Welcome back to the Four Verts column! Amari Cooper became the hero of the week, his old team looks like a legitimate contender and the Jets are sitting on a potentially explosive quarterback situation.
How good are the Minnesota Vikings?
The Vikings find themselves, again, in a weird spot. They’re top dog in the NFC North, the only team with a positive point differential in the division and sit at 6-1 with the second overall playoff seed in the NFC. Yet they're still being treated with cautious optimism.
Perhaps this is because we’ve seen this story before, a talented Vikings team that plays well in the regular season before failing to reach their ultimate goal of a Super Bowl run or even making it to the playoffs. So it begs the question: How good are they?
The football purist in me has a hard time qualifying any team that can win six games to open the season as “bad,” but this team hasn’t been as convincing as the Philadelphia Eagles and they don’t have a singularly dominant unit like the Dallas Cowboys do. In fact, they’re a pretty average team as far as expected points added per play is concerned. According to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, the Vikings rank 13th on offense (0.037) and 17th on defense (0.009). Consider the fact all of their wins since Week 1 have been within one score. This is a team that’s figuring out ways to win games without blowing out their opponents, which is a good thing because multi-score blowouts aren’t all that common in the NFL.
It makes their playoff projection a bit muddy though. They’re on track to host a playoff game in January and that will make their path a bit easier, even if they're not an overwhelming team. What they do have is a bunch of top-shelf talent that can take over any game and give them a chance to win against most opponents.
Justin Jefferson might be the best wide receiver in football. Dalvin Cook has been an elite back for some time now. Adam Thielen is still a quality No. 2 receiver and the defense still has Danielle Hunter chasing down quarterbacks. It’s a fragile approach held together by superstars, but having these players gives the Vikings a chance to beat any team in the postseason. The formula that they’ve used to survive has a chance to work in the playoffs because the top of the Vikings’ roster is still as good as you’ll find in the sport.
They might not be a great team, but these Vikings should be considered a good team even if their performance week-to-week is a little bit inconsistent on either side of the ball. Players win games and the Vikings have a damn good collection of stars. Their record screams title contender, but the performance is closer to a feisty team figuring out how to put wins on the board. That’s a good place to be in Kevin O’Connell’s first year as head coach and play-caller.
And when you get to the postseason, who knows? Weirder things have happened than a team with an elite receiver, running back and solid offensive line making a deep run into the playoffs. Kirk Cousins is the real wild card as far as Super Bowl hopes go, but the Vikings as currently constructed are still a threat to any team they face.
New York Jets need to be careful with this Zach Wilson situation
Head coach Robert Saleh came out with a vote of confidence for his young quarterback after Zach Wilson got dunked on by the New England Patriots' defense in a 22-17 loss on Sunday. Saleh stated that he and the Jets believe in Wilson and that, barring injury, he would be the starter for the remainder of the season.
In a vacuum, that’s the sensible decision. The Jets are still trying to figure out if Wilson can be their long-term franchise quarterback, a proposition that seems more unlikely by the week, but 18 career starts probably isn’t enough time to know if he can fulfill the lofty expectations of a second overall draft pick.
However, the Jets have some responsibility to live in the moment and realize that this team has been winning games without Wilson's help. The Jets are 4-1 in games where Wilson has been the starter and currently 5-3. If the season were to end today, the Jets would hold the fifth seed in the AFC’s playoff race and head to Baltimore. There’s still a lot to play for this season!
If Wilson’s play doesn’t dramatically improve, the Jets could fall out of the playoff race. Catching up with Buffalo this season is extremely unlikely, but this is a team that’s in playoff contention as the halfway mark of the season approaches. Wilson ranks 30th in expected points added per play this season (-0.076). Asking a defense, even a quality one like the Jets have, to carry the load for the remainder of the season is tough in today’s NFL. Wilson is going to need to play better, there’s no getting around that. The Jets have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season and the biggest roadblock they face is the quarterback position.
Saleh should be careful with the words he uses about their commitment to Wilson, but the Jets also don’t have many options to put in place of Wilson if his poor performance continues. Joe Flacco is ranked 32nd in expected points added per play this year (-0.090) and Mike White is closer to a high-quality backup than legitimate starter. Perhaps White would be a steadier hand than Wilson right now, but it’s not like many people view him as having the real deal upside to be a starting quarterback in this league.
The Jets are stuck in a tough position between needing to cherish this moment while also looking out for the future. Wilson is the priority here, but they might want to be careful with how long his leash is just so they don’t end up burning one of the best starts they’ve had in a long time.
Amari Cooper saw his moment to be a hero
Amari Cooper had the play of the week during the Cleveland Browns’ Monday night blowout win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Cooper was supposed to throw a pass on a trick play to try and catch the Bengals off-guard for a big game. Instead, Cooper gifted us one of the great football follies of all time.
Upon receiving the ball in the backfield, Cooper was immediately swarmed by Bengals. While he was being wrestled to the ground, Cooper saw it: his moment to be the hero. A moment that would live on forever in the pantheon of his NFL highlights. The elusive completion on a deep pass that every wide receiver would love to have. Cooper threw the ball as he was falling to the ground. The ball traveled through the air like the episode of "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" where Carlton shoots the full-court shot — and Cooper was handed a similar result.
— NFL (@NFL) November 1, 2022
The pass was not even close. The ball landed about 100 yards short from the intended target and was easily intercepted. True gamers have to respect the play that Cooper pulled off. Go out guns blazing, like true champions do. Taking a sack or throwing the ball away isn’t a memorable highlight. Go big or go home. Cooper definitely went home on the play, but his efforts will never be forgotten by people like me who love to peruse NFL blooper reels.
That pass was the first, and likely last, of Cooper’s career, leaving him with a perfect 100% interception rate. These are the moments that remind us that the imperfections of football breathe life into the game. Thank you, Amari Cooper, for your service and sacrifice for the greater good (the entertainment of millions).
Dallas Cowboys are contenders with Dak Prescott back
Cowboys fans had been holding their breath to see how Dak Prescott would perform coming off a thumb injury that sidelined him for the start of the season. Backup QB Cooper Rush did just enough with an elite defense to stack up wins, leaving the Cowboys in great shape for Prescott to come back and take over for a potential deep playoff run. So far, that appears to be exactly what’s happening. The defense is still one of the most feared units in the league (even after struggling a bit against a re-imagined Bears offense) and Prescott has hit the ground running the two games he has been back from injury.
Prescott has completed 76.9% of his passes and is averaging 8.8 yards per attempt over the past two games. Granted, they were against the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears, but that’s still top-tier production for a player getting paid to produce at a top-tier level. The Cowboys have scored 73 points and their offense is suddenly taking off, readjusting their expectations for the rest of the season.
The Eagles are still the top dog in the NFC, and maybe the league, but the Cowboys have to be considered among the few NFC contenders with the way the season has unfolded. The Cowboys, Eagles and San Francisco 49ers probably have the most talent top to bottom on that side of the conference, and the way Prescott is playing only solidifies the Cowboys’ chances to be the team that represents the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Prescott’s play gives the Cowboys one of the strongest quarterback situations in the conference. He has a stronger track record than the quarterbacks of the Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks and New York Giants — the other teams that currently hold NFC playoff seeds. If the Cowboys can stay the course and make the playoffs, they have a legitimate chance to make a run. This team played the Eagles tough in Philly a few weeks ago and would have fared much better if they just had league-average quarterback play for that game.
Prescott gives them something much more explosive than that and he appears to be at the peak of his powers again. If there was any year for Prescott to shut up the haters and go on a deep playoff run, this would be the year. The stars are aligned, minus the fact that they’ll likely be on the road to start the playoffs because the Eagles have a stranglehold on the NFC East with a head-to-head win against the Cowboys. Regardless, this is a Cowboys team that has a new lease on the 2022 season because of how well Prescott has played since returning.