What a difference a few months can make. There was a time not that long ago when all was great in Viking Land. Minnesota was signing key free agents left and right, and the Green Bay Packers looked primed to lose their superstar quarterback. The path to division supremacy seemed to be paved with glitter and gold for the purple.
Now, things look very different with less than a week and a half to go before the Cincinnati Bengals game.
A happy and healthy Aaron Rodgers appears ready to outdo last year’s MVP season. Meanwhile, Minnesota is dealing with crucial injuries at important positions, the league’s lowest vaccination rate, and everything that goes with the Kirk Cousins experience.
In March and April, anyone in their right mind would’ve made Minnesota division favorites. Today they are +280 underdogs. And some don’t even think they have that good of a shot.
On his NBC sports show, Mike Florio (a closet Vikings fan) painted a grim picture for anyone in the NFC North not named the Packers. Responding to a guest who was stating his lack of belief in the rest of the division’s chances to compete with a Green Bay, Florio said:
I think that would be the most stunning upset out of any division title of this year. I think the Packers win it in a walk. They’re 26-6 under Matt LaFleur, and I know they have issues with the offensive line. [It’s] not as good as it was last year, and they lost Corey Linsley. But they still have Aaron Rodgers, and I think Aaron Rodgers is as motivated this year as he was last year to have a big season and eventually walk off into the sunset.
Seems a bit overly dramatic, especially in a league where Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs still exist. But maybe he’s right. Let’s look at both sides of the argument.
Why Florio might be right
Cousins has been a divisive figure since the moment he put on a purple jersey. But this off-season has been something different.
His refusal to get vaccinated has clearly created tension between here and the head coach. With Zimmer in a make-or break-year, it would be easy to argue that that tension could play a major role this season. If Cousins were to contract COVID late in a week, he would miss two games.
After failing to give up nothing to get someone like Gardner Minshew, Minnesota has nothing to have confidence in behind Kirk. With one of the toughest schedules in the league, two games without their starting quarterback could quickly sink the season.
Beyond all the COVID concerns, there is the very real possibility of poor play. The first six games of 2020 were the worst stretch of Cousins’ career, with horrible turnovers all over the field. If he comes close to going through anything like that this year, the Vikings have no chance, and Green Bay will cruise to a division title.
The left tackle
The Riley Reiff release is looking worse by the day. Christian Darrisaw has already had two surgeries, and even if he is ready to go early in the season, there’s no reason to believe that a rookie left tackle will be ready to step in and be effective. His backup, Rashod Hill, is a very good reserve tackle. But that appears to be at. He struggled in the preseason against a rookie when he was lined up with Kwity Paye and didn’t hold his own against the Kansas City Chiefs’ second unit.
Cousins has some of the worst pocket awareness of any talented quarterback in this league, and the Vikings have no shot if Hill and Darrisaw can’t keep him clean.
The one-year deal veterans
Patrick Peterson, Everson Griffen, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Bashaud Breeland were all great names when they were being signed. There’s reason to have hope for each of them. There’s also reason to be concerned that they won’t all have the sort of year we hope they will. If two or three of these guys struggle and turn out to be over the hill, the defense might be in a tougher position than we think it is.
Why Florio might be wrong
The interior offensive line
For what feels like 1000 years now, the Vikings’ interior offense of line has been absolute trash. But boy, oh boy, did Oli Udoh look great in the preseason. Ezra Cleveland continues to do his job. If both of these guys are who they look like they are, it will finally give us the chance to see what Garrett Bradbury is all about. For the first time in forever, the Vikings might have a solid interior offensive line, and Kirk might have the chance to sit back and make some decisions without pressure right up the middle and in his face.
Justin Jefferson gets even better
We all know this might be a good offense. If Justin Jefferson takes a big step forward, it might be a great offense. He had one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history for a wide receiver. What’s to stay that he won’t be considered one of the best receivers in the league by the end of the season? If Jefferson improves on that level and is paired with Dalvin Cook and the still very dynamic Adam Thielen, this will be an offense that can give any team fits.
It’s not the sort of offense that the Packers could easily walk away from to a division title.
Some new wrinkles in the defense
With the addition of many new toys, Andre Patterson will likely be a mad scientist in his lab this season. With three very good defensive tackles, an all-world end, and the very familiar Everson Griffen, he and Zimmer might cook up things that make life a living hell for opposing offenses.
There’s precedence for this. Think of Zimmer‘s unique approach to the New Orleans Saints game with his defensive line. If Minnesota can get all these guys playing well and start doing unique and innovative things with them, they should keep opposing offenses in check. At the very least, they should keep the Packers within arms reach.
Things certainly won’t be as easy in the NFC North this season as we thought they might be a few months ago, but Vikings fans shouldn’t be ready to just hand the crown to the Green Bay Packers, as Florio suggests. This year has boom or bust potential for the purple, and only time will tell which direction it goes.