions whose remaining opponents have a combined record of 28-20 and include the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, teams currently in the playoffs.

If the Vikings are unable to overtake the Lions for the division lead, the path to an NFC Wildcard spot is wide open. The Washington Redskins have lost two in a row and do not have an easy schedule in front of them. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been hot lately but have tough, divisional opponents ahead. And following a hot start to the season, the Atlanta Falcons have been less than impressive in recent weeks.

The average Viking loss this season has been by just over a touchdown (6.3 points). Their past two losses have been by a combined five points. Similar performances against lesser competition should result in Viking victories and a shot at the playoffs.

Dec 1, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (8) passes in the third quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings 17-15. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

2. Sam Bradford

Sam Bradford’s arm talent has never been in question. His failures in St. Louis and Philadelphia were mainly due to an inability to remain healthy and lack of talent surrounding him. Thus far Bradford has been able to stay relatively healthy in Minnesota, and despite a supporting cast which leaves something to be desired, he has been a quality starter for the Vikings.

In fact, despite being added to the team right before the start of the regular season, Bradford has been an upgrade at the position for the Vikings. His 71.2 percent completion percentage ranks second in the NFL. His three interceptions are the third fewest in the NFL among quarterbacks with more than 300 pass attempts. And his passer rating of 97.5 is a very respectable 12th overall.

While Bradford’s yards per game, yards per attempt, and average air distance are less than impressive, much of this can be attributed to the Vikings’ less than impressive offensive talent.

Offensive line injuries have severely limited the Vikings’ offensive game plans and the ability of Bradford to really show all that of which he is capable. When given time to throw Bradford has demonstrated why he was the #1 overall pick. Bradford has the arm strength, accuracy and acumen to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Sam Bradford may not be the franchise quarterback he was once proclaimed, but without his ability to get rid of the ball quickly and accurately the Vikings offense might be even worse.

Dec 1, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) is sacked during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Cowboys defeated the Vikings 17-15. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

1. The Vikings have one of the best defenses in the NFL

Despite all of their offensive injuries and struggles, injuries to their head coach, and losing streaks, the Minnesota Vikings can always count on their defense. The Vikings’ defense, which was good last season, has been even better in 2016.

Last season the Vikings finished 13th in the NFL in total defense. This season they’re 3rd. Last season the Vikings finished 18th in total takeaways. This season they’re 5th and have equaled last season’s total of 22. Last season the Vikings finished 7th in the NFL with 43 sacks. This season they are 4th.

During the 2015-16 season the Vikings were 5th in points allowed and 14th in defensive DVOA. This season they are 4th in points allowed per game and 6th in DVOA.

The Vikings’ defensive line, linebackers, and secondary all rank among the best of their respective units in the NFL. Also, they are filled by young players who continue to improve on an almost weekly basis. All-Pro safety Harrison Smith may miss the rest of the season, but even without Smith the Vikings defense will be fine.

The Vikings have had to rely on their defense this season to keep their anemic offense in games, and the defense has come through for the most part. There is no reason to think this defensive performance won’t continue. And even just a slight offensive improvement will help the defense not wear down over the course of a game.

Imagine a rested Minnesota defense.

The Vikings are not all they could have been this season. Injuries have seen to that. The Vikings can, however, still make the playoffs. As we’ve detailed, there are at least five reasons why this is the case.

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