Let's be brutally honest here—the wins might be few and far between for the Minnesota Vikings in the 2012 season.
It's a rebuilding team in a rebuilding year, so the positives come from elsewhere—Adrian Peterson showing off a healthy leg; Christian Ponder making good progress; a happy Percy Harvin.
The wins will come, but don't get caught up in it—this is no zero-sum game, no all-or-nothing endeavor. Wins are good, and they are wanted, but they are not the ultimate measuring stick for a team like the Vikings.
I want to preface this with one note: Somewhere, I'm not sure where, the Vikings will pull a big upset. I firmly believe they will take someone when the team is not looking and that it will be big.
Week 1: vs. Jacksonville Jaguars—Win
This should be a pretty close game, as both teams have solid defenses and both have issues on the offensive side of the coin.
If Peterson is healthy, this pits two of the best running backs in the league against each other, but this win will come down to which second-year quarterback will hold it together under fire better.
Gabbert had issues in the pocket last year. While I don't believe he is as bad as many say, there were times he couldn't wait to get rid of the ball or bail out of the pocket.
Ponder has said that he had much the same problem and intends to work hard to trust in his (improved) offensive line.
If I'm going to bet on one of the two, right now it looks as though Ponder is the guy, based on last year. For all the issues he had, he played through injury and actually played well at times.
He has the stronger receiver corps and a better tight end.
If the defenses are virtually a wash, Ponder is the guy who is going to rise above the opposition and win this game.
Its being at home is another reason to like the Vikings' starting off with a win.
Week 2: at Indianapolis Colts—Win
What? Two wins in a row, one on the road?
Well the first two games are pretty favorable for the Vikings. While the Colts went heavy into the offense during the draft, the Vikings were more even handed in their approach—so while the Colts' defense is a little spare of talent, the Vikings have a much more talented group.
Ponder has the experience over Colts rookie Andrew Luck, even if he doesn't have Luck's talent. With the Colts defense questionable at best, Ponder should have no problem moving the chains up and down the field.
Again, if Peterson is playing, it makes a huge difference.
Even assuming he isn't, the Vikings have more than enough offensive firepower to overcome the Colts.
Week 3: vs. San Francisco 49ers—Loss
The Vikings defense actually should match up well with the 'Niners offense, but the stifling San Francisco defense will be problematic for the Vikings offense.
Even with Adrian Peterson.
The pass rush of the 'Niners is fierce, and the Vikings offensive line—including rookie Matt Kalil—will be hard pressed to slow it down.
It shouldn't be a high-scoring affair by any means—Alex Smith and Jim Harbaugh don't run a high-scoring offense, and the Vikings won't be running the score up on this defense—so the Vikings will have a shot.
Ultimately, I expect them to fall a bit short.
WEEK 4: at Detroit Lions—Loss
Beating the Lions is always rough, especially when Detroit is at home.
While I believe the Vikings will cause some problems for NFC North teams near the end of the season, this early on the Lions will have all their players in good health, and their offense and defense are so much better than those of the Vikings that it will be far too much to overcome.
I don't expect a blowout, but the Lions should lead this wire to wire.
Week 5: vs. Tennessee Titans—Loss
This is a coin flip of a game. On the one hand, the Titans have some questions on offense—who will be quarterback, will Kenny Britt be healthy, can Chris Johnson play up to his contract—which could hamstring them.
On the other hand, if all those questions fall positively—and I expect a better season from Chris Johnson as well as a healthy Britt—this could be a potent, if not exactly explosive offense.
Both defenses are solid, the Vikings being a bit better up front, the Titans a little more solid in the secondary.
I expect this to be a close game that just doesn't fall the Vikings' way.
Week 6: at Washington Redskins—Loss
This will be a tough one to swallow, but it comes down to defense, and defense is the only thing the Redskins did well in 2011.
The defense of the 'Skins should give Ponder a hard time all day and keep him moving, making it hard for him to stretch the field.
Robert Griffin III will pose a tough problem for the Vikings, as he can be just as dangerous flushed out of the pocket as he is in it. The upside is that, for all the effort the Redskins put into signing wide receivers, it's still really just Santana Moss and Fred Davis. Everyone else they got is either unproven or inconsistent.
Still, I predict that the Redskins defense does enough to give RG3 a shot to win and that he pulls it off.
Week 7: vs. Arizona Cardinals—Win
It's no secret at this point that I am not a fan of the Cardinals. Oh, I think they have some great players—Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Floyd, Early Doucet, Ryan Williams—but they have some question marks as well, most importantly along the offensive line and at quarterback.
If they're smart, they eat the Kevin Kolb contract and give John Skelton the ball, since Skelton's skill set fits the offense (and Larry Fitzgerald's abilities) better. Even with Skelton under center, the offensive line won't hold up under the Vikings defensive line's assault.
After a tough stretch of games, the Vikings are back in the win column.
Week 8: vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Loss
Will the Vikings top 8-8 this year?
This is assuming the Bucs are much better than 2011—something I am buying. I love the acquisition of Vincent Jackson, and I am a HUGE Doug Martin fan and expect Josh Freeman and Mike Williams to bounce back from down years.
Expect a ball-control, run-heavy offense from new head coach Greg Schiano, with healthy doses of both Martin and Legarrette Blount. This will wear down the defensive front of the Vikings and allow the Tampa offense to keep the defense honest, which Freeman can use to hit some longer passes.
The defense of the Bucs is aging in places but still effective, and Schiano's no-nonsense attitude should snap them into full form.
The Vikings will make a game of it, but I expect a much-improved Bucs team, and the Vikings will unfortunately fall victim to them here.
Week 9: at Seattle Seahawks—Loss
If this were home, this would be a win. That's how close it is, and that's how much Seahawks fans influence things.
It's going to be hard to hear Ponder over the crowd, but hand the ball off to Peterson and Toby Gerhart, and you'll move the chains against a sometimes-questionable defense.
It won't quite be enough, as I expect the Seahawks to be able to move the ball as well and do just enough to win in a low-scoring affair.
Week 10: vs. Detroit Lions—Loss
I predict this will be a much more hard-fought game, as it's tough to go to someone's house and beat them a second time. The Vikings will be fired up to go into the bye with a win, and I expect them to keep it close for a while.
Ultimately the defense—especially the secondary—just won't be able to keep up with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford.
This time around I actually believe Christian Ponder will have a better, more productive game. Watch for him to start coming into his own, playing well under constant pressure and taking that next step forward.
It won't be enough this time, but it is one to build on.
Week 11: Bye
It's a rough schedule that isn't going to get any easier. However, please keep in mind that it's not just about the wins. We'll see Peterson back in the games and playing well; we'll see Ponder take a big step forward as a quarterback, some good play from the rookies and some solid defensive play, as well.
It's worth building on.
Week 12: at Chicago Bears—Loss
In the best of times, it is hard to beat the Bears, much less at home.
Add into it a Bears offense which I foresee as firing on all cylinders by Week 12, and you are in some trouble.
While I do expect the Vikings defense to hold on for a while, the Vikings offense will be overwhelmed by Chicago's defensive front.
When the second half hits, the defense won't be able to hold on anymore, and the Bears offense should fully assert itself.
Week 13: at Green Bay Packers—Loss
The best teams have problems stealing wins in Lambeau Field—rebuilding teams have even harder rows to hoe.
Assuming everyone is healthy in Green Bay, I am looking at a situation in which the defense is hugely improved over the 2011 version, with better pass rush and secondary play.
That does not bode well for the Vikings.
Add to that the always-exceptional play of Aaron Rodgers and his offense, and it is hard to imagine this turning out another way.
Week 14: vs. Chicago Bears—Win
As I said, there will be at least one win they steal—I think it's this one.
The difference between the Bears, Lions and Packers is great enough to where Chicago is the most likely to drop one they shouldn't to a division rival. The Vikings will take that loss a few weeks earlier and learn from it, coming in stronger and with a better plan.
As I said earlier, it's hard to come into someone's house and beat them a second time—even harder when the first game is only a couple of games back. The mistakes are still fresh in your mind, as are the things you did right.
I expect this team to have its best game of the season against the Bears—one to set the tone for 2013.
Week 15: at St. Louis Rams—Win
While the Vikings are rebuilding, they are much further along than the Rams.
I'll take a slightly gimpy Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart over Steven Jackson any day, but even if I wouldn't—there's not much else here.
There are many question marks for quarterback Sam Bradford to throw to and no proven big-play, elite receivers. Not anyone even close.
The Vikings defense should have a field day, and while Ponder won't light this defense up, I expect the Vikings offense to be very effective for the second day in a row.
Week 16: at Houston Texans—Loss
The Texans just have too much talent—and as you can tell if you read the other pieces in this series, I have the Texans sweeping the NFC North.
There is just too much talent on both sides of the ball in Houston—as much as I like a Cinderella story, the Vikings will be unable to contain Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster for four quarters. Especially not while in Houston.
Week 17: vs. Green Bay Packers—Loss
Again, as much as I like a Cinderella story, this just isn't going to be a win unless the Packers bench everyone to rest them, and even then the talent is so deep in Green Bay that they still might be better than the Vikings.
This is another game I did look at as a possible upset—however, I expect the Packers to come through this with a "W" as they tune up for the playoffs.
Well, a 5-11 record is pretty brutal, but really, so is the schedule.There are a few solid games in there—including some losses which could be pretty close—and the younger core of the team will take a big jump forward.
A team rebuilding will struggle, and that's what will happen. That said, we will see plenty of positives, despite the poor record.