Everything we are watching for in the final five weeks
The Vikings are in the thick of the playoff race with tons of intriguing storylines still to play out
By Matthew Coller
The Minnesota Vikings hit the bye week at 6-6 and watched as several teams closed in on them in the playoff race. Now with five games remaining they are going to be in a battle to make the postseason. Along the way, we expect to learn a lot about this team. Let’s dive into everything we are looking to find out about the Vikings before the 2023 season ends…
The quarterback decision (short term)
Kevin O’Connell did not commit to Josh Dobbs coming out of the bye week, which is understandable considering the Vikings are coming off one of their worst offensive performances since KOC was hired. By Expected Points Added, only last year’s losses to Dallas and Green Bay were worse.
The Vikings’ staff has to decide whether they can live with the ups and down of the volatile journeyman QB. In his first two games Dobbs led the Vikings to 58 points on offense but they only have 30 points in the last two weeks and he’s been responsible for six turnovers. While some of the interceptions were bad breaks, Dobbs has eight turnover-worthy throws (per PFF) in four weeks as the Vikings’ QB. That’s as many as Kirk Cousins had in eight games. That’s more than Dak Prescott has this season.
Still Dobbs’ scrambling ability does even out some of his issues in comparison to the Vikings other quarterbacks. He’s third in the NFL in rushing yards and second in EPA only behind Josh Allen.
If the Vikings do bench Dobbs, they will choose between Nick Mullens, who has 17 career starts, and rookie Jaren Hall. With the playoffs still very much in reach, it does not seem likely they would turn the reins over to the rookie just yet.
Does Mullens give the Vikings a better chance to win? Here’s how Dobbs and Mullens compare by their career numbers (per Pro-Football Ref):
The best argument for Mullens is that he has way more experience in the offense and has been a more efficient passer in the past. With Justin Jefferson coming back, the timing of the passing game will be paramount and O’Connell may feel that they have a better chance to get the ball in his hands if Mullens is hucking it. The odds of turnovers happening don’t decrease with Mullens in the game based on his history though. He has 23 picks in 17 games. That would be six more than any QB has posted in a single season since Jameis Winston’s 30-INT year in 2019.
The Vikings are stuck between a rock and a hard place at QB, which is so often the case when a starter gets injured.
The quarterback decision (long term)
Now that the Vikings are having a discussion about benching Dobbs, it feels a lot less likely than it did two weeks ago that Dobbs could be part of the future but there is a question about whether the final five games will impact the team’s view on bringing back Kirk Cousins next year. Could they be convinced by making the playoffs that O’Connell’s coaching and the offensive weapons can boost any quarterback or could a collapse lead them back to Cousins? Or would a collapse convince them they are more than a Kirk return away from competing for a title?
Clearly the choice should not be made based on the final few games of the year but the NFL wouldn’t be the NFL if decisions weren’t made in a reactionary fashion.
The playoff race
It was not a good day for the Vikings’ playoff odds. The Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers pulled out a win over the Kansas City Chiefs, tying both teams up with the Vikings at 6-6. Minnesota sits in a playoff position because of tie break advantages but the New York Times playoff predictor has the Vikings at 42% for the postseason, the Packers at 70%, the Rams 50% and Seattle 23%. The biggest concern for the Vikings might be how good the Packers and Rams are playing right now — and the fact they both have their starting QBs healthy. Oh and their upcoming schedules.
Here are Green Bay’s remaining opponents: Giants, Bucs, Panthers, Vikings, Bears
Here are the Rams’ remaining opponents: Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco
Here are Seattle’s remaining opponents: San Francisco, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Arizona
The Vikings would still appear to control their own destiny but they will likely have to win three of five at a minimum to get into the playoffs.
Before Justin Jefferson went out with a hamstring injury he was catching nearly 70% of passes thrown his way and averaging 114 yards per game. It stands to reason that adding him back into the offense will add a major boost but the Vikings will have to balance how much they want to push the ball in his direction versus spreading the ball around. During JJ’s seven-game absence other players stepped up with tight end TJ Hockenson catching 50 passes for 532 yards and Jordan Addison grabbing 35 passes for 437 yards. Even Brandon Powell chimed in with 20 catches as well. Will the Vikings offense be able to continue distributing the ball to all their playmakers while centering the operation around Jefferson?
The Vikings’ star receiver has also rarely been without Cousins. He has only played in one career game with anyone else under center (at Green Bay in 2021). How will he adapt to a new quarterback situation? Even if the Vikings turn to Mullens, the amount of reps they have taken together over the last two years in camp or practice is very minimal.
Will Flores’ defense keep passing every test?
During their 5-2 stretch, the Vikings defense has allowed more than 21 points only one time and they have been on the positive side of EPA in six of those games. They haven’t allowed 400 yards of total offense since Week 3 and have forced 13 turnovers since the Week 5 loss to the Chiefs.
There is an argument that the defensive statistics have been aided by a lack of top-notch quarterbacks on the schedule but A) that didn’t stop the defense from giving up 400-plus yards of offense consistently last year and B) that won’t end soon with Aidan O’Connell and Jake Browning as the expected upcoming QBs.
Where they will get more pushback is during the final three weeks. They take on a top-10 offense in Detroit in two of the final three weeks and the Packers have shown huge improvement since their loss at Lambeau Field to the Vikings.
Will Hicks or Davenport come back?
Ivan Pace Jr. has effectively stepped into Jordan Hicks’ role since the veteran linebacker suffered a leg injury but it’s hard to totally replace what Hicks was bringing to the table. Not only was he responsible for the “green dot” duties calling the defense, Hicks was also playing at a high level, ranking as the 16th best linebacker by PFF while playing more than 90% of snaps in every game. Whether Hicks can return is tough to say considering his injury landed him in the hospital and required a procedure. He is on injured reserve but O’Connell did not rule out him coming back this season.
Marcus Davenport had a high ankle sprain against Chicago that also required surgery. He has only been on the field for 118 total snaps this season but had seven pressures between the two games that he had a full workload. While Davenport hasn’t been able to be healthy enough to make his free agent contract a success, if he were to return at some point down the stretch it could be a big addition to a Vikings defense that is playing well with only Danielle Hunter and DJ Wonnum providing the sack production from the D-line.
20 sack watch?
With 13.5 sacks in 12 games, Hunter is on pace to threaten a 20 sack season. In Vikings history there have only been two 20-sack seasons, the first coming from Chris Doleman in 1989 and then in 2011 Jared Allen racked up 22.0 QB takedowns.
If he’s going to get there, the next two weeks will be big. Raiders QB Aidan O’Connell has been sacked 13 times in five games and Jake Browning seven times in two games. After that, the QBs are harder to take down. Jared Goff has the fourth lowest sack percentage in the NFL and Jordan Love the ninth lowest.
More Ty Chandler?
Following a key fumble in Denver by Alexander Mattison, the Vikings seemed to be telegraphing more work for Ty Chandler versus Chicago. Instead Mattison had a solid game with 52 yards on 10 carries and Chandler largely remained on the sideline (four carries for eight yards). Will that change if the run game sputters in the coming weeks? Chandler showed his burst and playmaking ability against the Broncos when he ran for 73 yards and added 37 through the air.
Overall the Vikings entered Week 13 ranking 25th in both yards per carry and total rushing yards. They will need more than that in the final five games, particularly with the volatile nature of the passing game. Of course, O’Connell has not been one to stick with the run game. The Vikings have only cleared 30 running plays six times in O’Connell’s tenure and three of them crossed that mark because of Dobbs’ scrambles.
Will the O-line’s best year sustain?
The Vikings entered the bye week as the No. 1 pass blocking offensive line in the NFL by PFF grade — a massive upgrade from last season when they finished 19th. In the coming weeks they will do battle with some very strong pass rushes. By PFF’s grading, all the Vikings’ upcoming opponents rank in the top half of the league (entering Week 13) in pass rush grade and in the next two weeks they match up with two top-10 sack leaders in Maxx Crosby and Trey Hendrickson.
Both potential quarterbacks have been historically good at avoiding sacks with Nick Mullens being taken down behind the line of scrimmage on only 5.2% of drop-backs and Josh Dobbs 6.1%. Mullens is much less likely to get pressured because he gets the ball out quickly rather than scrambling like Dobbs. Neither QB has much chance when the heat is on though. When Mullens last started in 2020, he was 34th of 39 QBs in terms of QB rating when pressured. Dobbs is presently 25th of 38.
A strong finish for the 2023 class?
The Vikings’ rookie class wasn’t very big since they spent a second-round pick on TJ Hockenson but the group has produced three starters in first-rounder Jordan Addison, third-round pick Mekhi Blackmon and undrafted free agent Ivan Pace Jr. Heading into Week 13, Addison was third among all rookie receivers in yards, Blackmon ranked third in PFF grade for rookie corners and Pace Jr. was the highest graded rookie linebacker.
The last stretch of the season is never easy for rookies considering they have never played this many games before and their season essentially began in the pre-draft process. A strong final five games for those three would give the Vikings a lot of confidence in their young core going forward.
As for the other picks/UDFAs, we have seen a smattering of Jay Ward, Jaquelin Roy and Andre Carter. Will any of them show up more often down the stretch? Will we see Jaren Hall get another start?