GELFAND: Avoiding the Vikings and Week 14 Picks

Please Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

I will probably have my Minnesota citizenship revoked — or perhaps even deported to Wisconsin — for making the following confession, but I’m tired of hiding in the shadows. So here it is:

Until the Monday night debacle in Seattle, I had not watched a Vikings game all year. Oh, I saw bits and pieces and a few highlights, but my gambling interests compelled me to watch almost every team but the Vikings.

Now that I have seen them, I am not sure that I’m going to watch the home team again any time soon.

Beyond that, I have to wonder about head coach Mike Zimmer, whose reputation as a point spread-buster seems to be in jeopardy. Zimmer has been so good to his supporters in Las Vegas that a certain subset of public handicappers have stayed above water just by picking Minnesota to cover week after week. (Something I wasn’t smart enough to do.) But the odds have caught up to him.

Last year, the Vikings were a mediocre 8-7-1 vs. the number and this year the mediocrity has continued, with Zimmer at a losing (financially) 6-6. The Vikings have failed to cover four of their most recent five games and now Kirk Cousins has been reduced to a Teddy Bridgewater-style game manager.

Cousins, who is historically one of the NFL’s most accurate passers, didn’t come to Minnesota so that he could throw five-yard passes to tight ends, but that’s what he has been reduced to with the injury to Adam Thielen.

It’s clear that Cousins would have better numbers with Thielen in the lineup, but that doesn’t excuse Zimmer. The 63-year-old mentor, along with the front office, knew the Vikings were coming into this season with serious depth issues at the wideout position. Their solution was to select Dillon Mitchell (Oregon) and Olabisi Johnson (Colorado State) in the seventh round of the 2019 draft.

Nov 17, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) celebrates with wide receiver Bisi Johnson (81) after Diggs caught a pass for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at U.S. Bank Stadium. Please Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Mitchell and Johnson haven’t earned a spot in the lineup and probably never will; late-round receiver picks are, appropriately, a Hail Mary Pass. That said, between the draft, trades, and free agency, there were something like 20 wide receivers who could have helped the Vikings. If this were a rebuilding team or a team without a quarterback who could take advantage of skilled receivers, you could make an argument for prioritizing other positions. But none of those contingencies apply.

Beyond that, nothing I saw on Monday night gave me any confidence in the coach or his staff. I’m not saying that Zimmer has lost his touch, but it has occurred to me that all those sleepless nights in his office and the multiple eye surgeries have taken a toll. (As the brain ages, repeated hits of propofol are not really healthy for the increasingly brittle brain.)

First, we need to consider the somewhat fraught art of managing the clock. Any middle school kid who can get a B in math can figure out, for example, that you will forfeit possessions if you don’t make judicious use of your timeouts. In practice, this means that in the final minutes of either half, you use those timeouts when your opponent has the ball. You can kill the clock without using timeouts when you have the ball. Duh.

But the sad truth is that many coaches have never quite figured this out. The reason might be that, beyond X’s and 0’s, most coaches are…well, not that bright. Tom Coughlin coached for 50 years without realizing that it’s legal to call a timeout when you don’t possess the ball. Which means he gave up hundreds of possessions in his career. Not good when you might have the ball 10 times in a game.

Over the years, the one coach who has never missed a chance to work the clock in his favor in, not coincidentally, the smartest and most successful coach ever. The evil genius, Bill Belichick, consistently takes time away from the opposition and takes it for the Patriots. No surprise that he’s also the greatest coach in history by the only measure that counts: the spread.

Dec 1, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick reacts on the sideline during the third quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Please Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Patriots looked old and useless against Houston, and many of my brethren wasted no time in declaring the end of an era. I’ve come to that conclusion myself many times. But I won’t get fooled again. I don’t care if he’s wheeled onto the field like a Mafia boss entering the courtroom. He could have the sunglasses and the shawl and I wouldn’t think twice about supporting him with my bankroll. Maybe I draw the line after his 90th birthday, but the only time I would bet against him this year would be if New England takes on Baltimore in the Super Bowl. And even then I might take seven.

One more note about the loss to Seattle, and I mention this only because it seems to be a well-guarded secret. For whatever reason, the Vikings went into that game with the devilishly clever plan of building the contest around short passes toward the left sideline. Perhaps Zimmer was inspired by those all-night video sessions. If so, he needs what most Americans need, which is more sleep and less stress.

In all, Cousins threw an even dozen little passes to his left. After a few such tosses, the Seahawks caught the gist of it: Cousins completed one of the final eight passes. It was good for 11 yards, but only because the Vikings had a third and long and the completion did them no good. The dozen passes yielded the Vikings 29 worthless yards, for a total of 2.4 yards per attempt.

Perhaps Thielen will be back this week and Cousins will again flourish. But I’m not betting on the Vikings any more than I would buy the most expensive steak in the world without having a way to cook it.

After a minor downturn last week, the bankroll stands at $1,174, which is more than I deserve. Although this could well be the beginning of a major downturn, I offer up two more plays for Week 14.

Baltimore at Buffalo:

I’m not going to bore you with esoteric technical trends or advanced metrics. I still think the Ravens are the best team in the NFL, and having passed on them last week, I’m getting back aboard the bandwagon. I do worry just a bit about a letdown after Baltimore’s narrow victory over the 49ers last week, but that’s why the money is mythical.

The pick: Baltimore 34, Buffalo 17 — Ravens minus 6 for $60

Pittsburgh at Arizona:

I suspect that rookie QB Kyler Murray has hit the wall. He’s not so big on running the ball these days, which is a problem because his passing needs work. But even if I’m wrong, the Steelers, without any prominent offensive weapons, continue to succeed with an ancient form of football. They’ve gone under to the tune of 9-3 this year, and they’ve gone under in nine of their most recent 10 road games.

The pick: Pittsburgh 17, Arizona 13 — Under 43 1/2 for $80

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