We’ve all had a few days to consume the interim 2020 NFL schedule and form some initial impressions. Note: I choose to employ the “interim” tag until we have a better sense of whether there will actually be an NFL season – full, partial or delayed – in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the sake of this article, however, let’s assume that things go as planned, a complete season is played and things start on time. Whether there will be any fans allowed in the stands is another story – one that could make a big difference. More on that in a moment.
As far as the Vikings are concerned, the schedule-makers gave them a solid bye-week placement in late October prior to traveling to Green Bay for a game against the Packers on Nov. 1. An extra week of preparation and healing before playing your chief rival on their soon-to-be-frozen tundra? That’s a good thing for Mike Zimmer’s squad. The Packers will be in Houston playing the Texans while the Vikings are resting in Week 7.
Secondly, that Green Bay game is one of only two that have a good chance of being played in cold weather. The other is the Monday night game on Nov. 16 in Chicago. That’s it. The Sunday night game in Seattle on Oct. 11 could be a little chilly, but the rest of the games will be played either indoors or in warm climates. If you subscribe to the dubious narrative that the team as a whole has gone soft in terms of playing in cold weather since leaving Metropolitan Stadium behind in 1981, this aspect of the schedule is also advantageous.
The third thing that jumps out about the Vikings’ schedule isn’t so favorable: This slate of road opponents is going to be a significant challenge.
The home schedule is anything but ominous. The initial Las Vegas odds had the Vikings posted as 3.5-point favorites over the Packers in Week 1, and that might turn out to be the smallest point spread you’ll get on a Vikings home game this season. Provided all the key players stay healthy for the most part – always the biggest caveat – there’s no reason to think the Vikings won’t be favored in every home game this season. They might even run the table at U.S. Bank Stadium.
That road schedule, though…
Let’s turn to Vegas again for a general sense of how daunting the Vikings’ away games appear to be. Following the NFL schedule release, teamrankings.com averaged the over/under win totals across all the Vegas sportsbooks. The Vikings came in at an O/U of 8.75. By comparison, the average O/U win total for the Vikings’ seven toughest road opponents is 8.90.
That average does not include their Week 17 game at Ford Field against the Detroit Lions, who have a 6.63 average projected win total. In stark contrast to the Vikings’ home schedule, that Lions game could be the only road game in which the Vikings are favored this season. What’s more, it’s a Week 17 game so anything could happen. It could carry enormous playoff implications or it could be a meaningless contest in which one or both teams rest their best players.
Even if they hold serve at U.S. Bank Stadium and win every home game, their success away from home will determine whether they make the postseason. Under Zimmer, the Vikings have not made the playoffs with a losing record on the road and have made the playoffs every season they have not had a sub-.500 road record.
The Vikings might be underdogs in every road game this season. We can’t rule it out. Setting aside the Vegas O/U for win totals, let’s take a glance at all eight away games.
They go to Indianapolis in Week 2 to face a Colts squad with a loaded offensive line that will provide Philip Rivers time to get the ball to a refurbished set of skill position players. That won’t be an easy one.
In Week 4 they travel to Houston to take on a Texans team that Bill O’Brien is seemingly trying to ruin. Yet the Texans won the AFC South the last two seasons and have won 11 of their past 16 home games.
On paper, those will be the Vikings’ two easiest road games until they go to Motown for the season finale.
Following the pair of AFC South road games is the aforementioned Week 5 Sunday night game in Seattle, where they never ever play well. Without even looking it up, I can tell you with some degree of certainty that the Vikings are 0-10 in their last 10 road games against the Seahawks and all of the games were in prime time and the average score was 57-3. At least that’s how it feels.
On the topic of whether fans will be allowed to attend NFL games this season, it sure would help the Vikings’ cause if this game wasn’t played in front of any fans, or in front of a limited crowd. The Seahawks thrive in front of the raucous “12th man” at CenturyLink Field. It’s one of the league’s biggest home-field advantages.
After attempting to snap their losing streak in Seattle, the Vikings travel to Lambeau in Week 8 for a game that will go a long way toward deciding the NFC North. It’s sure to include at least one missed field goal by the Vikings as well as one Vikings touchdown called back on a phantom penalty. The game is also just as likely to end in a Vikings win as it is a tie. Minnesota is 2-6-2 in its last 10 trips to Lambeau.
Two weeks later, the Vikings are in Chicago for a Week 10 game against a Bears team that always gives the Vikings fits at Soldier Field. The Vikings have lost 12 of their past 14 games in the Windy City.
And then, just to top things off on the Vikings’ road gauntlet, three of their final four games come on the road:
- At Tampa Bay in Week 14 against Tom Brady, Gronk, an elite wide receiver duo and apparently every former Minnesota Golden Gopher.
- Christmas Day in New Orleans against a Saints team that already has this game circled on the locker room calendar – and not just because Santa brings presents that day.
- The weird Week 17 game against the Lions that may or may not mean anything.
Closing the season with three of the last four away from home when they could be battling for a playoff berth will be a grueling test.
Will the Vikings go winless on the road for only the fourth time in their history? Eh, probably not.
It should be noted that the last time the Vikings went winless on the road was 2013, the final season with Leslie Frazier as head coach. The time before that was 2001 when Denny Green was replaced by Mike Tice prior to Week 17. This has probably already been brought to Zimmer’s attention.
One last purple glimmer of hope: The Packers’ road schedule might even be a smidge tougher than the Vikings’ slate. The Pack also faces the Colts, Texans, Bears, Lions, Buccaneers and Saints. But instead of traveling to Seattle, they go to San Francisco for a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship in which the 49ers pummeled them, 37-20.