As analysis of the ebb and flow of NFL schedules run, there has been a forensic examination of matchups, given the assumption that the teams we see are the same in April as they are in November and December.
All things being equal, who needs to be the immediate focus on each of the Minnesota Vikings’ opponents? Barring injury-related Plan B options, these are the individuals in a team game that need to be negated for 2017 to be a successful season.
Week 1 vs. New Orleans – Quarterback Drew Brees. Since he threw three touchdowns and had a passer rating of 106.9 in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, Brees has faced the Vikings three times. In those games, he has completed 86 of 111 passes (77.5 percent) for 942 yards with eight touchdowns, no interceptions and game-by-game passer ratings of 101.3, 149.2 and 120.3. It should be no coincidence New Orleans has won all three of those games.
Week 2 at Pittsburgh – Running back Le’Veon Bell. The only time Bell played the Vikings, he didn’t blow up but had 16 carries for 57 yards and two touchdowns and four catches for 27 yards in London. Bell has put his name firmly in the discussion as to who is the best running back in the NFL and, if the Vikings are going to beat Pittsburgh, shutting down Bell (or at least containing him) will be critical.
Week 3 vs. Tampa Bay – Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. With the current uncertainty as to how the offensive line is going to be configured or how well they gel, they better have it figured out by the time they play the Bucs. McCoy can be a dominating player and requires double-teams up the middle to keep him from blowing up plays. McCoy has the talent to make the Vikings look bad and accounting for him will be pivotal.
Weeks 4 and 12 vs. Detroit – Cornerback Darius Slay. It was Slay’s key interception that put Detroit in the playoffs last season and kept the Vikings out of the playoffs. Slay has the ability to be put on an opponent’s top receiver with the expectation of neutralizing him, so the Vikings will have to account for him on every play – and throw his way at their own peril.
Weeks 5 and 17 vs. Chicago – Running back Jordan Howard. The Vikings simply couldn’t stop him during in his rookie season and that will have to change. In two games, Howard ran 49 times for 288 yards and a touchdown and caught four passes for 49 yards. Those are Adrian Peterson numbers in his prime.
Weeks 6 and 16 vs. Green Bay – Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Cardiac Kid who delivers Hail Marys with baffling frequency has owned the Vikings. In 18 career games, he has thrown for 4,800 yards with 40 touchdowns and just six interceptions and rushed for 319 yards and three more TDs. This is a dilemma that the Vikings haven’t consistently solved, which may explain why Rodgers has lost just three times to the Vikings in his last 14 games since 2010. That’s ownership of a franchise – getting your mail delivered to Winter Park.
Week 7 vs. Baltimore – Nose tackle Brandon Williams. The Ravens don’t spend big money often, but they gave Williams a five-year, $54 million to anchor their 3-4 defense. It came at the expense of Timmy Jernigan, who was in the final year of his rookie deal and is in line for big free agent money. Jernigan was traded to Philadelphia because Ozzie Newsome doesn’t invest that kind of money in two guys playing side by side. What did the Ravens get for him? A 25-spot jump in the third round – from the 35th pick (99 overall) to the 10th pick (74 overall). Williams better dominate.
Week 8 vs. Cleveland (in London) – The Artist Currently Known As Edge Rusher Myles Garrett. He’s not on the team yet, which is why this makes perfect sense for a roster cesspool like the Browns. How good is Riley Reiff at left tackle? Garrett will be a good testament to that. The next time the Vikings will play the Browns, it’s quite possible that Garrett is either salty under a fifth-year option or cashing checks related to a record signing bonus. Reiff, strap your helmet tight and represent.
Week 10 at Washington – Quarterback Kirk Cousins. He is the unexpected tipping point on NFL salaries that history will recall. There are enough reputable quarterbacks jealous of “Mike Glennon money.” Cousins money is markedly larger – and equally suspect. The Redskins are out of options for overpaying a wild card round losing superstar. Mike Zimmer has no interest in perpetuating the Cousins myth.
Week 11 vs. Los Angeles Rams – Defensive tackle Aaron Donald. See Brandon Williams in Week 7 and only make it worse for Vikings’ interior linemen.
Week 13 at Atlanta – Quarterback Matt Ryan. In golf, they have a discussion about the best player not to win a major. The Vikings don’t play Andrew Luck this season. They play Ryan. A carving isn’t acceptable.
Week 14 at Carolina – (tie) Linebacker Luke Kuechly and/or quarterback Cam Newton. If both of them are healthy, toss a coin. If one of them is gone, the other is obvious. If both are gone? All the better for the Vikings’ chances.
Week 15 vs. Cincinnati – Head coach Marvin Lewis. By Dec. 17, one or both head coaches could be lauded for their prowess in a matchup of two playoff teams jockeying for position or the victims of Twitter trolls looking for change. Four scenarios exist. It will be a talking point regardless.
As we dissolve the sands of examination of the schedule, these are the names that pan out as the focus of any given week of the 2017 schedule. Win these battles and the dream of hosting a Super Bowl with team involvement could be alive. If the aforementioned players become a big storyline, not so much.