The Minnesota Vikings head into Gillette Stadium Sunday to face the New England Patriots as betting-line underdogs for the fifth time this season.
And that’s exactly how head coach Mike Zimmer likes it.
“I think they play better when we’re underdogs,” Zimmer said of his squad, which is projected to lose by five points according to most bookmakers, as of Thursday evening.
Underdog status can be as much a perception as a point spread, of course. In this case, it’s both. Not only is New England objectively favored thanks to their 32-4 December home record under Tom Brady, but the specter of the Patriots playing at Foxborough — under five-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Bill Belichick — is enough of an intangible to give them a psychological edge, regardless of the line.
So what of Zimmer’s boast that the Vikings are better as underdogs? Is there any substance to it?
If you’re a bettor, you might say yes. The Vikings are 22-11 as underdogs against the point spread since Zimmer took over in 2014, a 66.7 cover percentage that is third-best in the NFL over that time span.
In terms of wins and losses, the results are more ordinary. Minnesota is 13-20 as the betting underdog since 2014, still the 12th-highest winning percentage in the league but nowhere near their gaudy cover percentage that could make a person rich in Las Vegas.
Bottom line: The Vikings have played a lot of competitive games as underdogs but haven’t consistently been able to win — a common refrain for ‘dogs everywhere.
Many of those losses came in 2014, however, when Minnesota went 8-4 against the spread and 4-8 in the win-loss column. Since 2015, they’ve won nine and lost 12 as underdogs, and since 2014 they’re 5-8.
The Vikings are 2-2 against the spread as underdogs this season and 1-3 straight-up. Minnesota was a 7.5-point underdog against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4 and wound up losing by seven to narrowly beat the spread. The next week they cleanly defeated Philadelphia as 3.5-point underdogs.
But as 2.5-point underdogs against both the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears, the Vikings lost by 10 and five, respectively.
AGAINST THE SPREAD AS UNDERDOGS (SINCE 2014)
WIN-LOSS RECORD AS UNDERDOGS (SINCE 2014)
The charts above show the progression pretty clearly. Once the Vikings won the division in 2015, they started getting a lot more respect in the point spread. Part of that could be their new stadium, which provides a decisive home-field advantage eight games a year. Minnesota has only been an underdog twice at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Since 2014, as road underdogs — which they are Sunday — the Vikings are 9-14. The Patriots as home favorites over that time frame: an NFL-best 35-6.
And while they’ve only been underdogs seven times in the last five seasons, it’s no surprise the Patriots are also the league leader in winning as underdogs with a 6-1 mark.
“The thing I respect about their team the most, and I told our team this yesterday,” said Zimmer, “they don’t care what they did last week. They just focus on this week and then they go from there, and that’s how they continue to win. We have to get that mentality where, whatever we did last week, whether we won by 50 or lost by 50, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is this week. That’s what they do, and I think they do a great job with it.”
A Vikings win would certainly be their best of the season, and one of the best of the Zimmer Era, but they’ll have to defy the odds.
“We have a bunch of guys that love to fight, love to grind together, a bunch of guys that love each other, and we want to go out there and have fun together,” said receiver Adam Thielen. “I think when you have personalities like that in the locker room, just a good group of people, you just tend to have more of a chip on your shoulder when you’re the underdog.”
Point spread data from TeamRankings.com.