Vikings gauntlet: 26-day, five-game flurry

The Vikings probably will be tested most stringently in the opening portion of their schedule. By all appearances, the first five games comprise the hardest part of their schedule.

The Memorial Day weekend is typically recognized as the official start of summer and, in many instances, it is when the buildup toward the coming NFL season begins in earnest. For the most part, free agency has come and gone. The draft has come and gone. Rosters have taken shape and fans start looking forward to the coming season.

Vikings fans are no exception. With a new coaching staff, a potential franchise quarterback, several key veteran free agents and the carryover cast led by players like Adrian Peterson coming back, Vikings fans are getting geared up for the 2014 season with some semblance of optimism.

However, the Vikings are going to have face an early gauntlet in the first 26 days of the 2014 season that could end up defining their season – for better or for worse.

There are few teams that will face a more difficult schedule coming out of the gate and, if the Vikings can survive the early onslaught, it could be the start of something big in Minnesota.

The Vikings open the season on the road against St. Louis. The Vikings drew the Rams on the 2014 schedule because they both had the worst record in their respective divisions last season, but the Rams aren't your typical last place team. The Rams were 7-9 last season, but five of those losses came within the division, where the other three teams had a combined record of 35-13 – the best record for any three teams in a division last year. The Rams had an excellent draft and Jeff Fisher is building a solid team that the Vikings may be lucky to catch early in the season rather than later. Don't sleep on the Rams, because they're an improving young team and, at home, won't be a pushover.

The Vikings will play their home opener Sept. 14 against the New England Patriots. The Pats are coming off another 12-win season and are tough wherever they play. Getting a home win will be difficult.

The Vikings are back on the road in Week 3 at New Orleans. While the Saints struggled at times last year, they still finished with a record of 11-5 and have the horses to make another Super Bowl run. The Superdome has been a house of horrors for a lot of teams (including the Vikings) and that isn't likely to change in 2014.

Minnesota returns home Sept. 28 to play the Atlanta Falcons. While Atlanta collapsed under the weight of injuries last season, the Falcons have a veteran-laden team and the organization addressed many of its most pressing needs in free agency and the draft. They remain just one year removed from having the best record in the NFC and most analysts are expecting a bounce-back season from them this year.

Four days later, the Vikings will make their only prime time appearance of the season when they travel to Green Bay. Fans don't need to be reminded of the Packers' dominance of the NFC North in recent years, and with Aaron Rodgers back and healthy the Packers are always tough to beat, especially at Lambeau Field.

After the barrage of opponents in the first five games, things get a little easier for the Vikings after that, although team fortunes can change so quickly – see the Vikings from 2011 (3-13) to the Vikings of 2012 (10-6) – that teams that look like creampuffs when a season starts can be playoff contenders the following year. That being said, the Vikings aren't likely to be intimidated by teams like Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Washington, the Jets or Miami.

In the final 11 games of the season, the Vikings play only two playoff teams (Green Bay and Carolina) and get both of them at home. If they can survive the initial flurry they're going to face from the Rams, Patriots, Saints, Falcons and Packers – even if it means coming out of that stretch with a record of 2-3 – they could be setting themselves up for a late-season run against teams they can and should beat.

However, getting through those first 26 days of the regular season will be critical and will go a long way to defining their 2014 season – good or bad.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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