Holler: Vikings face big challenges ahead

Spurred on by the mouth of a kid at Thanksgiving, a look at the 2015 Vikings schedule shows a gauntlet of good teams.

Around the United States yesterday, families gathered to celebrate the American holiday of Thanksgiving – in most of the world, it was just the last Thursday in November – and, as its name implies, people express the things that they are thankful for.

My nephew has become a hard core football fan over the last couple of years and he never stops babbling about the Vikings, the NFL, individual players, etc. He’s the Kid of 1,000 Questions. He’s only 11, but the kid’s got moxie.

As the family was going around the dinner table saying what they were thankful for, when it was his turn, he chimed in, “I’m thankful that this year’s Vikings don’t have next year’s schedule.”

When I heard that, I hadn’t given it much prior thought. By the time it got the end of the table giving thanks, I had realized there wasn’t much for fans to be thankful for if they were seeing next year’s Vikings with this year’s eyes.

The NFL has a cyclical schedule that many of us pray won’t be tinkered with in an effort to make more money. After years of trying, they finally got symmetry.

Thirty-two teams divided into eight four-team divisions. Under the six-division format, there was a time when the AFC Central had six teams and everyone else had five, forcing the schedule to be altered league-wide because the AFC Central had to play 10 division games instead of eight and at least one team had to have a bye every week. At 31, the NFL schedule was a mess and competitive balance was in serious short-term jeopardy.

However, with the perfect alignment of 32 teams, schedules can be projected out year to year much in the same way that someone can tell you the day of the week your birthday will fall on years out from now.

With a 32-team, eight-division league, each NFL team plays at each NFL stadium at least once every eight years. If you played at New England in 2010, the Patriots were coming to Minnesota in 2014. If you played at home against New Orleans in 2011, you were heading to the Superdome in 2014.

There were times when the schedule was so messed up that it provided an unfair advantage. In 2001, as the defending division champion Vikings draw of the schedule, the average record of one of the Vikings’ non-division opponents that season was 10-6. Chicago, which had finished last in 2000, had an average non-division opponent record of 6-10. The Vikings imploded in 2001. Chicago went 13-3. That was too significant a jump and drop and, when Houston became the 32nd NFL franchise, the planets came into alignment.

Under the current formula, there are only two games on the 2015 schedule that aren’t yet known – and for good reason.

Each year, 14 of 16 games are predetermined before Week 1 of the season. The following year, you play six divisional games, four games against a division within your conference and four games with a division from the AFC.

In 2015, it will depend on whether the Vikings finish third or fourth as to the replica team from the NFC East and NFC South have. They will either play the Giants or the Redskins next year. Nobody knows who will finish third or fourth in the rancid NFC South. They Vikings get one of them.

But it’s the other eight games that got him somewhat frosty in his reason to be thankful. He shot mine down like a clay pigeon – or an unattended late-season pumpkin beyond its shelf-life usefulness.

It’s unsettling, my friends. I always thought there was something a “little off” with my nephew. Thursday put that nail beyond grade.

For 2015, the mantra is “Go West, young men.”

Ladies and gentleman, in this corner, the AFC West. The top three teams have a combined record of 22-11. Oakland skews the divisional curve, but the 2015 configuration has the Vikings on the road in Denver (memo to Peyton: win and quit) and Oakland.

In the other corner, the NFC West. You know them. They have the team with the best record, the two teams that played in last year’s NFC Championship Game, and St. Louis. Seattle will come to our 12th Man (as will St. Louis), but Frisco and Arizona will be on the road.

Combine that with the divisional competition the Packers and Lions (and Bears) will provide and the turkey went down a little rough.

Enjoy the rest of the 2014 season. From the mouths of babes at the Thanksgiving kid’s table comes a minefield on the horizon.

TMI, kid.

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