Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
There’s a bunch of different ways you can measure strength of schedule. You can use last year’s win-loss records of opponents. You can look at opponent Vegas over/unders. You can deep-dive into analytic formulas that factor in things like regression.
None of those ways of looking at the difficulty of an upcoming slate is better than the old feel test when it comes to breaking down an individual team’s schedule. So let’s feel our way through the Minnesota Vikings’ 2021 opponents and decide whether they’ve got it tough or not this year.
The Vikings start the season with back-to-back road games in Cincinnati and Arizona. Immediately it’s not easy to tell if this falls under the category “difficult.” It’s never easy going on the road twice in a row but neither the Bengals nor Cardinals are particularly scary opponents. On the other hand, you could see both teams being better than last year.
The Bengals should have Joe Burrow back from injury and Cincinnati has added the top receiver in the draft Ja’Marr Chase. The Cardinals brought JJ Watt to town and added playmaking receiver Rondale Moore in the draft.
Cincy probably still needs work, so let’s call the Cards game the first “tough” matchup of the year.
The Vikings get two home games in a row in Weeks 3 and 4 but they come against the Seahawks and Browns. There’s no argument that either one of those games is a cruise. Not with Russell Wilson being undefeated against Mike Zimmer and Kevin Stefanski’s Browns nearly making the AFC Championship game last year.
So three of the first four games will be an uphill battle. Up next the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers are here to change that trend. Detroit may have improved at their head coaching position by proxy of not having Matt Patricia there anymore but their roster is bad and they shouldn’t be a threat to many teams in 2021.
Carolina bizarrely traded for one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL this offseason, so they shouldn’t be much of a foe to worry about -- especially after Teddy Bridgewater talked on a podcast recently about the Panthers’ staff not knowing how to set up practices.
After the bye week things get pretty serious. Even if you don’t trust Mike McCarthy, Dak Prescott returning as the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback with CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper on national TV is pretty compelling. And then the Vikings travel to Baltimore, go across the country to Los Angeles (Chargers) and come back home to play the Green Bay Packers, whoever their quarterback may be.
Whether it’s Aaron Rodgers, Jordan Love or Blake Bortles, you can never take division games for granted unless it’s the Lions, so that’s four-for-four in potentially difficult games, bringing us to seven of the first 10 opponents qualifying as at least formidable.
The next stretch is a mixed bag. The San Francisco 49ers could be an NFC Super Bowl contender and playing them in their building won’t be easy. Detroit comes after that. No further comment needed. And then it’s Pittsburgh at home on Thursday night and Chicago on the road on Monday night.
Playing Thursday and then not until the next Monday is a good break. The Steelers seem ripe to fade this year. Chicago should never be underestimated at Soldier Field. Let’s split the difference and call it two-for-four between Weeks 12-15.
The final stretch is gauntlet. At least it feels that way. The Rams, Packers and Bears all have the potential to be really hard games. They also have the potential to greatly disappoint and part the seas for the Vikings to walk into the playoffs.
Los Angeles is relying on Matthew Stafford, who is perpetually battling injury, to change their offense in one year. Again, who knows who is playing quarterback in Green Bay. And it’s hard to know how far along Justin Fields will be by the end of the year.
If we even assume that two of those three games will be hard, we end up with 11 of the Vikings’ 17 games coming against stiff competition.
That feels right.
This season is going to determine a lot of things for the Vikings, most notably the futures of the quarterback and head coach. You’d rather have them match up with a solid, fair schedule that gives them a chance to beat a lot of teams that are similar in strength.
The fact that they didn’t have any bizarre stretches of road games or a weird bye week placement leaves little room for apologies to be made if they can’t return to the playoffs. Oh, and fans will be back at US Bank Stadium too.
The schedule also provides a nice final showdown with division opponents in the final two weeks. It feels like the end of a Marvel movie or the final boss in a video game.
Whether it’s truly a tough schedule or not, we’ll have to wait and see. But we can say that it’s a good schedule for a meaningful year. That’s all you can ask for.
And for Aaron Rodgers to get traded. Vikings fans can definitely ask for that too.