Mark Nov. 4 on your calendar.
That is the Sunday of the 2001 season when the Vikings will have their bye week. By that time they will be eight games into the current NFL season and at that point we will have a much better handle on where the team will finish this season.
But between now and Nov. 4, the Vikings will play out what I'm convinced is the most critical part of their schedule. Following the opening-day upset by Carolina, the team dug themselves a shallow but unnecessary hole. My feeling is that the Carolina game will not be nearly as important as the next six — and for good reason.
When Dennis Green took over as head coach of the Vikings, he said his focus was always on division games. Those are the games that create room between you and the other NFC rivals and also serve as a high tie-breaker option when it comes down to selecting playoff teams. Between now and Nov. 4, five of the next six games will be against NFC Central opponents, and each will be a key component for the Vikings to get back to the playoff dance.
The only game of those six in which the Vikings will likely be a prohibitive favorite will be Oct. 14 vs. Detroit. It starts this week at Chicago. On paper, that looks like an easy win. Hey, the Vikings always beat the Bears — they've won seven of the last eight. However, it's not that simple. In 1997 and the 15-1 season of 1998, the Vikings needed a late fourth-quarter touchdown to win 27-24 and 31-28, respectively. In 1999, the Vikings had to go to overtime to beat the Bears 27-24. The Vikings have also lost four of the last seven home games to the Bears. So it should be painfully obvious that, despite a talent gap in favor of the Vikings, Chicago isn't an automatic win.
Two of the games between now and Nov. 4 will be against Tampa Bay. The Vikings and Buccaneers have fought each other to a draw the last eight seasons, with each team winning one game. With Tampa upping the ante by adding Brad Johnson to an improving offense and keeping all their top defensive studs, the Bucs are feeling the pressure of going to the Super Bowl this year and that makes them even more dangerous. While many might be satisfied with a split against the Bucs, two wins over Tampa would give the Vikings every tie-breaker edge over the Bucs heading into the second half — following Nov. 4. Two losses and the Vikings may not have a realistic chance of winning the division. A split will leave that up in the air.
After a road game at New Orleans, the defending NFC West champion with a little revenge in mind for the Vikings, the team comes home to play Detroit. As always, the Lions are a shambles. Ty Detmer as starting QB? Ouch, babe. The Vikings have won five of the last six meetings and seven of nine under Green at the Metrodome, but, after looking past Carolina, the team can't rest against Detroit. The Lions have scored 38 or more points three times against Green-coached teams, so he knows they have the capability of lighting up the scoreboard. If any game should be a lock win, it's this one, but again, the Vikings can't take the Lions lightly.
Next comes Green Bay. The Packers swept the Vikings last year and, along the way, took away the chance for the Vikings to earn home-field advantage during the NFC Championship Game. One win over the Packers last year and New York comes to the Metrodome instead of the other way around and we could be talking about the Vikings looking for a return to the Super Bowl instead of a 41-0 loss. Brett Favre is still one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league and, if the Vikings don't knock him down early, he could have the type of days he had the last two years when Green Bay has won three of four games.
The second half of the season won't bode much easier, with road games at Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Green Bay — historically all difficult places to win — and home games vs. recent Super Bowl losers New York and Tennessee as well as the Bears and Jacksonville. However, it's clear that the games before Nov. 4 are going to have more of a bearing on the Vikings playoff hopes than those after Nov. 4.
Is it possible the Vikings can be 6-1 on Nov. 4? Possible, yes. Probable, not nearly as likely. Is 5-2 possible? Much more so. Is sub-.500 possible? Yes, but, if that's the case, the Vikings will be very hard-pressed heading into the second half of the season.
You have to figure that you need 10 wins to get into the playoffs. Sure, some seasons teams with nine wins squeak into the playoff dance, but last season no team with less than 10 wins qualified for the playoffs. If the Vikings finish the first half of the season at 4-3 (assuming a 15-game schedule), they would have a minimum of two NFC losses (more likely three) and no less than one division loss (more likely two).
Under that scenario, the Vikings might have to go 6-2 in the second half of the season to guarantee a playoff spot and would have to likely lose one game or less in the final two months to get a home game in the playoffs. It's hard to believe that a situation can be dire just a week into the season, but that is what the Vikings face.
There is no portion of the schedule where the Vikes can say "we can run the table here without any problem." But, the reality is they're going to have to. They have the horses to do it. Now it's a matter of when it's going to happen. My view? It better come before Nov. 4. VU
Opinion: Entering Most Important Stretch
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