In an effort to make all 365 days of the year an integral part of the NFL calendar, the schedule release has become another milestone for the league to build hype around.
And while we might be tempted to roll our eyes at an over-the-top presentation of something that could be handled by a single email, it’s undeniably exciting. Optimists can begin dreaming of deep playoff runs, viewing the schedule through purple-and-gold glasses. Pessimists can circle the prime-time games in anticipation of Kirk Cousins shrinking in the spotlight. And, of course, we can all debate the W’s and L’s and tweet our record predictions.
But seasons are more than just individual games in a vacuum, and they aren’t simulated like in Madden, either.
Seasons are often defined by key matchups that set the tone for the weeks following. Games with razor-thin margins defined the 2021 Vikings. That became apparent early with narrow losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals on the road in their first two games.
Fans are holding out for more hope in Kevin O’Connell’s first season leading the Purple, and for a team in transition like this one, a hot start can make a tremendous difference. The Vikings will have ample opportunity to make a major statement in three of their first four games.
Week 1: Season Opener vs. Green Bay
Welcome to Minnesota, Kevin. Now here’s your first Border Battle to get your feet wet.
The Vikings will open Kevin O’Connell’s inaugural season at home in U.S. Bank Stadium against their dreaded rivals in green and gold. The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota split last season, and both teams will be vying for supremacy in the division.
With Aaron Rodgers finally silencing the drama around his potential exit from Green Bay, the Packers locked in the future Hall of Famer for the near future. Not great for Minnesota.
They also traded Davante Adams. Now that’s much better.
Rodgers will be breaking in a totally revamped receiving corps with rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs while hoping veterans Allen Lazard and Sammy Watkins can generate decent production. None of these weapons should have Vikings fans shaking in their boots, but Minnesota may also be breaking in some new pieces in the secondary in players like Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth, not to mention a whole new defensive scheme.
From a personnel standpoint, though, Minnesota’s offensive continuity could be a difference-maker. While Rodgers rolls his eyes at a rookie for running a sloppy route on third-and-eight, Cousins has no excuse not to be locked in with Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen. The new-look Minnesota Moving Co. on the offensive line will be up for a tough test against a stout Green Bay defensive front. Still, there are plenty of reasons for optimism this season with the new pieces added to the interior.
The deciding factor will be how quickly new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell can install the new scheme and get his guys playing with confidence. If the defense can hold down Rodgers and the Green Bay offense, then Minnesota has an excellent chance of starting the season with a home win against their arch-rival to begin their new coach’s tenure.
Week 2: Monday Night Mayhem in Philly
Many Vikings fans still hold a grudge against the Philadelphia Eagles for deflating their Super Bowl dreams after the Minneapolis Miracle and against their fans for acting like the NFL’s scummiest fanbase afterward.
And these two squads could be in for another brawl on Monday night.
Philadelphia is well ahead of schedule in its rebuilding process. They found an identity in 2021 with their rushing attack led by dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts, allowing them to control the ball and mitigate some defensive holes on the roster. They then doubled down this off-season with the blockbuster trade for former Tennessee Titan A.J. Brown, adding a new dimension to their receiving corps. On defense, they took high upside swings in the draft on two of Georgia’s top defenders in physical freak Jordan Davis and stud linebacker Nakobe Dean.
The Philly game looks to be a major gut check for Minnesota. Coming off a heated game against a division rival, it’s a tough ask to go on the road and play such a physical brand of football.
Toughness, athleticism, and tackling in space were all a major emphasis by the Vikings front office this offseason. The Philly running game will put that to the test. They’re creative in how they utilize RPO and option looks, and the Eagles are smart in how they maximize Hurts’ effectiveness as a runner.
The wild card is Brown, who was a stud in Tennessee before Philly acquired him. How could a bonafide WR1 change Hurts as a passer? Eagles fans have been up and down on the young QB during his short tenure in Philadelphia due to his passing inconsistencies on deep throws and over the middle of the field.
While those criticisms have been valid, he’s been throwing to an abysmal group of receivers outside of DeVonta Smith, last year’s first-rounder. Brown gives Hurts no excuse not to take a major step forward.
This matchup will be a good litmus test for whether this new regime can instill the necessary physicality for a Vikings team that played soft in many games last season. And there’s always the “Kirk can’t play on Monday night” thing to talk about.
But things are gonna be different now, right? O’Connell has promised us he can fix Cousins and that his letdowns in the spotlight will be a thing of the past. Well, whether you believe that’s possible or not, we get to put it to the test in Week 2. It’s going to be a daunting task but a tremendous opportunity.
If Minnesota can pull together and win this game, it could springboard into much more success as the season progresses. What would the national narrative look like if the 2-0 Vikings were coming off a win on primetime against the trendy Eagles the week after beating their arch-rivals?
Week 4: Showdown with the Saints at Tottenham
While we’re highlighting games against pseudo-rivals, how can we not talk about the New Orleans Saints?
From Bountygate to the Minneapolis Miracle to the “Oh My Gosh, Kirk Cousins Won A Playoff Game” Game, these two teams have plenty of bad blood. And now we’re taking that grudge overseas for a showdown in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Like the Vikings, the Saints are a team in transition that is also attempting a competitive rebuild. New coach Dennis Allen is trying to find success in the post-Peyton/Brees era behind Jameis Winston and retooled identity in New Orleans. They’re reshuffling their offensive line after losing Terron Armstead to free agency, and they’re hoping rookie receiver Chris Olave will be worth the price of the trade-up and reignite their passing game after a down year on offense.
Meanwhile, Alvin Kamara is still really good. Vikings fans will be trying to block out his six-touchdown performance the last time they met. New Orleans will be another big test for Ed Donatell and his front seven. Forcing the Saints to depend on Jameis Winston to win the game is a risky high-ceiling/low-floor proposition.
The Vikings have had a good history in London, and they have a chance to end this opening stretch with another signature win against a trendy team. If they can play stout up front on defense, they may have a prime opportunity to throw another punch in this rivalry.
How Much Is A Hot Start Worth?
Hot starts aren’t everything in the NFL — just ask the Arizona Cardinals. They started 7-0 last season before going one-and-done in the playoffs. But they can make a tremendous difference, and starting in a hole as Minnesota did last season can create a narrative that feels impossible to rewrite. Even when they finally started getting a few in the win column, the 2021 Vikings seemed hopeless.
For O’Connell to find success in Year 1, this team needs a reason for hope early. And while the test is daunting, the schedule makers at the league office gave them no shortage of opportunities to test themselves early and prove whether this team can be different from years past.
Frankly, 1-3 or 0-4 could be nearly as likely as a 4-0 start. But either way, this Vikings squad will make a strong impression early in how they handle these opening matchups.