EAGAN, Minn. — NFL Kickoff Weekend is on the way.
The Minnesota Vikings will open the 61st season in team history by visiting the Cincinnati Bengals at noon (CT) Sunday.
The return of regular-season football will take Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer back to Paul Brown Stadium, where he served as the Bengals defensive coordinator from 2008-13 before his 2014 hire in Minnesota.
Zimmer Ridge Ranch is nestled in the Kentucky foothills a short distance to the South, and the coach managed to visit his property for a bit last weekend when players were able to enjoy a holiday weekend before diving into a 17-game season for the first time in league history.
"Cincinnati should have a good crowd. I was actually just there the other day," Zimmer said Monday. "There's a lot of hype about them and [quarterback Joe] Burrow being back, so it should be good."
Weather forecast: 84 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny
Uniform combination: Purple jerseys, which are usually worn by the Vikings in home games, and white pants for Minnesota; Cincinnati is opting for white-on-white to offset the forecasted high temperature.
Matchup to watch: Vikings LT Rashod Hill vs. Bengals DE Trey Hendrickson
Hill has served a vital role as a swing tackle in the past two seasons and is now tasked with starting at left tackle. Hendrickson was a splash signing during free agency after recording a career-best 13.5 sacks in 2020 to bring his career total to 20.
"I remember playing him a couple times over there with the Saints," Hill said. "They've got pretty good guys over there on their d-line. I mean, we're ready."
Role reversal: Hill started at right tackle in Week 1 of the 2018 season opposite Riley Reiff, who is set to open at RT for Cincinnati.
"It's going to be weird, especially with him going to right," Hill said. "I always joked with Riley. He said he could play right, so we're fixing to see. It's going to be interesting. I can't wait to see him."
Here are five storylines ahead of the season opener, which is the first on the road for Minnesota since 2016, and a list of connections.
1. First time to open on the road in a while
The Vikings are 2-1 under Zimmer when playing Kickoff Weekend on the road but have not done so since 2016. That game at Tennessee was highlighted by a 77-yard interception return touchdown by Eric Kendricks and a 24-yard return of a fumble by Danielle Hunter (and Shaun Hill winning his lone career start as Vikings QB).
Kendricks and Hunter are critical to the success of the 2021 Vikings, and both are back after missing five games and all 16, respectively, in 2020.
After enduring numerous restrictions and guidelines for travel last year, the Vikings and other NFL teams will go through modified protocols this season.
Rather than the completely or mostly empty stadiums of a year ago, the Vikings have the potential of encountering road noise, which might require use of a silent count for the offensive line.
2. Injuries already?
No matter the precautions taken, injuries can impact availability for every game in the NFL. Even Week 1?
Well, if you've been following the Vikings at least moderately, you already know that Irv Smith, Jr., is unlikely to play this season after last week's surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
You also know the Vikings placed rookie running back Kene Nwangwu and second-year receiver Dan Chisena on Injured Reserve after both players made the initial 53-man roster. Nwangwu and Chisena must each miss at least the first three weeks.
And, you've probably heard that linebacker Anthony Barr and 2021 first-round pick Christian Darrisaw were sidelined much of camp.
The Vikings, however, aren't the only ones dealing with injuries. The Bengals appear like they'll be without Trae Waynes, a first-round selection by Minnesota in 2015, for at least a bit, and promising rookie pass rusher Joseph Ossai has landed on Injured Reserve.
Many eyes will be cast on Burrow, who started 10 games as the 2020 No. 1 overall pick before his rookie season was derailed by an ACL injury.
The first injury report of the 2021 season is due Wednesday, and it should provide a nugget of information about what Barr has been dealing with.
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Bengals.
3. Will Cook hit the ground running?
Dalvin Cook didn't play in a preseason game, but he showed his fluid acceleration numerous times at camp practices.
Cook is ready to follow up his incredible 2020 season — one of the best by a Vikings RB ever — in which he ran for 1,557 yards and 16 scores and totaled 1,918 yards from scrimmage.
While "The Chef" will be a key ingredient for the Vikings offense, Minnesota also will want to balance his workload. With Alexander Mattison recovering from injury and a status for Sunday unclear, the Vikings could turn to fullback C.J. Ham, a former running back, for a couple of carries.
Minnesota also would have the option of elevating veteran RB Ameer Abdullah or undrafted rookie A.J. Rose, Jr., from its practice squad.
4. How will defenses approach Thielen and Jefferson?
Thielen was well-established a year ago (and before) for good reason. He caught 303 passes for 4,034 yards and 24 touchdowns from 2016-19.
The two-time Pro Bowler followed with 74 receptions for 925 yards and a career-best 14 scores in 2020.
Justin Jefferson was slightly unknown — as far as first-round picks go — as the fifth receiver selected in his draft class. He's completely known now after 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns.
What remains to be seen is how defenses will approach the two bona fide targets. Will they double one? The other? Both and take their chances with a third receiving option.
5. What does the Vikings defense look like with all the pieces?
Zimmer opted to withhold multiple starters at all levels of the defense to try to be as fresh for Week 1 as possible.
The unit has an injection of veterans, particularly upfront and on the back end. Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson are gearing up to grind against opponents' run games.
Cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland have been brought in along with safety Xavier Woods to join Harrison Smith. That foursome has a combined 419 starts together.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer served as the Bengals defensive coordinator from 2008-13.
Minnesota Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer was a defensive assistant for Cincinnati in 2013.
Vikings Senior Defensive Assistant Paul Guenther worked for the Bengals from 2005-17, including as defensive coordinator from 2014-17.
Minnesota CB Mackensie Alexander played for Cincinnati in 2020.
Vikings LB Nick Vigil spent four seasons with the Bengals after his selection in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Bengals T Riley Reiff started 58 regular-season games for the Vikings from 2017-20.
Cincinnati CB Trae Waynes was selected by Minnesota in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Bengals TE Thaddeus Moss (practice squad) is the son of Vikings Ring of Honor and Pro Football Hall of Fame WR Randy Moss.
Cincinnati announced Tuesday that QB Jake Browning to its practice squad. Browning spent 2019-20 on Minnesota's practice squad and was released last week.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak worked as a graduate intern at Texas A&M with Bengals Head Coach Zac Taylor and assistant offensive line coach Ben Martin.
Minnesota Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken (GA, 2004-06) and Cincinnati Offensive Coordinator Brian Callahan (QB, 2002-05) overlapped at UCLA. Vikings offensive line coach Phil Rauscher was at UCLA from 2006-09.
Vikings tight ends coach Brian Pariani coached Bengals tight ends coach James Casey in Houston (2009-12) and with Denver (2015).
Bengals assistant special teams coach Colt Anderson was a member of the Vikings practice squad (2009-10).
Cincinnati assistant receivers coach Brad Kragthorpe was an assistant at LSU in 2018, overlapping with Minnesota WR Justin Jefferson.