Led by a quarterback seemingly suited to be a backup and the best defense in the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings went 13-3, collected their second NFC North title in three years and came one game from reaching the Super Bowl last season.
Just imagine how much better they will be this year with Kirk Cousins, one of the league’s best, at quarterback, running back Dalvin Cook healthy and that defense champing at the bit to get the season started.
Or will they?
Logic tells us that’s very much possible because Cousins has been consistently more successful than last year’s savior Case Keenum and Cook averaged 4.8 yards per carry in four games before his 2017 season ended with a torn ACL. Plus, Adam Thielen looks to build on his 91-catch season. And don’t forget the defense, which returns virtually intact after yielding a league-best 15.8 points per game and 275.9 yards per contest.
The Vikings believe they can take the next step, or at least win the division again. They might, but it will not be easy.
Mr. Rodgers is back in the neighborhood
It was Oct. 15 at Minnesota when Green Bay superstar Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone after being driven to the ground by Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr. Rodgers returned in mid-December to help get the Packers into the playoffs, but he lost at Carolina, Green Bay’s postseason hopes ended and he did not play the final two games, including a 16-0 home loss to the Vikings.
Rodgers, 12-7 with 39 touchdowns and six interceptions against Minnesota, won’t have to wait long for the chance to exact revenge on the Vikings, who travel to Green Bay in Week 2. Rodgers and Co. visit Minnesota for a night contest Nov. 25, at which the division title could be on the line. So, one could think things will be tougher against the Packers this season, especially if Rodgers is around.
And don’t forget Detroit and Chicago in the North. The Lions went 9-7 and narrowly missed the postseason in 2017 and handed Minnesota its lone home loss. While the Bears are a year or two away from being a serious playoff contender, they expect to be improved and possibly capable of pulling off the upset.
The road that is rocky
The Vikings went 6-2 away from home last season, losing at Carolina and Pittsburgh and posting their most impressive road victory over Atlanta. They also won at winless Cleveland and at Washington where Cousins threw for 327 yards and ran for two scores.
Minnesota’s non-conference schedule is more daunting this season. The Vikings will spend Week 4 in Los Angeles to face the defending NFC West champion Rams and the next week in Philadelphia for a rematch of the conference championship game that didn’t go so well for the visitors. There’s a favorable trip to the Meadowlands to face the New York Jets, but December opens with a bang. Minnesota visits the New England Patriots on Dec. 2 and follows that with a Monday night game at Seattle, where most opponents have a hard time hearing themselves think.
A first-place schedule will test the Vikings, who have the talent to handle these challenges and likely will welcome them. However, a repeat as division champs is not a foregone conclusion even if their expectations for 2018 have risen.
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