Vikings

Losing Against Contenders on the Road is Not Just a Vikings Problem

Photo Credit: Denny Medley (USA Today Sports)

It’s no secret that the Minnesota Vikings have struggled on the road under Mike Zimmer, a truism made more frustrating by the fact that some of those Vikings teams were quality contenders yet always failed to beat fellow contenders away from home.

Division title-winning teams in 2015 and 2017 each experienced frustrating road losses that prevented higher playoff seeds, and ineptitude away from home is arguably what kept the 2016 and 2018 teams out of the playoffs entirely.

After a 26-23 setback at Kansas City last Sunday, the Vikings face another tough road test this weekend against the 5-3 Dallas Cowboys.

“What better way [to bounce back] than to go to the biggest stadium in the NFL against a great team on Sunday Night Football?” said tight end Kyle Rudolph.

But the truth is, the Vikings aren’t much different than the rest of the league when it comes to playing winning teams on the road.

The tweet below from analytics maven Warren Sharp circulated following the Vikings’ loss to the Chiefs.

While this information is mostly accurate, it ignores the Vikings’ Week 17 win over the Green Bay Packers in 2015, a game that pitted the 10-5 Vikings against the 10-5 Packers and resulted in a 20-13 division-clinching win for Minnesota. Sharp’s parameters can also be deceiving since they discount strong early-season opponents whose record might be 0-0, 1-1 or 2-2 at the time of the matchup.

Tweaking the parameters slightly, let’s alter the data search to include outdoor road games against opponents that ended the season with a winning record. In those scenarios, the Vikings have been 3-13 since Zimmer arrived. The wins include Minnesota’s Week 17 win over Green Bay, their Week 1 win over Tennessee in 2016 and last year’s 23-21 win in Philadelphia.

Data via Pro Football Reference

Is 3-13 a good-looking record? Absolutely not. It’s the type of record that earns cellar-dwellers the first-overall pick in the draft.

As Zimmer explained Thursday, there are several factors that make road games challenging.

“The crowd noise, you’re sleeping in different beds, you’ve got to do the travel,” said Zimmer. “That’s why the bookmakers add three points to the home team, I guess. That’s kind of how it is all the time. The bottom line is how you play moreso than where you play.”

But pitted against the rest of the NFL, 3-13 is far from the worst and much closer to league average than one might think.

Over the last six seasons, Minnesota’s 18.8% winning percentage in outdoor road games against winning teams comes in at 22nd in the NFL. The league average is 26%, meaning if the Vikings had beaten the Chiefs on Sunday — a game they led late in the fourth quarter — their record would be 4-12 instead of 3-13, and their winning percentage be at 25%, right on the league average.

SINCE 2014: OUTDOOR ROAD RECORD vs. TEAMS WITH WINNING RECORDS ON SEASON (BOTTOM 10)

JETS 0-16 0%
JAGUARS 1-12 7.7%
BROWNS 2-19 9.5%
GIANTS 1-9 10%
TEXANS 2-16 11.1%
DOLPHINS 2-14 12.5%
49ERS 2-12 14.3%
PACKERS 2-12 14.3%
BENGALS 3-17 15%
LIONS 2-10 16.7%

The Vikings are better — or to rephrase, less atrocious — than all of the teams shown above over the past six years when it comes to playing outside, on the road, against contenders. Sunday’s opponent, the Cowboys, are far and away no. 1 with an 8-3 record over that span, and the Patriots at 9-7 are the only other franchise above .500.

What if we eliminate the outdoor aspect and open the sample size up to any road game against a team with a winning record on the season? Then the Vikings climb the ranks. In addition to the three wins described above, Minnesota beat two contending teams with dome homes, the Falcons in 2015 and the Lions in 2017, to give them a 5-16 overall mark since 2014. That 23.8% winning clip ranks 17th in the NFL, just below the league average of 26.7%. The Patriots and Cowboys are again the only two teams above .500 in these circumstances.

Data via Pro Football Reference

In essence, a league average team will only win one out of four road games against contenders. And for many clubs, it’s much worse. (Those poor Jets.)

SINCE 2014: OVERALL ROAD RECORD vs. TEAMS WITH WINNING RECORDS ON SEASON (BOTTOM 10)

JETS 0-19 0%
JAGUARS 1-21 4.5%
BROWNS 2-22 8.3%
TEXANS 3-20 13%
DOLPHINS 3-19 13.6%
LIONS 3-16 15.8%
49ERS 3-16 15.8%
REDSKINS 4-21 16%
GIANTS 3-15 16.7%
BENGALS 5-22 18.5%

Naturally, there are a handful of games that got away from the Vikings that could’ve changed the mounting narrative about their inability to win on the road. Six of their 16 losses in this study were by three points or less, including last Sunday, and they held fourth quarter leads in four of those six. Another five losses were between five and seven points.

While last Sunday’s defeat stung the Vikings, there was less at stake than there will be this coming weekend in Dallas. The Vikings and Cowboys are separated by a half-game, and a win for either side gives that team a potential tiebreaker in future seeding discussions.

“This is a team that will be right there come December in the NFC playoff picture,” said Rudolph. “These NFC games in the second half of the season kind of count for double because you get a win and you keep them from getting a win. Once it gets down to crunch time in late December these games are the ones that you go back and you look at and say, ‘Could’ve got that one, or won this one.’ These NFC games are the ones that usually decide that.”