NFL Audit — Vikings proving to be plucky underdogs

Teddy-Bridgewater-102714-getty-FTR.jpg

Welcome to “The Audit,” our recap of the week that was in the NFL from a point-spread perspective and a look at the week ahead, with an emphasis on the lessons, observations and trends needed to pick future winners.

In praise of … the Vikings?

A handicapper exploring the full NFL card will encounter unpleasantness. Some bad teams will come across the radar. The point spread, like stink bait for catfish, will be set to entice.

Consider the Jaguars, who were 6.5-point home underdogs Sunday vs. Miami.

In some ways, Jacksonville played well enough to cover, and perhaps even pull off the victory. The Jaguars outgained the Dolphins 377-326, won time of possession, and they limited Miami to one offensive touchdown.

However, the Jaguars were done in by miscues. Quarterback Blake Bortles was intercepted twice for touchdowns, and a fumble set up a Miami field goal. One Jacksonville field goal was blocked, and another made field goal was rendered null-and-void by a penalty. In five first-half trips into Miami territory, Jacksonville came away with a grand total of three points.

In the end, the Dolphins pulled clear for a 24-13 victory, surely leaving some Jaguars backers swearing off Jacksonville for the rest of the season. The defeat dropped the Jaguars — underdogs in every game this season — to 1-7 overall and 2-6 against the number.

But not all underdogs are completely hopeless, and it’s here we stop to give a nod to the 3-5 Vikings, who knocked off the favored Buccaneers Sunday in Tampa.

With the 19-13 overtime victory, the Vikings improved to 4-3 against the number as underdogs. Only Kansas City (4-1) has covered as many times as an underdog. Also, all three of Minnesota’s straight-up wins have been as underdogs. 

The Vikings have clear limitations. Their offense lacks punch and struggles to protect quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. If the Vikings fall behind early, they are very much compromised. Four of Minnesota’s five defeats have been by double-digits.

Nevertheless, Minnesota has proven itself to be a reasonable play against less-than-elite competition. The Vikings’ covers have come against the Rams, Falcons, Bills and Buccaneers; of that group, only Buffalo (5-3) has a winning record.

The Vikings’ remaining schedule appears favorable, with matchups vs. Green Bay (Nov. 23) and at Detroit (Dec. 14) the tallest orders. A playoff run is rather unlikely for Minnesota, but how about posting a winning point-spread record in the second half of the campaign? That’s not out of the question.

Two winners who are tough to take in Week 9

1. Cleveland (vs. Tampa Bay). While the Browns (-7) managed to win and cover against Oakland on Sunday, they did so converting just 2-of-12 third downs. Cleveland was outgained 387-306 by Oakland, which held the ball for nearly 35 minutes. Credit the Browns for turning three turnovers into 17 points in a 23-13 victory, but they were hardly overpowering against Oakland, the NFL’s lone winless team. While the 1-6 Buccaneers aren’t much better than Oakland, they might be able to give the Browns a battle as 6.5-point underdogs in Week 9.

2. Pittsburgh (vs. Baltimore). In a 51-34 victory vs. the Colts on Sunday, the Steelers got an all-time performance from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns on 40-of-49 passing. With the win, the Steelers improved to 5-3, and they have been installed as 1.5-point favorites over visiting Baltimore next Sunday night. But it’s reasonable to wonder if the Steelers could have a tough time with the Ravens, who knocked off Pittsburgh 26-6 when the teams met in Baltimore in September. Roethlisberger’s fantastic play Sunday papered over a shaky performance by Pittsburgh’s defense, which allowed Indianapolis to rack up 448 yards in only 20:17 of possession.

Two losers who could bounce back in Week 9

1. San Diego (at Miami). Injuries are a concern for the Chargers, who will relish their Nov. 9 bye. However, they enter Sunday’s matchup at Miami with three extra days of rest after their Thursday night loss to the Broncos. In defeat, the Chargers didn’t play all that poorly against Denver, which is in better form than any other team at the moment. The Chargers’ overall résumé is quite strong, and they are dropping in class after games against the Chiefs (which defeated Miami by 19 in September) and the Broncos. The Dolphins started slowly against the Jaguars and would have been in trouble against better opposition. They will have to improve to win and cover the 2.5-point spread vs. San Diego.

2. Oakland (vs. Seattle). Why consider 0-7 Oakland? Well, for starters, the Raiders are getting 14.5 points. According to line database Spreadapedia, underdogs of at least 14.5 points are 88-65-3 against the number since 1978 (.575). Also, only one of Seattle’s four wins has been in excess of 14.5 points, with just two of Oakland’s seven defeats by more than that margin. The Raiders have been somewhat respectable since Tony Sparano took over as head coach and could be drawing the Seahawks at the right time. Seattle has not played to its Super Bowl-standard of late.

Five trends to know for the week ahead

1. Attention, money-line glory seekers: Since 1978, underdogs of 14.5 points or more are just 12-144 straight-up (.077).

2. John Fox-coached teams are 19-12-1 against the number (61.3 percent) and 24-8 overall (.750) as road favorites.

3. The Saints are 0-4-2 against the number and 3-3 straight-up on Thursdays in Sean Payton’s tenure.

4. Including the postseason, Tom Coughlin-coached teams are 15-7 straight-up (.682) and 12-10 against the number (.545) after a bye week.

5. The Cowboys are 0-3 straight-up and 1-2 against the number after a Monday night game under Jason Garrett.

Note: Point spread trend data is cited from the Spreadapedia database.

Sign up for The Linemakers’ free newsletter and follow us on Twitter.