Vikings

The Vikings Schedule Can Be Broken Into 3 Phases

Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings released their 2022 schedule on Thursday night, giving fans a much-needed shot of dopamine. The Vikings’ offseason has not been sexy, but the schedule gives fans an excuse to visit a new town, check out some local establishments, and enjoy a soul-crushing experience this fall.

The Vikings are ushering in a new regime with Kevin O’Connell. Judging by their moves this offseason, they believe that he will be the difference between a team that has missed the playoffs in the past two seasons and a team that is competitive.

It was always difficult to see where that road was going without the schedule. But now that it’s here, the Vikings’ season is comprised of three parts.

THE TRAP

There are many reasons why O’Connell will work out for the Vikings. He has an established relationship with Kirk Cousins. O’Connell comes from the Sean McVay coaching tree. And he also is from an organization that just won a Super Bowl — and he played for Bill Belichick. This should work.

But it will still be an adjustment period for the Vikings. After eight years under the old-school Mike Zimmer, the Vikings will now run a more modern offense. Even though the Vikings have elite talent at the skill positions, they still will need to learn the nuances of a new system.

Changing offensive systems is not a new concept for Cousins. He has put up at least 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns three times despite having four different offensive coordinators during his four seasons in Minnesota. But he is also a creature of habit.

The last time the Vikings made a major switch in philosophy, Cousins short-circuited under John DiFilippo. O’Connell’s offense will still mimic the zone-heavy scheme the Vikings have deployed over the past three seasons, but it might take Cousins a minute to fully grasp the offense.

The same idea also extends to the defense. Zimmer’s 4-3 defense has been a staple for the Vikings over the past eight seasons, but Minnesota is transitioning to a 3-4. Much like the offense, there is plenty of talent on this side of the ball. But Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith, and Eric Kendricks will have to understand the system before this team takes off.

Therefore, the first six weeks of the season are a trap.

It would have been ideal for the Vikings to kick off the season with matchups against the New York Giants and New York Jets. Maybe sprinkle in a game against the Detroit Lions and add a couple of home games for good measure. Instead, the Vikings will open with a divisional matchup against the Green Bay Packers.

The Week 1 matchup will be a good barometer to see where the Vikings are compared to the divisional favorite Packers. But things get tougher when they visit the Philadelphia Eagles for Monday Night Football. With Cousins’ 8-17 primetime record, there’s a good chance the Vikings could start 0-2.

The schedule lightens up with a visit from the Lions in Week 3, but the following week, the Vikings have to fly eight hours to London for a matchup with the New Orleans Saints. Avoiding a trip to the Superdome is a good thing but flying to a different country presents another challenge.

Things become even more complicated with the Vikings having to play in Minneapolis the following week. Yes, the Chicago Bears are in full rebuild mode. But not getting the traditional bye after an international game is a hurdle they’ll have to overcome.

The Vikings visit the Miami Dolphins in the final game of this phase. With Tua Tagovailoa throwing fungoes to Tyreek Hill and a head coach that looks like he would rather be in a coffeehouse talking about how his home stadium will be underwater in 20 years, this seems like a winnable game.

But Minnesota is 1-5 all-time in trips to Miami. With the bye week approaching, the Vikings could be more interested in hitting the local attractions than the game on the field.

“KIRKTOBER”

If the Vikings can come out of the first phase with a 3-3 record, they’ll be in great shape. The September winds will give way to Kirktober, a two-month stretch that goes from the beginning of October into November. During these two months, Cousins has some of the best numbers of his career, which may continue in 2022.

By this point, Cousins should have a firm understanding of O’Connell’s offense. The Vikings also have a schedule that should allow them to take off and assert themselves as one of the best teams in the NFC.

The phase starts by hosting the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals will have mended their relationship with Kyler Murray by then. DeAndre Hopkins will be back from his six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. But with J.J. Watt having suffered his latest season-ending injury that he’ll have come back way too early from, the Vikings should pick up a win.

The following week will be a trip to face the Washington Commanders. This is the ultimate Kirktober game that could go one of two ways. Either Cousins will be a stone-cold assassin or suffer an epic meltdown. There would be uncertainty about the outcome if this game were in any other stretch of the schedule. Kirktober suggests otherwise.

That leads to a three-game stretch where we will learn a lot about this team. The narrative about the Vikings’ trip to Buffalo will be focused on Stefon Diggs and Justin Jefferson. But getting put through a flaming table by a Super Bowl favorite isn’t a bad thing. A matchup against the Dallas Cowboys presents an opportunity for the Vikings to get over Mike McCarthy’s buffoonery, and the New England Patriots may be vulnerable on Thanksgiving night.

Mix in two games against the New York Jets and the Detroit Lions, and this is a spot where the Vikings can take off.

A COLD DAY IN HELL

“A Cold Day in Hell” sounds like an Attitude Era pay-per-view you would find on the WWE Network. But instead of Stone Cold Steve Austin defending the title against The Undertaker, the Vikings will be defending their playoff dreams against a slew of tough opponents.

One common denominator is that three of the four opponents love to run the ball. Jonathan Taylor, Saquon Barkley, Aaron Jones, and David Montgomery are primary concerns. Hopefully, the Vikings will have fixed a defense that has ranked third (2021) and 10th in rushing yards allowed per attempt over the past two seasons.

The first game in this phase will be a home date with the Indianapolis Colts. Stopping Taylor will be a priority, but it’s hard to say how Matt Ryan will elevate this team. If he can find the fountain of youth, the Colts could be a tough matchup.

Then comes the New York Giants. This is a winnable game on paper but could be turned upside down if they can’t stop the run. The Vikings’ best bet is to have Daniel Jones give them the football because he already has 51 interceptions in his three-year career.

The Giants game will be the final regular-season opponent at U.S. Bank Stadium this season, sending the Vikings out into a chilly tour of the NFC North. If the Vikings remain competitive, the rematch with the Packers will be a big one but could also depend on how they can handle the cold.

A win there would alleviate pressure for a season finale in Chicago where the Vikings have acted like Cohagen at the end of Total Recall. Minnesota has done a better job leaving Soldier Field with a win recently, but it’s not a comfortable place to be if they need a win to capture the division or secure a playoff spot.

Ultimately, this schedule sets up a season similar to 2019. The Vikings weren’t a legitimate contender, but they had enough wins to look the part. It’s unlikely O’Connell can lift this team to the level of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or even the Packers, but it will be about managing each phase.

If O’Connell can keep an even-keeled approach, this could at least allow the Vikings to return to the playoffs.

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Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale (USA TODAY Sports)

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