Minnesota Vikings' tough schedule in first month makes Titans game critical

The Minnesota Vikings open their defense of their NFC North title today at Tennessee. While no season-opening game is viewed as a must-win -- the Vikings lost their first game last season and finished 11-5 with a division title -- given the next four games on the schedule, the Vikings can ill-afford to lose today.

With the Minnesota Vikings playing in their regular season opener today against the Tennessee Titans, there is the underlying feeling that, while no season-opening game is ever truly a must-win, this one has more of the feeling that the Vikings need to come away with a victory Sunday in Nashville.

While coaches and players put blinders on during the regular season, where the entire focus is simply on the team directly in front of them, the rest of us have the luxury of looking farther ahead than just Tennessee. When you look at what is in front of the Vikings over the next month, winning today takes on greater importance.

In three of the next four games after today, the Vikings are going to be at home, where they will have a chance to defend their home-field advantage in their new stadium. The problem is that it will mark the most difficult four-game piece of the schedule that the Vikings will have all season.

After they leave Tennessee, the Vikings will play their next four games against Green Bay, Carolina, the New York Giants and Houston. Three of those teams made the playoffs last season and are viewed by most as favorites to win their respective divisions. The only team that didn’t make the postseason was New York, which lost eight games by six or fewer, five of them when they had a lead with less than six minutes to play.

The decision to go with Shaun Hill in the opener is likely because of his knowledge of the playbook, which Sam Bradford has had just a week to pick up.

It would appear, that unless Hill is lights-out in the opener, he will likely be replaced by Bradford as early as next week when the Vikings have their home opener in prime time against the Packers. It won’t get any easier the following week, when the Vikings head back east to play the defending NFC champion Panthers.

Losing an opening game isn’t the end of the world. The Vikings lost the opener last year to a San Francisco team that struggled much of the season, yet Minnnesota went on to win the NFC North by winning 11 of their final 15 games.

But, that isn’t the norm for the Vikings. Prior to last year, the last three times they lost their regular-season opener, Minnesota lost 10 or more games in each of those seasons – digging themselves a hole they couldn’t get out of. The last three times they’ve won their regular-season opener, they made the playoffs twice and the only time they didn’t was when they lost Adrian Peterson to suspension after the first game of the 2014 season.

The Vikings' season will likely hinge on where they stand when they head into their bye week after five games. Given the schedule of opponents, a minimum record of 3-2 would be viewed as acceptable if the Vikings are going to make a legitimate defense of their division title.

Part of that almost has to include beating Tennessee today in the opener. If not, they will find themselves behind the 8-ball from the start of the season, which typically doesn’t bode well for NFL teams.

GAME DAY NOTES

  • Last year, the Titans averaged just 92 rushing yards a game, which likely explains why they traded for 2014 NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray and drafted Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in the second round, while getting rid of three of their four running backs from last season.
  • Hill will be the fourth different opening-day starter for the Vikings in the last four years, joining Teddy Bridgewater (2015), Matt Cassel (2014) and Christian Ponder (2013).
  • Tennessee won just three games last year, but one of them was a 42-14 blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the regular-season opener. After that, the Titans had losing streaks of six, three and four games.
  • It’s going to be a hot one in Nashville today. The game time temperature is expected to be 82 degrees and humid.
  • The Vikings have opened the season on the road seven of the last nine seasons.
  • Adrian Peterson hasn’t had a 100-yard rushing game in a season opener since 2009, a streak that has gone for six seasons.
  • Last season, the Vikings defense allowed more than two touchdowns in a game just once – in a 38-7 loss to Seattle Dec. 6 at TCF Bank Stadium.
  • The Vikings are 30-24-1 all time on opening day, including 1-1 under Mike Zimmer.
  • Cassel, a former Vikings starting QB, is the backup behind Marcus Mariota in Tennessee.
  • Hill had the best passer rating of his career against Tennessee, replacing an injured Matthew Stafford in a 44-41 overtime loss to the Titans in 2012. He completed 10 of 13 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns, posting a passer rating of 157.9.
  • In two career games against Tennessee, Adrian Peterson has rushed 35 times for 168 yards and two touchdowns – in 2008 he rushed 18 times for 80 yards and two touchdowns in his only game in Tennessee, and in 2012 he rushed 17 times for 88 yards.

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