Case Keenum has led the Vikings to the second seed in the NFC, but does he have what it takes to bring them to the Super Bowl?
Since top-seeded Philadelphia lost Carson Wentz to a season-ending knee injury, Minnesota has become the clear favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. If they are able to live up to these expectations, they would become the first team in NFL history to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium.
Journeyman Case Keenum has led the Vikings for a majority of their 13-3 season, in which he has played outstanding football. He will look to continue his good play in Minnesota’s road to the Super Bowl, which begins against the New Orleans Saints. The Saints are coming off an impressive 31-26 victory over Carolina where Drew Brees put together one of the best performances of his illustrious playoff career.
Offense: QB Case Keenum, RB Latavius Murray
Keenum has had a career year. He has a career high in completion percentage, passing yards, and has more than doubled his previous season high in touchdowns with 22. He has done all this while maintaining a low interception total with just seven. Despite his impressive play, there are still questions of whether Keenum has what it takes to lead to Vikings to the Super Bowl.
Lucky for Keenum, he has a lot of help around him that will help take some of the pressure off. That starts first and foremost with his running game. Led by Murray, who has filled in nicely for the injured Dalvin Cook, the Vikings finished as the seventh-best rushing team during the regular season where they averaged 122.3 yards per game. Although Murray was the leading rusher with 842 yards, it was really a two-headed attack along with Jerick McKinnon who had 570 yards on the year. McKinnon also contributes heavily in the passing game. He finished fourth on the team in receptions with 51. For the Vikings to advance deep into the playoffs, Keenum will have to lean heavily on the running game, as well as on his leading receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Defense: DT Linval Joseph, DE Everson Griffen
Minnesota’s team has been built around their dominant defense. They have amazing players at multiple positions and have been elite against both the run and the pass. They rank second in the league in both, giving up only 83 yards per game rushing and 192 yards passing. Their run defense starts up front with Linval Joseph. He is rated by Pro Football Focus as the eighth best defensive lineman in the league against the run. With Joseph commanding double teams, it opens up opportunities for starting linebacker Anthony Barr and leading tackler Eric Kendricks to come up and make a play on the running back.
Once Minnesota forces their opponents to be one dimensional, it allows them to unleash Everson Griffen on opposing quarterbacks. Griffen had 13 sacks during the regular season, which trailed only Chandler Jones, Calais Campbell, and DeMarcus Lawrence. When he puts the pressure on the quarterback it allows All-Pro safety Harrison Smith to make plays on the ball, which he has done plenty of this year with his team-leading 5 interceptions. This defense is stellar at almost every position and it’s going to be a challenge for every team to move the ball on them this postseason.
Best Win and Worst Loss
Best Win: 24-7 over Los Angeles Rams (Week 11)
Coming into Week 11, the Vikings and Rams were both 7-2 and tied for the second seed in the NFC behind the Eagles. This victory proved to be the difference between the Vikings getting a bye because it gave them the tiebreaker over LA. The Rams finished as the number one scoring offense in the entire NFL with 29.9 points per game. Minnesota held them to just seven points, including holding Todd Gurley to a season-low 37 rushing yards. What makes this even more impressive is that the Rams only touchdown came on the first possession of the game, which means Minnesota shut down the best scoring offense in the league for the final 55 minutes of the game.
On offense, it was a fairly pedestrian game for Case Keenum going up against his former team, but he did have a couple of plays where he extended the play with his legs before throwing it downfield. He finished the game 27-of-38 for 280 yards with one touchdown and no picks. While it may look like a fairly average stat line, it’s still very impressive because he played smart and didn’t force any throws against the fifth best defense at forcing turnovers. Murray and McKinnon put together one of their best games of the year collectively having 156 total yards and Murray had two touchdowns. This was the first “prove it” game that Minnesota had with Keenum under center. They carried the momentum from this win in the next two weeks where they beat Detroit, who at the time was still very much alive for the division, followed by beating Atlanta.
Worst Loss: 26-9 to Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 2)
This was Keenum’s first start of the season with Sam Bradford out. He performed like many thought he would by having only 167 passing yards, no touchdowns, and his second-lowest completion percentage of the season of 54%. He didn’t have much help from the running game. Cook, McKinnon, and Murray combined for just 86 yards rushing. And while the defense didn’t give up huge numbers to Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, or Antonio Brown, they still allowed 26 points because the offense couldn’t stay on the field. The Steelers won the time of possession by nearly 10 minutes and wore down the Vikings defense just enough to where they could win the game convincingly. Keenum and the Vikings hadn’t hit their stride before this game and because it was so early in the season it looks like an aberration, but this was their worst game of the year.
Previous Matchups With Playoff Teams
Week 1: 29-19 win vs (4) New Orleans Saints
Week 2: 26-9 loss at (2) Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 11: 24-7 win vs (3) Los Angeles Rams
Week 13: 14-9 win at (6) Atlanta Falcons
Week 14: 31-24 loss at (5) Carolina Panthers
Positives: They are giving up just 11.6 points per game in their wins against playoff opponents. Obviously this shows the defense’s ability, but they haven’t done this solely by themselves. One of the main reasons for their defensive success in these games has been Minnesota’s ability to dominate the time of possession. They are averaging 34 minutes possessing the ball in wins compared to just 26 minutes in their losses. While eight minutes might not seem game breaking, it is substantial because that is a lot more rest the defense gets on the sideline giving them a better opportunity to shut down opposing offenses. Controlling the clock starts with their running game, where they have been outstanding in their wins. In their wins, the combination of Cook, Murray, and McKinnon are averaging 127 yards rushing per game.
Negatives: On the flip side, there is a clear formula for stopping the Vikings. While they have been very good rushing the ball in their wins, in their losses they are only averaging 73 yards per game. So what the stats from these games tell us is if you slow down Minnesota’s running game, then you force Keenum to beat you by himself, and he hasn’t done that up to this point.
Performance Leading Into the Postseason:
Minnesota won three of their last four games heading into their bye week. Their one loss came in Week 14 at the hands of Carolina who had over 200 yards rushing mostly because of Cam Newton‘s big day on the ground. Their three lopsided wins came over Cincinnati, Green Bay, and Chicago with an average score of 24.3-to-5.6. The Vikings were rolling on both sides of the ball so hopefully their bye week didn’t ruin their momentum.
Level of Contender: High
Minnesota has a tough matchup against the new look Saints — a very different looking team than the one they saw in Week 1. However, if their defense plays to its typical fashion, they should be able to call a conservative game on offense and not put too much into Keenum’s hands, who will be playing in his first career postseason game. If the Vikings are able to get their running game going, it will be nearly impossible to beat them, especially on the road. However, if the game is put in Case Keenum’s hands, he still has to prove he can go out their and single-handedly win his team the game. This team is the favorite in the NFC going into this weekend and the city could find themselves hosting a Super Bowl with the Vikings in it.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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