As the Minnesota Vikings prepare for the 2016 season, expectations have changed for the franchise coming off its first division title since 2009.
The Vikings experienced significant highs last season, beating the Green Bay Packers on the road in Week 17 to win the NFC North, before the agonizing loss against the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card Round.
This is a franchise that's been on an upward trend since a 5-10-1 record in 2013. They won seven games in 2014 before exploding as one of the NFC's best teams last year, giving them a foundation to build upon for the upcoming season.
Looking at the recently released schedule from NFL.com that Minnesota will face in 2016, there will be stiff competition in and out of the division standing in the way of a repeat division title.
|Minnesota Vikings' 2016 Schedule|
|Week||Date||Opponent||Start Time (ET)||TV|
|1||Sept. 11||at Titans||1 p.m.||Fox|
|2||Sept. 18||vs. Packers||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|3||Sept. 25||at Panthers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|4||Oct. 3||vs. Giants||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|5||Oct. 9||vs. Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Oct. 23||at Eagles||1 p.m.||Fox|
|8||Oct. 31||at Bears||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|9||Nov. 6||vs. Lions||1 p.m.||Fox|
|10||Nov. 13||at Washington||1 p.m.||Fox|
|11||Nov. 20||vs. Cardinals||1 p.m.||Fox|
|12||Nov. 24 (Thanksgiving)||at Lions||12:30 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Dec. 1||vs. Cowboys||8:25 p.m.||NBC, NFL Network|
|14||Dec. 11||at Jaguars||1 p.m.||Fox|
|15||Dec. 18||vs. Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 24||at Packers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|17||Jan. 1||vs. Bears||1 p.m.||Fox|
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Just looking at the collective 2015 winning percentage for Minnesota's opponents next season, things seem to favor a similar run in 2016.
According to John Breech of CBS Sports, Vikings opponents combined to have a .488 winning percentage in 2015, which ranks 18th out of 32. Context is always important for that particular stat.
The Vikings play the NFC East and AFC South in 2016, easily the two worst divisions in football last year. Teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys had their seasons destroyed because Andrew Luck and Tony Romo played in a combined 11 games due to injuries.
Assuming healthy seasons for Romo and Luck in 2016, it's hard to imagine the Cowboys and Colts not being in the playoff mix. Both teams had excellent runs two years ago, with the Cowboys reaching the NFC Divisional Round and Colts losing in the AFC Championship Game.
The New York Giants, who won six games last season, figure to be better in 2016 thanks to an offseason in which they spent money on defensive end Olivier Vernon and cornerback Janoris Jenkins to upgrade their pass-rush and secondary.
Road games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans are winnable, but both teams are getting better. The Jaguars are closer to being a competent team, with the potential to be even more if quarterback Blake Bortles' evolution continues.
The Titans need a lot of help around the quarterback position, but Marcus Mariota showed enough promise as a rookie before injuries ended his season after playing 12 games to put this franchise back on the right track.
There's also the matter of the Vikings having to play the other NFC division champions from 2015. Carolina and Washington are road games, with Arizona coming to Minnesota, so suddenly that middle-of-the-road schedule looks a lot more difficult.
The Vikings found their greatest success last year within the division, winning five of six games. Given how difficult the schedule sets up away from the division, taking care of business in the NFC North is going to be the easiest way to making the playoffs again.
Sticking with the NFC North for a moment, even though the Vikings are the defending division champions, the Packers are the team against which the other three will be measured.
Fairly or unfairly, the Packers will always get the benefit of the doubt as long as Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback. He had a down season in 2015, at least by his standards, yet he still threw for 3,821 yards, 31 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
By comparison, Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for 3,231 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Vikings are a run-first team with Adrian Peterson in the backfield, but at 31 years old, it's fair to start wondering how long he can keep running for 1,400 yards every year.
Bridgewater's development will be the biggest storyline for Minnesota in 2015. He's played like Alex Smith in his first two seasons, being very conservative in the passing game, but he needs to be more than that if the Vikings offense is going to evolve.
Away from the two games against Green Bay, if the Vikings want to be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender, they have the ultimate litmus test matchups against the NFC's two best teams from 2015.
Last year, the Vikings had just two wins against playoff teams. Their win over Green Bay was a huge turning point, an indication this franchise is capable of stepping up in big games. Their other victory against a playoff team was in Week 6 against the Kansas City Chiefs, which turned out to be their last loss until January 16 against New England in the AFC Divisional Round.
In order to be a great team, you have to beat a championship-caliber team. The Vikings did play well in a 23-20 defeat against the Denver Broncos in Week 4 and a 23-20 road loss against the Cardinals in Week 14, but were destroyed 38-7 by the Seahawks at home in Week 13.
The Cardinals and Panthers figure to be among the NFC's elite clubs again, so the Vikings have to show they are capable of winning those games to be more than just another team fighting for a playoff spot.