5. Danielle Hunter is great but probably not this great.
With Everson Griffen missing most of the first half and Brian Robison released, the Vikings have essentially relied on the 24-year-old Hunter to serve as their pass rush. The results have been spectacular. He leads the league with 11.5 sacks in nine games, and the former third-round pick is on pace to top 20 sacks this season. No other Minnesota player has racked up more than three sacks.
Hunter has managed to do this while knocking down the quarterback only 15 times. History tells us that pass-rushers typically rack up sacks about 45 percent of the time they take down the quarterback, and players who veer dramatically from that sack percentage tend to regress toward it over a longer period of time. Before 2018, Hunter had racked up 25.5 sacks on 39 knockdowns, which is more than you would expect given the 45 percent measure, but not quite this extreme of a total. By the 45 percent mark, we would estimate that Hunter should have just under seven sacks so far, not 11.5.
The good news for the Vikings is that the rest of the pass rush should help to counteract a potential Hunter drop-off. The trio of Griffen, Sheldon Richardson and Stephen Weatherly have combined for only seven sacks on 28 knockdowns when that number would typically create something closer to 12.6 sacks. One of the more obvious outliers in this same category would also benefit Minnesota, as Bears pass-rusher Khalil Mack has five sacks on only four knockdowns this season. Given that Mack racked up 22 knockdowns last season, though, it seems likely he'll up his underlying hit rate once he returns from an ankle injury
7. The NFC North is up for grabs.
FPI feels quite confident that the Lions, who have a 1.7 percent shot of winning the division, are out of the NFC North race. Otherwise, it's open. The 5-3 Bears are unsurprisingly the FPI leaders, with a 46.1 percent shot, but the Vikings are right behind them at 37.0 percent, with the Packers lurking at 15.3 percent. There's close to a 50 percent chance of this division sending two teams to the postseason, but the division title is still too close to call.
As someone who thought the Bears were among the most likely teams in football to improve even before the Khalil Mack trade, I'm not surprised to see Chicago taking a leap to the top of the division. The Bears have been better in close games. Their interception rate, the fourth lowest in the league a year ago, has spiked to the league's second-best rate so far this season. Their offense has been healthier and flashed stretches of impressive play. The Bears are for real.
The problem is that they're about to face a lot more real teams, too. The Bears faced FPI's easiest schedule over the first nine weeks. From here, they'll face the 11th-toughest slate of opponents. Chicago gets a home-and-home with the Vikings, a rematch against the Packers, and a home game against the Rams. Their road schedule is otherwise pretty modest -- trips to play the Lions, Giants and 49ers -- but the Bears already have lost to the Packers and Dolphins on the road, and needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Cardinals in Arizona. Taking those three winnable road games and going .500 at home should be enough to push the Bears into the postseason.
The Vikings, who were on the list of six teams most likely to decline, already can't match their 13-3 mark from a year ago. What's far worse is that they also have to worry about their schedule getting tougher; FPI says that they're about to jump from the third-easiest schedule to the league's sixth-toughest slate. Four of Minnesota's final seven games are on the road, and that schedule includes a brutal four-game stretch after the bye: The Vikings travel to play the Bears, face the Packers at home, head to Foxborough to play the Patriots, and finish up with a Monday night game in Seattle.
The Packers seem out of it at 3-4-1, and even that seems like a stretch. Their three wins include a 22-0 home victory over the Bills and a pair of frantic fourth-quarter home comebacks with no margin for error over the Bears and 49ers. As you can probably infer, the Packers are 0-4 on their travels away from Lambeau Field, losing those games by an average of 9.5 points.
The good news is that their schedule is actually about to get easier. Green Bay's scheduled ranked 18th in the league so far, but those road games were brutal. Those four losses came against three-first place teams (the Rams, Patriots and Washington) and a fourth against the Lions in the game in which Mason Crosby was replaced by a fan and missed five kicks. The Packers lost all three of their fumbles in that game. Fate wanted the Packers to lose.
From Week 10 on, the Packers have the league's fifth-easiest schedule. Their road schedule actually doesn't get much easier outside of a trip to play the Jets, given that they still have to travel to play the Bears, Seahawks and Vikings, but their home slate is extremely friendly: They'll face the Dolphins, Cardinals, Falcons and Lions in the Crosby Revenge Game come Week 17. If the Packers do make a run into the postseason, it'll probably come from a clean sweep of those home games.
< Message edited by SoMnFan -- 11/8/2018 9:13:51 AM >