Saturday, December 11, 2004

Speaking Metaphysically (and Physically)

As the Vikings entered the final seven games of their 2004 regular season schedule, most prognosticators picked the Vikings to run the table. After all, at the time the Vikings' remaining opponents included only three teams with winning records. Those three teams, moreover, were of the garden-variety above-.500 teams and the Vikings faced each team at home.

After another dismal road loss at Chicago, many national prognosticators still consider the Vikings likely to win the remaining games on their schedule. But the local media, many of whom considered the Vikings heavy favorites in all of their remaining games, save the game against the Packers, has become less sanguine. Still, even most local pundits envision at least a 3-1 finish with the only doubt being how close the Vikings allow their opponents to remain in the three victories.*

While there is some question as to which team will tarnish the Vikings' drive to win their four remaining games, there is near consensus that it will not be the Seattle Seahawks. Usually, this is an ominous sign for the Vikings, as entering the game as a heavy favorite generally translates to mortifying failure for this team. But that should not be the case this week.

The Seahawks enter Sunday's game as a shell of the team that began the season 3-0, or, at least, as a lesser team than began the season 3-0 and as some pundits' pick for NFC champion. Those pundits can point to Seattle's loss of key defensive players and Seattle's recent, albeit one-game, up-tick in point production in support of the contention that Seattle's recent slide is the result of injuries more so than is it the result of an all-around bad team. But that would be an overly optimistic view of this team.

On Sunday, the Vikings will face a Seahawks team that looks much like the Vikings, with at least three notable exceptions. And these exceptions, two metaphysical, the other very physical, should ensure a Vikings' victory over Seattle.

Metaphysical Advantage to the Purple

As every Vikings' fan is well aware, the script for the final seven games has already been written. We know the final tally, we just don't know the precise numbers. The game Sunday offers no deviation.

While the Seahawks may not yet be aware, the Vikings have already won the game on Sunday. We know this because that is how it works with the Vikings. Win a home game against a reasonably tough opponent, lose on the road to a team with no offense on the sword end of the opponent's offense, and win at home against a much more credible opponent. That's just how it works for the Vikings.

Naysayers will say, of course, that the fly in the ointment is that the Seahawks are not really a credible opponent. By that standard, they will contend, the Vikings should flop.

But the naysayers miss two critical elements of this contest. The first, and perhaps the most critical, is that the Seahawks, the national media, and the Vikings all consider the Seahawks a credible opponent. As do many Vikings' fans. But those who cover the Seahawks, usually the first to discern a team's true colors, see a much different team.

Following last Monday's dramatic home come-from-ahead loss to the lowly Cowboys, a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had the following to say:

"[W]ith an exception here and there, the Seahawks have been outhustled week in and week out, often by teams that allegedly had no business hanging with them. They have repeatedly looked less sharp, less ready.

Blame all the injuries if you want. It's difficult playing with a duct-taped linebacking corps. But ultimately, it's the coach's fault. Holmgren hasn't -- maybe he can't -- get this team over the hump."

Even the Seahawks' coach sounded defeated, stating that "we were our own worst enemy tonight. . . We do some very good things, and then we do some things that demonstrate a lack of maturity. ... This was a huge football game for us."

That's the kind of talk we usually associate with Mike Tice after a deflating Vikings' loss. But at least Tice usually saves those concession speaches for road games against teams with some discernible strength. It is not evident that Seattle has any discernible strength, and it is even more evident that the primary achille's heal for the Vikings--a stout defense--does not wear a Seattle uniform in 2004.

Which raises the second critical element of this contest, which is that this game is at home, where the Vikings usually win regardless of the opposition but particularly when faced with an overrated team. And particularly when faced with an overrated team that plays defense as poorly as do the Seahawks. As verification of this fact, one need only flash back to 2003 when the Vikings, in home games, hammered two overrated teams with porous defenses--the Chiefs and these very same Seahawks.

This game should look similar to 2003's contest with two exceptions--Minnesota will probably score fewer points without Moss actively involved and Seattle will probably score a couple more points with the Vikings attempting to figure out how to play defense without Antoine Winfield.

Vikings' Physical Advantage

This all leads us to the Vikings' third distinct advantage in this game. Because both the Vikings and the Seahawks have atrocious defenses and key injuries, they must both rely on the passing game. While Seattle turn to Matt Hasselbeck--he of the very over-rated QB variety--the Vikings turn to Daunte Culpepper. And Culpepper is due for a mistake-free game against a porous Seahawks' secondary.

Seattle, picking up on Chicago's defensive success, is certain to blitz early and often against the Vikings' suspect offensive line--a line that had difficulty holding off Chicago's four-man "blitz" with seven blockers. But Seattle does not have the defensive players that Chicago does, either to maintain successful blitz packages, or to ensure coverage of the hot read or even the primary read, to make blitzing anywhere near as successful for Seattle as it was for Chicago.
If Daunte is able to pick up his reads, and the bet here is that he will be able to, the Seahawks' defense will continue to stumble. And if Vinny and the 'Boys can put up 43 on the Seahawks, surely the Vikings can approach that number (or we may be talking about a new offensive coordinator in Monday's column).

The question, of course, is whether Daunte can outperform Hasselbeck. The numbers suggest that will happen. Daunte's numbers: 109.6 passer rating, 30 TDs, 10 INTs, 70.2 completion percentage, and 3,459 yards passing. Hasselbeck's numbers: 78.4 passer rating, 15 TDs, 11 INTs, 55.6 completion percentage, and 2,658 yards passing. Add to this the fact that Hasselbeck has 8 of his TDs against Dallas and San Francisco (2 games) combined and Hasselbeck looks more like a less-than-one-TD-a-game QB than a potent offensive force. Moreover, given that Hasselbeck's best TD output in two attempts against the 49ers was 3 TDs, well, the Vikings--even with Derek Ross playing in the secondary--should not fear being out-slung on Sunday.

Up Next: Halftime.

*More on this later.

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