For Minnesota Vikings, now comes the hard part

The Minnesota Vikings have done what they should – fashioned a strong record in the easiest part of their schedule. It won’t be easy any longer.

The Minnesota Vikings have been riding high over the last month-and-a-half, winning five of their last six games with their only loss coming at Denver, which, as we saw with Green Bay Sunday night, is a pretty daunting place to win.

Congratulations are in order, but now comes the hard part. Of their final nine games, the Vikings are going to be facing a minefield like few other teams in the league will have to face down the stretch.

How bad is it? Only one team – Chicago – has a losing record. The other eight games are against teams that are, at a minimum, .500 and some that are among the best teams in the league.

It was thought that the five-game streak that the Vikings were going to be facing coming out of their bye week would be a situation where they would have to win at least four of them because, by record anyway, at the time of the bye all were below .500. Things have changed.

The Vikings have successfully dispatched the first three, beating Kansas City at home and going on the road to defeat Detroit and Chicago. Now it gets dicey … or downright brutal.

The Vikings return home Sunday to play St. Louis. The Rams have won their last two games, and at 4-3 St. Louis is the closest team currently to the Vikings in the NFC wild card standings. While they haven’t received as much acclaim as either the Cardinals or Seahawks, you could argue they’ve been the best team in the division. The Rams have beaten both Seattle and Arizona, beating the Cardinals on the road. Their defense is their calling card, but the emergence of Todd Gurley makes them an even more difficult team to knock off.

After that, the Vikings go on the road to Oakland (4-3). The Raiders have won their last two games and the only teams to beat them at home thus far this season have been the Bengals in a season-opening blowout (sound familiar?) and the Broncos in a low-scoring defense-dominated affair (also sound familiar). As things currently stand in the AFC, the Raiders would be the first wild card team. They’re tied with the Jets at 4-3, but pounded New York at home Sunday to make the statement that they’re not just going to roll over and die for anybody, much less at the Black Hole.

After that, the big hits start coming. Green Bay comes to town looking to put the Vikings in the divisional rearview mirror. After being humbled by Denver Sunday night, the 6-1 Packers will be looking to get their season back into domination mode. Then comes a road trip to 6-2 Atlanta. The Falcons can light up the scoreboard and are looking to bounce back after being stunned at home by the Buccaneers Sunday after shooting themselves in the foot countless times to allow Tampa Bay to stay in the game.

Then will come arguably the make-or-break five days of the Vikings’ 2015 season. In the span from Dec. 6-10, the Vikings will play the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks (4-4) at home before having to go on the road for their obligatory Thursday night game at 6-2 Arizona. The Cardinals are dominating their competition, having outscored their opponents by 110 points (only New England at 116 has been better). A short week with a long road trip to play the NFL’s top-scoring team is going to be a challenge to say the least.

The Vikings then come home to face Chicago, the only team on the remaining schedule that currently has a losing record (2-5). Then come the New York Giants, who at 4-4 are no great shakes, but they’re in first place in what passes for the NFC East leadership. They have a pedigree of being a tough out at any time and are also known for making late-season runs. As things currently stand, they’re the presumptive favorite to win their division title.

As if this gauntlet isn’t bad enough, the Vikings’ playoff hopes may hinge on beating Green Bay in Week 17 Jan. 3 at Lambeau Field.

The good news for Vikings fans is that, after the Monday night massacre in San Francisco, had anyone told you on Sept. 15 that the Vikings would be 5-2 at this point, you may have questioned their sanity. A month and a half later, they’re at 5-2 and are putting everyone on notice that they’re in the playoff chase.

The bad news is that it would appear the playoffs for the Vikings aren’t going to start the second weekend in January and last a month. They’re going to start next Sunday and last for two months. Then and only then will we find out if the Vikings are as good as their record says. The only certainty is that, if the Vikings are to be a playoff team, they’re going to have to earn it.

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