Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 8:50 AM
NBC was certainly hoping that Sunday Night’s Minnesota Vikings-Chicago Bears matchup was going to feature at least one playoff contender. As it stands now, both are longshots to make the playoffs. Frankly, it would be a surprise if either team became a contender.
Here are the current NFC North standings:
Green Bay 5-0
Before any games are played this week, Chicago is three games out of a Wildcard spot with losses to both teams in front of them. Minnesota is four games out of the Wildcard spot with a loss to Detroit…and little hope of taking down Green Bay twice in head-to-head matchups.
Minnesota may be better than its 1-4 record. They have lost a few close games. Chicago may have endured a tough early schedule, with their losses coming to the two undefeateds plus New Orleans. But…once a hole is dug, it’s hard to get out of. And, tonight’s LOSER will be looking at near certain burial.
The good news for fans, bettors, and even NBC is that two teams playing for their seasons may fight tooth and nail all night to survive. That makes this a great game to handicap. So, let’s crunch some numbers!
We’re deep enough into the season now that many of our favorite indicator stats have meaningful sample sizes. You longtime readers will recognize these categories. You newcomers will pick things up quickly.
Minnesota: 11.4 on offense, 7.0 on defense
Chicago: 8.8 on offense, 17.4 on defense
These are points scored or allowed per game on drives of 60 yards or more. Over the years, we’ve become convinced that this is the single best indicator stat in all of sports. Not just football, ALL of sports! Nothing tells you more about a team in terms of what really matters than this stat. Offenses have to drive the field to score. Defenses must prevent opponents from doing so.
Minnesota clearly has a big edge here. Those of you who scan the internet for computer assessments of NFL teams have probably noticed that many statheads think Minnesota is much better than its 1-4 record. This is why. They’re doing very well in what matters, only to find a way to blow the game late with a costly mistake. Typically, particularly with veteran teams, that stuff averages out over time and the indicator stats prove meaningful.
Frankly, Chicago has the stats of a cupcake. There are extenuating circumstances because they’ve played a tough schedule. The two games we haven’t mentioned yet were wins over last year’s #1 seed Atlanta and intriguing newcomer Carolina. Maybe if the Bears had played the Colts or the Rams or somebody, their stats wouldn’t look so bad. Still, it’s worth noting that Chicago is badly outclassed by quality at the moment.
Chicago is the home team…but is currently favored by less than a field goal even though they have a better record vs. a tougher schedule. What you see in this stat explains why a segment of the betting market liked the Vikings. It’s worth noting that a 7.0 mark on defense in this stat is AMAZING considering the scoring explosion we’ve seen this season. Detroit ranked second best defensively of the teams on the field this week at 7.2 Drive Points allowed per game. Baltimore was at 8.5. Anything under 10 is GREAT, and under 12 is pretty good given the wide open play we’ve seen thus far.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Minnesota: 35% on offense, 45% on defense
Chicago: 29% on offense, 36% on defense
And, what you see right here is why that dog money may have to sweat the finish! Minnesota has been poor on third downs this year on both sides of the ball. McNabb isn’t moving the chains on offense despite his veteran moxie. Obviously this has been a particularly bad problem in second halves when they were blowing leads. Unreported by the media this year has been Minnesota’s poor third down defense. It’s not ONLY McNabb who’s falling apart in second halves!
That gives us a confusing combo. Minnesota’s defense isn’t letting teams drive the field for points…but they are letting teams move the chains. That’s going to get more in line eventually…either with the third down number falling…or the Drive Point data rising.
Jay Cutler’s numbers have been abysmal this year in many areas. It’s fair to blame the offensive line for a lot of that. And, anybody who wants to say Mike Martz is way past his prime won’t get any argument from us. Whatever the cause, 29% on third downs is ridiculously bad. The good news for Chicago is that their own defense may get a lot of stops against that inconsistent Minnesota offense.
Minnesota +3 (7 takeaways, 4 giveaways)
Chicago +3 (8 takeaways, 5 giveaways)
Good news here for both teams in terms of the risk/reward ratio. Both defenses have a knack for hitting people and taking the ball away. Those are fairly sharp offensive numbers through five games too. If you make just one turnover a game on offense…you’re getting the job done.
The bad news? These teams are a combined 3-7 even with positive turnover differentials!
With a more even distribution, things might be even bleaker.
What does all of this mean in terms of handicapping the game?
*These teams truly are pretty evenly matched…and Minnesota may in fact be the slightly better team even though they have a worse record. The Vegas opening line made sense…and it’s not a surprise that early smart money preferred the Vikings.
*Though either team may be capable of playing a great game against a playoff caliber opponent, neither currently looks like a playoff team themselves. Minnesota’s only highlight came at home against a very shaky visitor from Arizona. Otherwise they were playing coin flips. Chicago caught its share of good luck last year. Luck doesn’t last forever.
*The key factor in determining the spread may come from behind-the-scenes information rather than math. If Chicago’s players are sick of Martz or Cutler, then this is going to be a long season that goes down tubes…probably taking much of the coaching staff with it. If Minnesota found themselves as a team last week vs. Arizona…this may be the game that launches them from mediocrity to at least somebody that opponents have to worry about.
On the other hand…do you want to trust the Vikings to win a bet for you based on their second half performances this year in close games?
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