No fan had this in mind when the season started. The Vikings sit below .500, third in the NFC North with a point differential of minus-20. Not exactly a banner start for one of the league’s most talented teams.

Some solace: the last two years, the Vikings of the first four weeks were not the Vikings that the season ultimately yielded. In 2016, Minnesota started off hot, winning their first five. They finished .500 and missed the postseason. And last year, well, a 2-2 start with a backup quarterback had fans calling for Teddy Bridgewater. Yet, they went 11-1 the rest of the way, clinching the second seed in the NFC and falling one game shy of the Super Bowl.

At 1-2-1, Minnesota is far from buried. The passing game looks as good as it has looked in years. And frankly, the NFC North is not exactly appearing the buzz saw that many expected. Truth be told, only the Bears have played like Super Bowl contenders through four games, and they are, to a degree, at the mercy of their inconsistent quarterback. So the division is still completely wide open.

The conference is in similar shape. True, the Rams look like the class of the league. But behind them, who fills the heart with fear? The aforementioned Bears and the Saints, talented but flawed teams, are 3-1. Washington and Carolina are 2-1 coming off a bye, and the Packers are 2-1-1 while their star quarterback is mad at everyone. Every other team is either .500 or below. The Buccaneers and Falcons have looked like  Super Bowl offenses, yet are 2-2 and 1-3, respectively. The defending champion Eagles have played lackluster two straight weeks against AFC South opponents.

The point is that nothing at all is certain this point (other than maybe the Rams being really, really good).

For the Vikings, the next five games heading into the bye should push them back to .500 at least. Traveling to Philadelphia is tough, but as said before, the Eagles are struggling to find their form. Then they have bottom-feeders at home against Arizona and in New York for the Jets. After that, there is a tough opponent with the Saints, but it will be at U.S. Bank Stadium where, twice last season, the Vikings took care of business. Then they host the Lions, a team who has sort of had their number recently, but has some of the worst losses in the league this year.

None of those can be considered gimmes, given that Buffalo traveled to Minnesota and dismantled the Vikings as soon as they stepped off the bus. But with the way the Vikings played in Los Angeles, they seem to be back on track, at least offensively. So if they upright themselves by bye week, they will be in good position for perhaps the toughest part of their schedule.

Weeks 11 through 14, they are in Chicago, at home against Green Bay, at New England and at Seattle. Who knows; all of those teams could be completely different then how they look now. But that is the ominous section of the schedule, and one that will have lasting playoff implications. The final three games are a little lighter, but not much: at home against Miami, at Detroit and home against Chicago.

So the seven post-bye games are not exactly easy pickings. All the more reason why the Vikings have to take advantage of this five-game stretch they have coming up. Realistically, they will probably need to pull out at least four wins over those five. That would mean they would likely have to win five of the last seven in order to make the playoffs. Not an easy task, but certainly not impossible either.

When it comes down to it, the Vikings have put themselves in a moderate hole with the Buffalo loss. But the other three games did not have unexpected results, so they are not too far off track. Their schedule is tough sledding, to be sure. But Super Bowl contending teams wins tough games. And even as a sub-.500 team, the Vikings are still supposed to be a Super Bowl contender.

–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and

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