At first glance the Minnesota Vikings have an unfamiliar opponent on Sept. 9 at Mall of America Field in Minneapolis, MN.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have faced the Vikings only a total of four times with the last meeting happening on November 23, 2008, a Vikings 30-12 victory. The Vikings own the series advantage with victories in three of the four games.
Both teams do have a lot in common, as they finished in the bottom 10 of the league, have quarterbacks that were struggling as 2011 first-round draft picks, have defensive backfields with holes and each are searching for playmakers to stretch the field.
Along with these similar areas, the media buzz surrounding the season opener has been focused on each team’s star running back and what their roles will be.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has been doing everything possible to return from an ACL injury.
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew is finally back, after a 38-day holdout.
It's uncertain how much either with play but both teams have quality backups, Toby Gerhart and Rashad Jennings.
The Vikings must approach this game as a 'must-win' as their schedule gets much tougher after the first two games against the Jaguars and the Colts.
Here is a look at the keys to the game for the Vikings.
In addition to the buzz around the two star running backs that may be limited, it also features two 2011 first-round quarterbacks who will face off after shaky first seasons.
Much like the Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, the Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert feels that he's ready to rebound from a difficult rookie season.
Gabbert was a very skittish quarterback last year completing 50.8 percent of his passes, 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Jaguars also allowed 44 sacks last season, tied for seventh-most in the NFL.
While Gabbert has shown some confidence in the new offense this offseason, he will be faced with DE Jared Allen, who was one-half sack shy of tying the NFL single-season record of 22.5 last season, helping Minnesota tie for the most sacks in the league with 50.
Allen will be paired up with rising DE Brian Robison and pass-rush specialist Everson Griffen again in 2012. The Vikings also return Pro Bowl UT Kevin Williams who will help demand double-teams on the inside.
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder seems poised to take a step forward this year. He threw 13 TDs and 13 INTs last season after taking over the starting job from Donovan McNabb.
The key will be to score touchdowns—something the Vikings offense struggled with in the preseason.
For Ponder to be successful, first-round draft pick LT Matt Kalil will have to keep him upright.
Kalil will get his first taste of regular season action against another rookie, Jaguars RDE Andre Branch. Branch averaged 17.5 sacks per season in college.
The Jaguars, under DC Mel Tucker, also like to use zone blitzes and may bring pressure from many different looks to attempt to get at Ponder.
Kalil's ability to stop Branch and the new-look offensive line's ability to pick up the zone blitzes will go a long way to determining the outcome of this game for the Vikings.
The lack of a No. 2 receiver behind Percy Harvin is a glaring hole in the Vikings passing game.
Newcomer Jerome Simpson has won the job but he is suspended the first three games for a felony drug conviction for a marijuana shipment to his home last fall.
TE Kyle Rudolph has developed a great rapport with Ponder and seems to be the preferred target over the middle. He could receive the most targets of any receiver or tight end. The other TE is John Carlson, who returned this week to full practices and is on track to play in Week 1. His absence has been missed as he, like Rudolph, is well equipped as a receiver.
At WR after Percy Harvin, the waters are murky to say the least. The Vikings have veterans Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu along with youngsters Jarius Wright and Stephon Burton. The Vikings chose to sit Simpson in hopes of a receiver stepping up during the preseason, it didn't happen.
Helping the Vikings cause in the passing game will be a Jaguars secondary that has some injury concerns.
Jaguars starting RCB Derek Cox is unlikely to play. Backup Will Middleton likely will get the start in his place, with veteran Rashean Mathis—still rehabilitating from ACL surgery—likely playing the nickel. Former Giant CB Aaron Ross is the starter at LCB for the Jaguars. Middleton was abused in the preseason 'dress rehearsal' against the Ravens by Torrey Smith.
This certainly helps the Vikings cause as they attempt to find a complimentary wide receiver to Percy Harvin.
The Vikings tied for least number of interceptions last season with a total of eight.
Not only did they tie for the least number but in the process set an NFL record by going nine consecutive games without forcing an interception.
The 2012 unit returns lost starters Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook after losing both to suspensions and injuries for multiple games.
The Vikings also added Josh Robinson in the third round of the draft. Robinson will compete for the nickel corner job with newly acquired A.J. Jefferson. The Vikings received Jefferson via trade with the Cardinals last week for a undisclosed draft pick.
Regardless, Gabbert and rookie WR Justin Blackmon will want to challenge this unit early and often.
Blackmon caught 10 passes for 136 yards and one touchdown during the preseason, establishing himself as one of quarterback Blaine Gabbert's go-to targets in the passing game.
Blackmon did suffer an ankle injury in practice on Wednesday but returned to practice Thursday so he should be at full strength by Sunday.
The Vikings professed Chris Cook as their 'shut-down' corner in the making so he will likely draw shadow responsibilities on Blackmon for most of the game.
The Vikings have a very young and inexperienced interior defense in 2012.
Players like sixth-year NT Fred Evans, fifth-year NT Letroy Guion, third-year MLB Jasper Brinkley, second-year SS Mistral Raymond and rookie FS Harrison Smith will be learning on the job.
The defense will need to have Jared Allen and Kevin Williams providing constant pressure to the quarterback to help the run defense.
The Vikings will be thankful to see that star running back Maurice Jones-Drew will not be the featured back but Rashad Jennings is still a game-breaker.
The run defense seemed to get better as the preseason went along so there is reason to be optimistic.