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The Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers may be perfectly matched to put on a fantastic show for all of us. But as of right now, I don’t see any way that either of them can overtake the Chicago Bears.
There are no excuses; those ran out back when the Vikings made their acclaimed decision to rid themselves of three competent quarterbacks and spent the family farm to acquire Kirk Cousins, a free agent from the Washington Redskins.
At the time, I wrote that I was completely against the move. Not that it mattered. My point was from long-distance evaluations that I thought were evident last season. I was first a Vikings fan because of Fran Tarkenton, a mercurial improviser who could run circles around opposing linebackers and bloodthirsty defensive linemen, all of whom would have liked to grab him and possibly dismember him right there on the field.
It got to the point where I decided I would rather watch Tarkenton play than the Vikings play without him. I felt the same way about Brett Favre; as a Vikings follower I could obliquely follow the Packers and admire every move Favre made. The similarities were that both Tarkenton and Favre defied all the sterotypes about quarterbacks. They were sandlot originals, both of them, and when things got tight, both of them could come up with their own plays that almost always worked.
The one thing they had in common, was that they found ways to win, even when they had to invent them. That’s a special talent and only a few quarterbacks have it. I would list Drew Brees as one of them, and Russell Wilson as another.
So after the Vikings got going a year ago, and Case Keenum was pressed into service because of injury to Sam Bradford and the slow recovery of Teddy Bridgewater, it took him one game in relief and a week of preparation, and then he got the entire Vikings team to buy into supporting him, playing for him because they realized his way was a pathway to success.
The Vikings went 11-1 with Keenum leading the way, and it was a curious situation. I never felt coach Mike Zimmer was a big fan of Keenum, but he grudgingly had to keep going with him because, simply, he won.
So when the season ended, Zimmer and the Vikings decided that Keenum had indeed over-achieved all season, but because the Vikings fell short in every possible way in losing the playoff game at Philadelphia, the decision was made that Keenum couldn’t be the big-timer they needed. So they spent a ton to get Cousins, who, really, had never won anything.
What I criticized was a simple fact of sports. I always put a large emphasis on team camaraderie, which might be called chemistry - an overused term but when used with validity, an ingredient that can make the difference between winning championships and not winning anything.
For that reason, I find all the current tricks of computerized decision-making and analytics to be interesting background as long as they don’t intrude on a sharp coach’s instinctive judgements.
Kirk Cousins is an outstanding quarterback, and Case Keenum is a very good quarterback who generates and inspires electricity from his teammates. This year, his teammates are the Denver Broncos, and they’re not very good, compared to the Vikings. But consider that this year’s Vikings are much better than last year’s Vikings, according to all the analytics.
Now flashback to Sunday night’s final of a busy day of NFL football, when the Vikings went to Chicago to take on a Bears team that suddenly is forcing its way onto that delicate top shelf of teams. A rejuvenated Monsters of the Midway defense is a big factor, but the biggest is that an elusive, intuitive young guy named Mitchell Trubisky is giving the Bears some offensive direction, uncharacteristic or not.
He throws, sometimes into danger, and he also takes off and runs as a viable ball-carrying threat. The game with the Vikings went back and forth, and there were some distinct places where I thought Kirk Cousins was off his game. He overthrew receivers a half-dozen time, and Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs had to make a few sensational catches to advance the ball. On one play, late in the game, with the game on the line, Cousins dropped back, had a surprising amount of time to find a receiver, and seemed to be completely unaware that he had no Bears within 15 yards of him if he decided to take off and run the 8 yards needed for a crucial first down. Instead he threw that one over the head of his receiver.
When the Bears intercepted one of those badly overthrown passes and returned it for a touchdown in the second half, it was a back-breaker. For the game, Cousins was 30-46 for 262 yards and two touchdowns, plus two interceptions. He had a 76.5 quarterback rating. Trubisky was 20-31 for one touchdown and two interceptions, and a poor 61.7 rating. But Trubisky’s side won the game. If you ask anyone in Chicago this week what they think about those quarterback ratings, they would have a suggestion where you could put them.
After that game, I spent a little time checking out the other games, and how they were won. Oh, there is the Denver-Los Angeles Chargers game. Hmmm. Case Keenum was 19-32 for 205 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, and a 76.3 rating. That’s very nearly identical to Cousins, who was 76.5. The difference? The Broncos trailed 22-20 and got the ball back on their 8 yard line, with 1:51 remaining.
With a calm, cool demeanor that belied all that was riding on the pressure-packed final minute, Keenum directed the Broncos on a seven-play march, going 5-5 passing for 86 of the yards, then spiking the ball to stop the clock. Brandon McManus came on and kicked a 34-yard field goal as time expired, and the Broncos won 23-22. It was actually a 76-yard drive, but the Broncos had to fend off an offensive-pass-interference penalty. No problem. It just gave Keenum the chance to more yards passing on that drive than the entire drive entailed.
It’s been a crazy year in the NFL already, and Sunday was a great example. If you buy into the analytics, Drew Brees was 22-30 for 363 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, for a 153.2 rating for the New Orleans Saints as they crushed Philadelphia 48-7. And Andrew Luck led Indianapolis to a 38-10 romp over Tennessee, when Marcus Mariotta went out with an injury. Luck was 23-29 for 297 yards and three touchdowns, and a 143.8 rating.
More? How about Cam Newton going 25-37 for 357 yards and three touchdowns, with a 114.4 rating, against Detroit, who had Matthew Stafford, with 23-37 for 220 yards, one touchdown and an 87.7 rating. But wait! Detroit won the game 20-19 for all of us hate-analytics fans.
Then we advanced to Monday night’s game, and it was truly a spectacle that defied superlatives. The Los Angeles Rams beat Kansas City 54-51. It was the highest scoring game in NFL history. Jared Goff of the Rams was 31-49 for 413 yards and four touchdowns, and a 117.1 rating; Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City was 33-46 for 476 yards and six touchdowns, with three interceptions -- the difference in the game, actually -- and a 117.6 rating. Unbelievable.
We aren’t giving up on Kirk Cousins and the Vikings yet, and we look forward to next Sunday’s game when the Packers play the Vikings in Minneapolis. But the Vikings are 5-4-1 and the Packers are 4-5-1, and the Chicago Bears are in first place at 7-3, and play at Detroit (4-6) Thanksgiving Day. The Packers and Vikings tied the first time they met, to open the season, so consider the possibilities: If the Packers win Sunday, both teams would be 5-5-1, and Chicago, by winning at Detroit, would be 8-3. So long, division title.