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In the race for the postseason, two current Wild Card teams in the NFC are meeting head-to-head in Florida on Sunday. The 6-6 Minnesota Vikings, winners of five of their last six games and owners of the final playoff seed, visit the 7-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have dropped their last two games and aim to stay in their current position as the six-seed with a win.
Here is a preview of Sunday's game between the Vikings and Buccaneers, complete with a free pick. Currently, Tampa Bay is a solid 6.5-point favorite at home.
After a trip to the NFC Divisional round, the Vikings entered the fall hopeful of becoming a solid playoff team once again. Instead, a young defense struggled mightily to open the season, resulting in five losses in their first six games. However, the start of November brought change to Minnesota, as their upset victory in Green Bay against the Packers jump-started a streak of three straight division wins, as well as recent victories against the Panthers and Jaguars.
While they have gotten solid play from quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Vikings are getting excellent seasons from running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. The first two have been especially great, as Cook is already at 1,250 rushing yards, and Jefferson has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in his rookie campaign.
As a team, Minnesota's offense is averaging 26.6 points per game, 12th in the NFL, while averaging the sixth-most yards with just under 402. They have generally been more effective running the ball thanks to Cook, averaging the sixth-most rushing yards with 145.7, compared to a 16th-rated passing game of 244 yards. They are also top-10 with a 43.6 percent success rate of third downs.
Defensively, this is a young unit that has improved as the season has gone on, but still has a ways to go. The Vikings are 26th with 27.4 points per game, as well as 23rd with 392 yards allowed. They have struggled primarily against the pass, sitting 26th with close to 262 passing yards allowed per game. They also have just 21 sacks as a team, tied for the sixth-fewest in football. However, they have a solid 11 interceptions, and have the sixth-best third-down defense as well.
No team entered the 2020 season with more hype than the Bucs. The additions of quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski to an offense that had several blue-chip pieces, plus a defense on the cusp of breaking out, led some to look at Tampa Bay as a possible Super Bowl contender.
Things looked good to start for the Buccaneers, who won three of their first four games and six of their first eight. Among those that stood out were back-to-back blowouts against the Packers and at the Raiders. But over the last month, the Bucs have failed to play up to some of the league's best, getting annihilated by the Saints and losing back-to-back 27-24 games to the Rams and Chiefs at home.
The pieces are there, with Brady at 3,300 yards, running back Ronald Jones at 820 rushing yards, and wideout Mike Evans over 600 yards as well. It is now about ending strong and regaining momentum heading into January.
For the season, Tampa Bay is sixth with 28.7 points per game, but come in just 19th in the NFL with about 371 yards per game. There's a big difference with their passing and running yards, coming in 10th with 266 passing yards but also averaging fewer than 100 yards on the ground despite a strong season from Jones. They are also 13th with a 43 percent third-down conversion rate.
On the other side, Tampa's defense is strong in several areas. They are within the top-10 in yards allowed per game with 350, aided by the league's best run defense. They allow 23.3 points per game, 11th in the NFL, and sit 16th in third-down defense. In addition to run defense, the Bucs also excel at rushing the quarterback, earning 34 sacks as a team to go along with an elite 14 interceptions.
For the Vikings, their 6-6 record against the spread matches their 6-6 record overall. But their play on the road is much better, going 4-1 ATS away from Minneapolis. Against the Bucs, Minnesota is 2-6 both straight up and ATS in their last eight meetings. However, they are 12-3 straight up over their previous 15 games against the NFC South.
As for the Buccaneers, their 6-6 record ATS is slightly worse than their 7-5 overall record. They are also 3-3, both straight up and ATS. As mentioned earlier, the Bucs have dominated against the Vikings in their recent history. But they have struggled against Minnesota's division, going 4-10 ATS in their last 14 games against the NFC North.
Among other things, this game will come down to how Cook fares against the league's best run defense. When Cook is playing well, the Vikings usually succeed, so his day may determine whether Minnesota gets the victory.
However, I like the Bucs to rebound in a big way. After facing a couple of the league's toughest teams and playing them close, I like Brady to pick apart one of the weaker secondaries in football. Add in the extra rest coming off of the bye week, and I like Tampa Bay to win by a touchdown or more.
Betting Pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-6.5).