That is certainly no longer the case for either the Vikings or Cardinals, who enter Sunday’s Week 11 matchup amid a pile of .500 teams in the NFC.
Article continues below ...
But these are not typical middle-of-the-pack teams — these are two teams with arrows pointed straight down, and perhaps the only thing that can help them reverse course is a game against each other.
Think about the repercussions for both teams moving forward this season:
The Vikings started the season 5-0 — Sam Bradford was making plays and taking names, and the Minnesota defense looked like the 2016 version of the Broncos (but without, you know, Von Miller). There were dozens of reasons for optimism in the Twin Cities.
Then the offensive line started to take on injuries.
The Vikings are now on their seventh starting offensive line this season — the team has lost three starting tackles to season-ending injuries, leaving left guard Alex Boone, who has missed time himself this season, as the team’s starting left tackle for Sunday's game.
This was an offensive line that wasn’t playing as well as many might have presumed when the Vikings were playing their best football this season. Bradford saw pressure on 35 percent of dropbacks during the Vikings’ 5-0 start, the eighth highest rate in the NFL, but he was able to amass a 108.6 passer rating under that pressure.
But that margin of success was thin — modern offenses are all about timing, and pass rushers were already getting to Bradford in less than three seconds before the injuries ravaged the offensive line. In a timing league, when the Vikings' paper-thin protection was further exposed, that timing was massively disrupted and the Vikings’ lousy run game has done nothing to mitigate the problem.
Minnesota's arrow is pointed straight down, but it's also burrowing a hole in the ground, and might dig so deep that it could come out the other side.
The Vikings boast a 57 percent chance of making the playoffs, per Football Outsiders, but that number feels inflated by their early-season performance. Heading into Sunday’s game, there’s a legitimate current of fear that the Vikings might not win another game, much less the three or four necessary to contend for the NFC North title.
It’s easy to see the Cardinals’ imposing defensive line, which has 24 sacks and is led by Chandler Jones and Markus Golden (25 combined hurries this season), dominating this makeshift Vikings offensive line, but if Minnesota can hold their own, the heavy levels of pessimism could be replaced and that downwards arrow could begin to swing.
The Cardinals have plenty of troubles as well, particularly on the offensive side. Much has been made of Carson Palmer’s perceived decline this season, and it is clear that he’s not the quarterback he was even a year ago, but the Cardinals’ problems are hardly limited to their quarterback in 2016.
Bruce Arians’ trademark vertical passing game has been a few steps off this season, as two new starters on the offensive line have led to an increase in pressure on Palmer, and the Cardinals’ receivers, believed to be the best group in the NFL in the preseason, haven’t lived up to the hype. Add in questionable play-calling by Arians (with David Johnson in the backfield, why did Palmer throw 50 times against the 49ers?) and you have a strange brew that hasn't looked in sync all year.
Arizona’s problems aren’t irreconcilable, which is what makes them such a frustrating team. But the team’s playoff chances are diminishing by the week — the time to correct those problems is waning — and the Vikings might be the worst team remaining on the Cardinals’ hellacious schedule down the stretch.
Sunday’s game is a contest between two enigmatic teams that desperately need a win and have few answers for how to get it. The arrows are pointing down — will either be able to get theirs upright (or at least pointed sideways) on Sunday?