2004 Opponents Will Test Vikings

As coaches and players are settling into their final weeks off before hitting training camp hard in late July, they will have time to think about their 2004 schedule — a schedule featuring pretty formidable opponents each week.

The Vikings are looking to move past a late-season collapse in 2003 that left them looking out on the playoffs with seven losses in their final 10 games. While the team looks to be much improved in 2004, the schedule doesn't do the Vikings any favors.

Aside from the typical six games vs. the NFC North, the other 10 games for Minnesota couldn't be much worse if the opponents had been hand picked. This year the teams from the NFC North play the teams in the NFC East. The Eagles have made three straight conference title game appearances, Dallas is fresh off a wild card berth last year, the Giants have the talent offensively to match their once-stellar defense and the Redskins look to be revitalized with the return of Joe Gibbs.

To complicate matters, the NFC North teams also meet the teams of the AFC South. Aside from perennial playoff teams in the Titans and Colts, the Jaguars and Texans are both much improved and ready to make a move upward – making the AFC South one of the toughest divisions in the league.

The Vikings' remaining two games are against the two second-place teams from the NFC divisions the Vikes aren't playing this year. In this case, it's the Saints and Seahawks – both teams with recent playoff experience and by no means pushovers.

The Vikings have high hopes for the 2004 season and rightfully so. The team should have won the division last year and has made several key additions to finish that job – while the Packers seem to be treading water at best while the other three teams move up. The good news is that, for the most part, the other teams in the division have the same schedule, but the combination of opponents, forced to play prime-time games on the road at Philadelphia, New Orleans and Indy and a Lambeau Field matchup with the Packers that comes after the Vikings play a Monday game and the Packers have a bye, are stacking the deck pretty hard.

If the Vikings are going to win the NFC North, it will take a lot of work – and the schedule makers didn't do them any favors. The Vikings will have to earn it and it could help them be battled tested for the playoffs.

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