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AFC West early difference-maker to Vikings, NFC North

The Vikings will start their stretch of AFC West opponents early, as will the rest of the NFC North.

Back when the 2015 schedule came out, fans knew that the Vikings and the other teams of the NFC North were going to be facing a tough non-conference schedule by drawing the AFC West as their division opponent from the other side of the league ledger. But whether by schedule quirk or design, the outlook for the 2015 season for all four NFC North teams is going to be dictated by how they handle the teams from the West.

Nobody from the NFC North was looking forward to facing the AFC West. Denver has established itself as a Super Bowl contender every year since Peyton Manning arrived in Colorado and this year they have an aggressive defense. Kansas City and San Diego have both been playoff teams as recently as 2013. For all their flaws, Oakland is looking to turn the corner after finally getting things right in terms of making solid early draft picks after a decade of draft futility, making the case that, from top to bottom, the AFC West may arguably be the toughest division in football.

But, it may not be so much that all four NFC North teams have to play all for AFC West teams that will determine who are playoff contenders and pretenders, it’s when they play the teams from the AFC that will steer the direction of the playoffs hopes of the teams from both divisions.

While they represent just 25 percent of the 2015 slate of games, the layout of the schedule has an inordinate number of meetings between the divisions coming early in the season when wins and losses can propel teams toward playoff runs or dig a hole for a team that is often too deep to pull themselves out of.

The Vikings will have their next two games against teams from the AFC West prior to their bye week – hosting San Diego Sunday before traveling to Denver next week – and playing Kansas City in their first game back from the bye week. Those three teams will determine whether the Vikings hit the heavy part of their NFC schedule with a record of 4-1 if they own them or 1-4 if they get handled – either sending the Vikings into and out of the bye with a lot of momentum or potentially a skid that will have them with their backs to the wall.

But the Vikings are far from alone in that scenario. The other three teams in the division also seem to have their early schedule concentrated against the teams from the AFC West as well.

Chicago is off to a 0-2 start and, as they head into Seattle Sunday, the likelihood of the Bears starting off 0-3 is a distinct possibility since they are the most lopsided underdog (14½ points) on the Week 3 schedule. With their season hanging in the balance – especially if, as expected, they are 0-3 – Chicago’s 2015 fate will be determined by how they respond in Weeks 4 and 5 when they host Oakland and travel to Kansas City. The Bears will either keep their season alive or drown based on how they perform against the teams from the AFC West.

Detroit has already lost to San Diego, blowing a 21-3 lead in the regular season opener by allowing 30 unanswered points in a come-from-ahead 33-28 loss. The Lions currently stand in danger of dropping to 0-3 – a death knell for a team looking to return to the playoffs for a second straight year. What stands in between them and their first win? A primetime showdown with Denver Sunday night.

The same scenario is going to play out in Green Bay. Three of their next five games will be against the AFC West, starting with Kansas City on Monday night.

For teams that only represent a fraction of the overall schedule, the AFC West is going to help define who rises and who falls in the NFC North this season.

By the time the Vikings have played five games, only one of them will have been against their own division. Three will have been against the AFC West. By the time the Bears have played five games, they will have just one divisional game under their belts and two against the AFC West. By the end of play Sunday, Detroit will have played two of its first three games against teams from the West. By the time the Packers have played seven games, they will have played just one of those against teams from their own division and three versus the AFC West.

In the big picture of things, playing non-conference games don’t matter all that much in the standings. They aren’t part of the tie-breaker formula, which breaks ties first on head-to-head record between teams within their divisions, followed by divisional record and record against teams from their own conference. Teams from the other conference don’t factor in those scenarios.

For teams that are seen just once every four years due to the layout of the schedules, the AFC West is going to have an inordinate amount of impact on what teams get off to a strong start and what teams are left for dead in the NFC North. By the time we get to mid-October, the fingerprints of the AFC West will be all over the NFC North landscape and will likely play a big role in how many playoff teams the NFC North generates.

When all is said and done, the NFC North title and any potential wild card teams will be determined by who can dominate within the division and within the conference. But for the first month-plus of the season, when teams find their identity, the AFC West may play as big a role in who advances and who fails. Their games may not be as vital in the tie-breaker end of things, but starting this week, whoever can get the edge against their non-conference opponents will likely go a long way in determining who is a contender or a pretender in the NFC this season. 

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