The late, great Dennis Green had his famous “They are who we thought they were” outburst in 2006, his final year with the Arizona Cardinals. Green didn’t have as much success in the desert as he did in the tundra. He had a 97-62 record in 10 years as the Minnesota Vikings head coach, but Green’s Cardinals teams went 16-32 in his three years in Glendale.
Green’s 2006 team won their first game but was 1-4 entering a Monday Night Football tilt with the Chicago Bears. Matt Leinert threw early two touchdown passes, and the Cardinals led Chicago 20-0 at halftime. But Mike Brown recovered a Leinart fumble at the end of the third quarter and returned it for a touchdown to cut Arizona’s lead to 23-10. The Cardinals were still in control with 5:11 left in the fourth, but Charles Tillman returned another fumble for a touchdown, and Devin Hester housed an 83-yard punt to win the game, 24-23.
Hence, Green’s famous outburst.
The Vikings play Chicago in Week 6 this year. If Minnesota is 1-4 entering that game, we’ll know last year was an aberration. Going 11-1 in one-score games. Lost as favorites in the playoffs to a team they beat in the regular season. Forty-five seconds from starting the year 1-2. All that. And it’s entirely feasible that the Vikings could be 1-4 as they head to the Windy City next year.
Unless Tom Brady un-retires, the Vikings should polish off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1. But then they face a gauntlet. A Thursday night game in Philadelphia. Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers at home the next week. A potential Adam Thielen revenge game in Carolina, and then Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs at home. I’m not spelling doom for The Purple here, but that’s not an easy slate.
Still, a team in a “competitive rebuild” coming off a 13-win season should at least be 3-2 entering Week 6. The Vikings should be motivated to win in Philly after the Philadelphia Eagles stomped them 24-7 on Monday Night Football last year. They went into a purple-infused SoFi Stadium and beat Herbert and Co. 27-20 in Zimmer’s final season. Carolina shouldn’t be that good unless Bryce Young really comes on early or Thielen really enacts revenge. And, well, it’s going to be pretty tough to beat KC if Mahomes is healthy. I’m not doing the don’t see a loss on the schedule bit here. I’m just saying Minnesota shouldn’t start 1-4.
The Vikings are too good to be fraudulent. They were fortunate to go 11-1 in one-score games last year, and they let too many inferior teams hang around. But they won the games they were supposed to. The New York Giants were the only underdog team that beat them, and their only upset was the miraculous Buffalo Bills game. Did Minnesota need to let the depleted New Orleans Saints, Skylar Thompson’s Miami Dolphins, and Kliff Kingsbury’s Arizona Cardinals hang around? No. Mike White and the New York Jets? Eh. Same for the Chicago Bears and Washington Commanders. Still, they won all those games.
But the schedule is harder this year.
Fortunately for Minnesota, it has a soft middle. They play the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night after the Week 6 game in Chicago, but it lightens up from there. Assuming Jordan Love isn’t the Green Bay Packers’ third consecutive Hall of Fame quarterback, the Vikings should win their Week 8 matchup. It’s also at Lambeau, meaning they’ll be playing at home in the second matchup – a notable change from the past two years. Not only will they get to play outdoors in October rather than December, but they’ll get to play their Week 17 game at home. There shouldn’t be any cleat issues in Green Bay this year.
After that, the Vikings have four winnable games before their Week 13 bye. They play the Atlanta Falcons on the road and the Saints at home. Atlanta and New Orleans finished 7-10 last year. Along with Carolina, they formed a three-way tie for last in the NFC South, which the Bucs won with an 8-9 record. The Falcons are still rebuilding; the Saints signed Derek Carr in the off-season, but they haven’t markedly improved. In Week 11, Minnesota travels to play the Denver Broncos, who won five games last year, before facing the Bears before the bye.
Perhaps Carr will benefit from a change of scenery, or Russell Wilson will thrive under Sean Payton. In that case, the Vikings could lose the New Orleans and Denver games. But even if they split those, they could enter the bye week having won four of their five games. Let’s say they enter the Week 6 game in Chicago at 3-2 and beat the Bears on the road, then they’ll be 4-2 entering the Niners game – likely a loss. Still, they could be 8-4 entering the bye, even with a loss to one of the Packers, Saints, or Broncos.
However, things get tough down the stretch. They should beat the Jimmy Garoppolo-led Las Vegas Raiders coming out of the bye. But then they get the Cincinnati Bengals on the road, the Detroit Lions twice, and Green Bay again. It’ll be tough to beat the Bengals in Cincy if Joe Burrow is healthy, but they get Detroit at home the following week. Unfortunately, the NFL scheduled the Lions games in Weeks 16 and 18. Detroit is the most intriguing team in the NFC North, and the Vikings won’t see them until late in the season. Regardless, that’s probably a split, especially because the Week 18 game should matter this year.
If the Vikings beat Vegas and the Packers, lose to Cincinnati, and split with Detroit, they’ll finish the season 11-6. That may feel like a disappointment coming off a 13-win season. But Minnesota played an easy schedule and won 11-straight one-score games in the regular season last year. They’ll regress this season. The question is, by how much? It’s likely that 11-6 is enough to win the NFC North, or at least compete for it. It’s also a good enough record to justify their competitive rebuild strategy. However, if they fall short of that, we won’t need Denny Green to tell us that they are who we thought they were last year.