Minnesota Vikings fans know that not every game is created equal—while straight win-loss records determine who ends up making the playoffs, some games stand out as simply more important than others.
With new rosters solidifying across the league and offseason training about to hit full swing, now is a better time than ever to fully evaluate who on the schedule might cause the most problems or become the key matchups of the season.
An oft-doubted team like the young Vikings needs to constantly establish themselves if they are to earn respect, despite entering the season with the defending MVP selection in Adrian Peterson and a handful of Pro Bowl honorees.
Despite a playoff appearance under the umbrella of a solid 10-6 record (and an incredible four-game run), established media are ranking the Vikings in the middle of the pack. ESPN has decided the Vikings are worth a ranking of 17th overall, while CBS argues they are closer to a 19th seed. The best might be from NFL Network analyst Eliot Harrison, who gave the Vikings a solid rank of 12th after an exciting draft.
The best way to build to playoff success and regain that respect will be to dominate in the most important games of the season.
The Vikings have a notoriously poor record in prime time—1-7 under head coach Leslie Frazier, and an additional 0-2 on Thursday night (adding up to an abysmal 1-9 record in the regular season, as well as a loss to the Packers in the playoffs). Who better to challenge that showing than the always-celebrated New York Giants?
Unless Minnesota can prove its mettle when the national spotlight is shining on them, they’ll never be able to take the next step.
Every consistently successful team in the NFL ends up receiving the lion’s share of media attention, and that attention is difficult to handle for young teams. Without instilling the discipline necessary to weather the media storm, the Vikings will always hover on the edge of greatness instead of transcending the threshold to becoming an elite team.
More than that, it will be a test of the fundamental philosophy the Vikings have built themselves on: scoring early and using Adrian Peterson to hold the lead.
The Vikings didn’t necessarily accomplish the goal of limiting the total number of possessions (ranking 14th overall in the total number of defensive and offensive drives), but they did dominate the league in time spent with the lead, ranking second behind New England.
Should Minnesota come out on top despite playing a game in prime time against the type of team that doesn’t care about playing from behind in the fourth quarter, they should be ready to compete in January.
Apart from redeeming the defense and the defensive scheme that the Vikings run, limiting big-play potential is a key component of the possession-style football the Vikings embrace.
By grounding out teams with Adrian Peterson, they intentionally work to limit field time for opposing offenses and rely on their defense to prevent things from getting out of hand. Unfortunately, against home run hitters like RGIII, the burden is harder to bear.
With big-play offenses like the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions on the regular-season schedule and the New Orleans Saints or Atlanta Falcons as viable playoff opponents, the Vikings need to make sure they can establish themselves as a team that can take on all comers instead of merely being an occasional matchup problem for other grinding offenses like the San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks.
With potential Super Bowl opponents in other explosive offenses like the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, it pays to make sure the defense is versatile enough to take on diverse offensive philosophies.
The best way to evaluate their ability to handle multiple types of offenses is to make sure they can put away teams like the Redskins, who are now a threat to score at any time.
The ninth game of the season may not be the most critical game in terms of the schedule (they'll have three more divisional games to play at that point), but it will be their best early chance to figure out if they can limit new and potent offenses, unless rumors of a Norv Turner-led resurgence in the Cleveland Browns offense (and the return of Josh Gordon) prove to make the Browns a surprising threat in Week 3.
The road to the Super Bowl in the NFC could very well travel through Seattle. Ranked first overall in several power rankings—two out of the three linked to in the first slide—the Seahawks are expected to put up a difficult fight for any NFC team hoping to win the conference.
Truly a dual-capable team, the Seahawks have proven they can win games on the ground (ranking fifth overall in yards per rushing attempt) or in the air (ranked fourth overall in yards per pass attempt). Even more dangerously, they've improved both games in the offseason with the addition of receiver Percy Harvin and running back Christine Michael.
That's to say nothing of the team that allowed the fewest points on defense in the NFL in 2012, one that improved with the addition of slot maven Antoine Winfield.
With Tarvaris Jackson potentially returning to the Seahawks, the list of former prominent Vikings players to suit up in Seattle grows. In addition to Winfield and Harvin, the Seahawks also feature Sidney Rice and former special-teams standout Heath Farwell, who led the 'Hawks in special-teams tackles in 2012.
Given that the Vikings let go of Warren Moon in favor of Brad Johnson only to be beaten by Warren Moon in Seattle, the history of former Vikings players in Seattle hasn't been stellar. Even fan-favorite John Randle left for Seattle and had three productive seasons.
Later, the poison pill controversy over signing All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson deepened the rivalry, and Seattle unscrupulously returned the favor by grabbing Nate Burleson in much the same manner.
In fact, it was the Seahawks who ended Percy Harvin's MVP aspirations (and may have kickstarted Adrian Peterson's) by injuring his ankle in their 2012 game.
The Vikings will enter Week 11 with a lot of tension, and their ability to knock off an elite team who can pass as well as run—and defend both (allowing the 10th least yards in the running game and the third smallest passer rating)—will definitively cement the Vikings' status as a top-tier squad.
A Week 8 game serves as a critical test of team readiness and midseason adjustments. Not only have injuries somewhat taken their toll at this point, but the team has put enough game tape out there to be effectively scouted and exploited. Because of this, the midseason serves as a better test of talent than the early season.
More than that, the team may have young players developing who might finally be able to contribute. The reportedly quick growth of Cordarrelle Patterson and potential recovery of Michael Mauti’s knee may provide boons to the Vikings, but only if managed carefully.
As a division game, it also is an important game to capture the NFC North. In a year where the division leader only won one more game than the two teams who placed second and third, every division game counted. The same will likely hold true in 2013, despite the massive perceived skill differential between Green Bay and Minnesota.
As an aside, Aaron Rodgers is the only truly elite quarterback the Vikings will have to defend against in the regular season. Playing against an elite passer (who can scramble) will be an important trial for their defense and will set them up to play against the other elite passers around the NFL.
Aside from the historic Vikings-Packers rivalry, the Vikings have real reasons for needing to beat the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 24.
If the Minnesota Vikings can come away with a win at Lambeau Field, it will be their first since 2009 (before that, Minnesota hadn’t recorded a win in Green Bay since 2005).
The Vikings’ penchant to keep games against Green Bay close at home but get blown out at Lambeau (averaging a point differential of -16.25 in away games since 2010) will make it difficult to compete against the presumed leaders of the division as well as the playoffs in general.
Beyond making sure they can make an impact in Lambeau—a place they have a good chance of visiting should they make the playoffs again—completing the circuit to beat Green Bay twice in a year would instill confidence in a fanbase that’s taken quite a beating over the past few years.
One of the more intimate rivalries in the NFL, Vikings fans face the unique problem of cheering for a team that had dominated the fanbase in the area before the Vikings had established themselves—many in Minnesota were fans of Green Bay before 1961. Quite a few still are.
The closeness of the rivalry, exacerbated by a border battle and the extended rivalry into other sports, make every Green Bay game meaningful. Pulling off a win in Lambeau would not only re-establish the Vikings as a dominant NFC team, but would also serve as an important catharsis for a downtrodden fanbase.