Seemingly doomed by a freak season-ending injury to starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the loss of offensive linchpin and starting running back Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings have easily been the NFL’s biggest overachievers this season despite their status as reigning NFC North champs, but now that they’ve returned from their well-deserved week off, the true test of their talent begins.
Heading into Sunday’s game in Philadelphia against the 3-2 Eagles, Minnesota sits comfortably atop the NFC North thanks to a flawless 5-0 start consisting of victories over the Tennessee Titans [3-3], Green Bay Packers [4-2], Carolina Panthers [1-5], New York Giants [3-3], and Houston Texans [4-2].
Not exactly a glass-half-full kind of guy, Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer was quick to minimize his team’s early success while speaking to reporters after seven days of studying Minnesota’s five-game performance.
”There are a lot of things [we need to improve],” said Zimmer via ESPN. ”Some of the coverages we’re playing, we have to do a better job of. Offensively, we’ve got to limit minus plays—keeps putting us in difficult situations, and a lot of it is philosophical talk about five weeks too, which I’m not going to talk about.”
Through the first six weeks of the season, Minnesota’s first five opponents own a barely-mediocre combined mark of 15-15. But while the remaining 11 opponents on Minnesota’s schedule currently possess a combined record that’s even worse [28-33], the potential for trouble is much greater than it’s been thus far.
This Sunday’s game against Philadelphia is a good example of what the Vikings will be dealing with moving forward. At 3-2, the Eagles aren’t currently the class of the NFC East, but don’t be fooled by the fact that two of their three wins have come against the 0-6 Cleveland Browns and 1-6 Chicago Bears. Along with a 2-0 mark at home, the Eagles crushed the 4-2 Pittsburgh Steelers 34-3 in Week 3, and one of their two losses is a one-point loss at the 3-3 Detroit Lions, while the other was last week’s 27-20 affair at the 4-2 Washington Redskins.
After Sunday’s trip to Philly, the Vikings will be expected to take care of business in their second straight road game against the lowly Bears in Week 8, before heading home to host the offensively-dangerous Lions in a divisional match-up in Week 9. Unfortunately for this year’s version of ”The Purple People Eaters”, there won’t be much time to hang out at the homestead due to a Week 10 date in D.C. with the Redskins and their third road trip in four weeks.
Following their visit to the nation’s capital, the Vikings will then welcome another potentially-problematic opponent to the Twin Cities when the 3-3 Arizona Cardinals fly into town in Week 11. From there, Minnesota will play two of its next three games on the road with a Week 12 contest in Detroit, what’s expected to be a tough home game against the 5-1 Dallas Cowboys in Week 13, and a sunny trip south to face the 2-3 Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 14.
Finally, Minnesota will finish its season with a Week 15 home game against the Indianapolis Colts, a road trip to Lambeau Field seven days later, and another home game in the regular season finale against Chicago in Week 17.
Are the Eagles, Lions, Redskins, and Cardinals all locks to make the playoffs? Obviously not. But they’re not cellar-dwellers either, and all four have potentially-explosive offenses capable of unleashing their respective wrath at the slightest hint of a defensive misstep. As a defensively-driven team that’s playing without its top two offensive weapons, the Vikings are always on the brink of getting into a shootout they can’t win whenever the defense has a bad game.
Zimmer and the Vikes have a fairly good idea of what to expect when they square-off with Dallas at home in Week 13 and Green Bay on the road in Week 16—a four-quarter war against a pair of likely playoff participants. However, the same can’t be said for consecutive contests at Jacksonville and versus Indianapolis.
Unlike Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, and Arizona, Jacksonville and Indy aren’t seen as playoff contenders despite owning somewhat similar records. But in the same way that those four teams posses the offensive firepower to bury the Vikings if their defense is having an off-day, the Jags, who boast a trio of talented pass-catchers, and the Colts, who’ve scored at least 20 points in every game, could also turn a late-season ”gimme” into an afternoon nightmare.
As long as disaster doesn’t strike, Minnesota’s regular season finale versus Chicago on New Year’s Day should offer the division leaders a chance to rest anyone who needs it prior to playoffs. But despite leading the league in points allowed per game [12.6] and dominating each of their last three opponents, the Vikings may have a tougher road to the post-season than most expect.