One of the few upsides of the Vikings season ending long before everyone thought it would heading into the 2010 season is that we can start looking ahead to the 2011 season and specifically, who the Vikings opponents will be.
The actual dates and times of each game don’t come out until the NFL schedule is released, which is generally in mid to late April each year. But we do know the teams that will comprise the schedule, so let’s take a very early look at the matchups.
First of all, why are these the teams the Vikings play? Well, it’s based on the NFL’s current scheduling formula, which works like this:
Six games against your division (3 on the road, 3 at home)
So for the Vikings, that of course means home and away games against the Bears, Lions and Packers.
Four games against a division in the NFC (2 on the road, 2 at home)
This past season, the Vikings drew the NFC East, so thus they played the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants and Redskins. In 2011, the Vikings draw the NFC South, so they play the Bucs, Falcons, Panthers and Saints.
Four games against a division in the AFC (2 on the road, 2 at home)
This past season, the Vikings drew the AFC East, so thus they played the Bills, Dolphins, Jets and Patriots. In 2011, the Vikings draw the AFC West, so they play the Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders.
Two games against teams that finished in the same spot in their division as the Vikings did the previous year in the NFC outside of the division they play 4 games against already (1 on the road, 1 at home)
That last point can be a bit hard to explain, but if you look at this past season as an example, the Vikings played the Cardinals at home and the Saints on the road since those teams, like the Vikings, won their respective divisions in 2009. The 4th division winner from 2009 – the Dallas Cowboys – was already on the Vikings 2010 schedule due to the Vikings playing 4 games against the NFC East.
So, moving ahead to 2011, the Vikings will play the Redskins and Cardinals since those teams – like the Vikings – finished 3rd in their respective divisions.
Now that you know why the Vikings play those teams, let’s take a very early look at these teams and what they could look like in 2011.
Chicago Bears – The Bears, who broke the Vikings streak of 2 straight NFC North division crowns this season – figure to be strong against next year. It seems like Jay Cutler has emerged as a franchise QB, and their young receiving core figures to improve. They went 2-0 against the Vikings this season.
Detroit Lions – Over the last several years, the Vikings have dominated the Lions but did drop their final game of the 2010 season to the Lions at Ford Field by a 20-13 score. Detroit is on the up-swing as well, led by rookie standout Ndamukong Suh on defense. On the other side of the ball, if QB Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, they figure to be going in the right direction with RB Jahvid Best and WR Calvin Johnson in the fold as well.
Green Bay Packers – Like the Bears, the Packers went 2-0 against the Vikings this past season and have a young franchise QB in the form of Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay’s defense really emerged in the second year of playing the 3-4 under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and they are a very young unit outside of cornerback Charles Woodson, so they figure to be better, not worse, come 2011. Like the Vikings, the Packers had a ton of injuries in 2011 as well, so they should improve by just getting injured guys back in the lineup if nothing else.
New Orleans Saints – I’m sure Vikings fans will be thrilled to watch the Saints play the Vikings in Minnesota versus the Vikings heading south, which has happened in each of the past 3 seasons. All-time against the Saints, the Vikings are 20-9 though of course have lost the 2 most recent games: the 2009 NFC Championship Game and then the 2010 season-opener.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The Bucs were one of the biggest surprises of the 2010 NFL season in going 10-6 and missing out on a playoff berth due to losing the tiebreaker for the final NFC Wild Card spot to the Packers. They are led by young signal-caller Josh Freeman, who took a huge step forward after a so-so rookie year. They are one of the youngest teams in the NFL but have young playmakers on both sides of the ball, including RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Mike Williams and CB Aqib Talib. The Vikings are 31-20 all-time against the Bucs.
Arizona Cardinals – The Vikings and Cardinals will square off for the 4th straight season, and both teams have changed a great deal over the last 4 years. At one point, both teams were Super Bowl contenders with veteran QBs over that stretch, but now, both find themselves in the bottom-half of their divisions with questions marks abound, including at the QB position. The Cards nearly beat the Vikings at Mall of America Field last November before
Oakland Raiders – Like the Bucs, the Raiders are a team on the rise in the NFL, though they still made a change at the head coaching position despite the fact they went undefeated in the AFC West in 2010 and sported an 8-8 overall record after a 5-11 campaign in 2009. Their new head coach has yet to be named, but they have some nice pieces in-place, including RB Darren McFadden, who had nearly 1,700 total yards in 2010 with double-digit TDs. The QB position is a little bit in flux for them, but their defense finished 11th overall last season, and a defense and running game should make them formidable regardless of who the coach/QB are. The Vikings are just 4-9 all-time against the Silver and Black.
Denver Broncos – As the Vikings did, the Broncos made a head coaching change midway through the 2010 season and figure to be a lot different of a team in 2011. They have yet to name a new head coach, but the biggest issue facing said coach figures to deal with QB Tim Tebow, who was a 1st-round pick by the previous regime in the 2010 NFL Draft but is a lightning rod figure of sorts in that the opinions on his game are polarizing. If the new coach is a “Tebow guy,” then they are in a good position to move forward with the former Florida standout. But their defense is what really needs work, as it finished last in the NFL in yards given up. The Vikings are 7-5 all-time against the Broncos.
Washington Redskins – Head Coach Leslie Frazier will be looking to go 2-0 against the Redskins in just 2 seasons. Frazier got his first win as Interim Head Coach last season by defeating the Redskins by a 17-13 margin in D.C., which was the Vikings first road win since Nov. 1, 2009. Quarterback Donovan McNabb was the starter for the Redskins in that game, but it seems as though they will have a new signal-caller under center when the 2011 season rolls around. Look for Washington to have a completely retooled offense in the next meeting between the two teams. The Redskins lead the all-time series via an 11-9 record against the Purple.
Carolina Panthers – The Vikings and Panthers played each other in both 2008 and 2009, with the teams splitting the 2 contests. The last matchup was in Carolina and was arguably the Vikings worst performance of the 2009 season as they lost 26-7 to a Panther team that was under .500 at the time. This time around, the teams will again square off in Carolina, and the Panthers will sport the #1 overall pick from the 2010 NFL Draft in all likelihood. It would have almost assuredly been Stanford QB Andrew Luck, but he opted to return for his senior season, so the race for that top spot it more up in the air now. Regardless of who’s at QB, the Panthers figure to have a sound running attack and a solid defense under new Head Coach Ron Rivera, who was the former defensive coordinator for the Chargers. The Vikings have a slight lead in the all-time series against the Panthers as they have won 5 of the 9 contests between the two clubs.
Atlanta Falcons – In what might be the Vikings toughest game of the 2011 season, they will travel to the Georgia Dome to take on the Falcons, who were/are the No. 1 seed in the NFC during the on-going playoffs. Arguably the main reason they earned that top spot in the NFC is because of 3rd-year quarterback Matt Ryan, who will likely continue to develop into one of the league’s best. Stud RB Michael Turner and Pro Bowl WR Roddy White have certainly aided his development, and playing them on the road in a place where Ryan has just 2 losses in his career up to this point won’t be easy. The Vikings are 16-10 all-time against the Falcons.
San Diego Chargers – Employees of the Vikings who travel with the team are hoping that this game is later in the year than earlier, since a trip to sunny San Diego in November or December would certainly be welcomed, especially after the two trips to Detroit and the extended stay in Philadelphia this past December. However, the Chargers are nearly unbeatable during the month of December with Norv Turner as Head Coach and Phillip Rivers as QB. The Chargers finished 7-9 this past season but have been consistently one of the best teams in the AFC for the last several years, and with a good core of young players, they figure to be back in the playoff mix come this time next year. The two teams have split the previous 10 meetings.
Kansas City Chiefs –