Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the Minnesota Vikings’ first few games of the season, they’re in a precarious situation.
First franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down with a non-contact injury before the campaign even kicked off. He suffered a dislocated left knee and full ACL tear, underwent surgery and will be out until at least the start of next season. The Vikings acted swiftly, trading a 2017 first-round pick and 2018 fourth-round choice for quarterback Sam Bradford, who had fallen out of favor with the Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s a lot to pay for what could amount to a one-to-two season rental, depending on how long it takes for Bridgewater to get right. But the Vikings’ decision sent a clear message to the rest of the league: They aren’t folding on this season. They are still trying to win now.
And win they have, opening the 2016 crusade with a pair of victories over the Tennessee Titans and, most impressively, division rival and Super Bowl contender Green Bay Packers.
Still, those wins did not come without their losses. Adrian Peterson suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee, and his status for the rest of the season is uncertain. The Vikings have two solid and experienced backups with Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, along with a top offensive line, but losing Peterson for any amount of time, let alone most of the year, comes as a crushing blow to an offense that currently ranks in the bottom five of passing attempts.
So much of Minnesota’s livelihood is predicated on offensive ball control. Take away the running game, and that becomes exponentially harder to do. Bradford has shown he can air it out with frequency in the past, but volume-passing doesn’t burn time off the clock and control the pace of the game unless you have a top-notch quarterback under center. Though Bradford has received a bad wrap on many fronts, it’s impossible to put him in the upper echelon of the NFL’s flamethrowers.
And yet, the Vikings, following their victory over the Packers, have a firm hold on the NFC North division. Indeed, it’s still early but the Vikings defense is limiting offenses in every facet of the game: completions, passing touchdowns, rushing touchdowns and yards per play, irrespective of what type. That same defense is also forcing a ton of turnovers, which is a boon for even the most lowly offenses.
None of which is to say the Vikings have morphed into a Super Bowl favorite without Bridgewater. To the contrary, their odds are slotted at +1600, exactly double that of the Packers (+800). That says a lot about the shaky offensive foundation. The odds could improve if Peterson keeps playing, but a torn meniscus is no joke for a running back. At best, with him in the fold, their chances won’t move; at worst, they could plummet.
But, as previously stated, the Vikings are in position to secure their second straight division title. That’s huge. You have to figure the Packers’ offense will get better as the season goes on, but Aaron Rodgers has basically been struggling for an entire season now, and not one of his studly receivers—Jordy Nelson, DaVante Adams, Randall Cobb—is pulling his own weight at the moment.
If the Vikings can continue to create separation earlier in the season, they’ll be sitting pretty. And there’s no team on the upcoming schedule that suggests they can’t continue to soldier on at this pace.
Tough upcoming tilts against the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants await, but neither of these squads is unbeatable. Both have built rosters around their offense, and the Vikings’ defense is more than equipped to combat their points-piling depth.
Things get more promising after the Vikings’ buy week (Week 6). They come out of the break to face the Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins. Only the Eagles have looked good out of this group thus far, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to maintain their current success with rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz, at the helm.
From there, following a difficult matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota plays against the Lions, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Packers and Bears. That Packers meetup, in Green Bay, is the lone scary outing of the bunch.
Worst-case scenario has the Vikings playing three games where they’re heavy underdogs. That’s a great place to be if you’re dealing with injuries at two key offensive positions. There is ostensibly nothing stopping this team from winning between 10 and 12 games—not even said injuries. The Vikings, in turn, remain a solid Super Bowl dark horse and most certainly a team to watch throughout the season.