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Lunchbreak: 'Sports Illustrated' Predicts Early Pivotal Game for Vikings

It's never too early to envision NFL results for an upcoming slate, especially when the prediction hinges on an early-season game.

Jonathan Jones with Sports Illustrated released his predictions on Thursday and forecasted that the Vikings will do well in a crowded NFC. Jones wrote:

First thing's first: The NFC is the dominant conference. Not only does it have several contenders to the Eagles' throne (the Saints, Vikings, Rams and Packers with a healthy Aaron Rodgers), but it also has a solid second tier of teams that would likely make the playoffs in the AFC. That's why, in these predictions, you'll see more NFC teams with records closer to .500 than in the AFC, and the two NFC wild-card teams boast 12–4 records. Meanwhile, it's tough not to go ahead and pencil in a Steelers-Patriots AFC title game.

That said, Jones is high on the Vikings stock, writing that Minnesota could go 13-3 for a second year in a row, which would match the second-highest win total in a season in franchise history.

The Vikings are about as well-built as any team in the league. Their top-ranked defense from a year ago got even better in the offseason with the addition of Sheldon Richardson and rookie corner Mike Hughes. Following a career year from Case Keenum, the offense got a quarterback in Kirk Cousins who could get them over the hump, and Minnesota returns running back Dalvin Cook from an early-season ACL tear after he dazzled in his debut. The interior of the offensive line may be the only question in Minnesota, which is looking for its third NFC North crown in four years.

Jones also identified a "pivotal game" for each team and said that Minnesota's Week 2 game at Green Bay — the Vikings first September trip to Lambeau Field since 2008 — is "the sort of early game that eventually decides a division."

Beating a healthy Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau would give Minnesota a leg up in NFC North before we get into October. Rodgers won't be going down easily in this game, though, since it was against the Vikings last year where the Packers' season was lost.

Jones predicted that nine teams who made the postseason to make a return trip this season, which would set an NFL record.

In 2017, only four teams were in the playoffs for a second consecutive season (or more). There have been at least four new playoff participants each year since after the 1990 season when the field was expanded.

Jones' other NFC North forecast included: the Packers going 12-4 and making the field as a Wild Card (pivotal game: New England, Week 9); the Lions finishing 8-8 (pivotal: Seattle, Week 8); and the Bears wrapping at 4-12 (pivotal game: New York Jets, Week 8).

Elflein targeting training camp return

Second-year center Pat Elflein told Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune on Wednesday during the Minnesota Vikings Foundation golf tournament that "everything’s good" with his rehab schedule and he believes he's on track to return to action at training camp.

Elflein garnered a spot on the 2017 All-Rookie Team by the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) after starting in all 14 games he played in his first season. The third-round pick made an immediate impact in the middle for the Vikings aerial attack and ground game.

"You'd like to be training the whole offseason," Elflein said. "But this is part of the game, just like putting on a helmet. This stuff happens. It'll knock you back a little bit. You just have to work twice as hard to come back on top."

*Aside from getting back to "full strength," Elflein said he's hoping to also grow with the nuances in making protection calls at the line of scrimmage. *

"Being able to see tendencies better," Elflein said. "Just kind of work on my mental game."

Nick Easton has moved over from guard to work at center with the first-team offense while Elflein is on the mend.

Thielen on 3rd Downs

Adam Thielen was listed in the NFL's Top 100 for the first time in his career this offseason. Thielen landed at No. 36 in a list of 31-40 that was revealed Monday.

In addition to making multiple acrobatic catches en route to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, Thielen also moved the chains for Minnesota in 2017.

Pro Football Focus recently noted on Twitter that Thielen converted a third down with a reception 24 times, which ranked second among all receivers. Chargers receiver Keenan Allen led the league with 28, and Minneapolis native Larry Fitzgerald was third with 22 such catches.

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