Will the Vikings Win a Second Straight NFC North Title?
The national media has jumped on the Detroit Lions as the preseason favorite to win the NFC North despite the fact that the Lions finished four games behind the Vikings last season. I’ve seen some prognosticators putting the Packers — in Jordan Love’s first season as starting QB — over the Vikings, who are coming off a 13-win season.
Will the Vikings Win a Second Straight NFC North Title?
Continuing this theme of disrespecting the Vikings, how’s this for odds to win Super Bowl LVIII next February: after the defending conference champion Chiefs and Eagles understandably are the top two favorites, the Lions rank ninth at 22:1 while the Vikings are far down at 15th (with 40:1 odds), tied with the Saints who were 7-10 last season.
I say not so fast to dismiss the Vikings’ chances to repeat as NFC North champs despite playing a first-place schedule. The Lions appear to be on the rise, but they haven’t won a division title since 1993, and four games are a lot to make up in the standings.
Major injuries will always be a factor, along with how the Vikings — and their opponents — are playing over the course of the season. Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and their supporting cast on offense must play at a high level as they did in the 2022 regular season (until the ill-fated last offensive play of the playoff loss to the Giants). I think the Vikings offense will perform even better in the second season in Coach Kevin O’Connell’s offense.
And the Minnesota defense, with lots of new starters under aggressive defensive coordinator Brian Flores, must improve on last season’s No. 31 ranking, with Danielle Hunter having another double-digit sack season to lead the way and the Vikings newbie corners holding up. I don’t foresee a top-15 defense, but it should be better than last season.
In analyzing schedules, I subscribe to what Bud Grant always said, “It’s not so much who you play as when you play them.” I’ve got the Vikings repeating as NFC North champs and winning one playoff game. Here’s how I see the regular season unfolding, with an especially challenging first seven games that include five 2022 playoff teams featuring the two Super Bowl teams:
Sept. 10—Home vs. Tampa Bay: WIN…With the Bucs coming off an 8-9 season (which was good enough to win the lousy NFC South) and without the retired Tom Brady, most Vikings fans see a relatively easy opener. The Bucs start the inconsistent Baker Mayfield at QB, but they have a top-10 defense from last season that will be a challenge for the Vikings offense in the opener. I see another one-score win for the Vikings in a game where they make enough plays on offense and force a couple of Mayfield turnovers.
Sept. 14—At Philadelphia: LOSS…Yikes, facing the defending NFC champion Eagles in Philly on a short week in their home opener is not promising for the Purple. Eagles GM Howie Roseman has worked his usual magic with voidable contracts to keep many of the team’s top players and threw in a big extension for last year’s Second-team All-Pro QB Jalen Hurts. The Eagles lost seven starters but added talented but controversial DT Jalen Carter and a speedy edge rusher in Nolan Smith in the draft while trading for talented but injury-prone running back D’Andre Swift.
This game is a huge challenge for the Vikings offensive line and running backs Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler to keep the Eagles defense (that led the league in sacks last year) from putting excess pressure on Cousins. I don’t see the Vikings revamped secondary being up to the task against Hurts’ running and throwing to his great wide receivers — A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.
Sept. 24—Home vs. L.A. Chargers: WIN…This is a tough one to call, with the Chargers a good team coming off a playoff season that ended with a blown second-half lead in the playoff loss at Jacksonville. Ex-Vikings Pro Bowl linebacker Eric Kendricks will be fired up in his return to Minnesota. Chargers QB Justin Herbert could have a big day, but so could Cousins and Jefferson. I see a highly entertaining shootout with a late Greg Joseph field goal-winning it for the Vikings.
Oct. 1—At Carolina: WIN… It’s good for the Vikings D to face first overall pick — QB Bryce Young — fairly early in the season. New Panther Adam Thielen plays his first game against the team he was a star receiver for in his nine seasons in Minnesota (with 534 career catches as a Viking). This should be a close road win for the Vikings, who are the more talented team.
Oct. 8—Home vs. Kansas City: LOSS… It’s too much to ask for a win against the defending Super Bowl champs led by league MVP Patrick Mahomes, who will play great as usual in his first game in Minnesota, where his dad once played for the Twins. All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce will be a matchup nightmare for the Vikings D. If Chiefs Pro Bowl DT Chris Jones is still holding out, it will definitely help the Vikings’ chances, but not enough to get a W.
Oct. 15—at Chicago: WIN…This is the Vikings’ first divisional game. The Bears have improved via free agency and the draft. QB Justin Fields’ improvement in his third season — especially in the passing game —is the key to the Bears rising after a 3-14 season. Flores will find a way to keep Fields from running wild, and the Vikings get a needed division victory.
Oct. 23—Home vs. San Francisco: LOSS…U.S. Bank Stadium will be rocking at this Monday night game against a loaded 49ers team. There’s too much talent on both sides of the ball for the 49ers. The Vikings must put major heat on QB Brock Purdy and have the crowd noise rattle him while the O-line protects Cousins in order to have a chance. I don’t see it turning out well for the Vikings on this night.
Oct. 29—At Green Bay: LOSS… It’s a short week and having to hit the road to face the arch-rival Packers. The good news for the Vikings is Aaron Rodgers is gone, but I think Jordan Love will play okay in his first season as the starter and lead a late drive to win this game. The matchup between Jefferson and Pro Bowl corner Jaire Alexander is must-see TV after Jefferson torched the Packers in Minnesota’s home opening win last year, and then Alexander trash-talked J.J. before the Packers whipped the Vikings in Green Bay on New Year’s Day. In that game at cold Lambeau, Alexander and his secondary mates held Jefferson to one catch for 15 yards.
Nov. 5—At Atlanta: WIN…After a 4-4 start to the season, the schedule eases a bit, beginning with this game against the Falcons and their new starting QB Desmond Ridder. Atlanta will try to pound the running game with first-rounder Bijan Robinson behind a well-paid offensive line. But the Vikings will roll on offense against last year’s 27th-ranked defense and get the win to boost them back over .500.
Nov. 12—Home vs. New Orleans: WIN…QB Derek Carr now leads the Saints, and ex-Saint Marcus Davenport will try to put the heat on him. New Orleans had a top-10 defense last season and is considered the NFC South favorite by many analysts. But I expect the Vikings to find a way to win this game at home.
Nov. 19—At Denver: WIN…Russell Wilson was a thorn in the Vikings side in his Seattle years, but he’s coming off a down first season with the Broncos. Sean Payton will try to revive Wilson’s career, but the offensive line and receiving corps are questionable. The Vikings will win this Sunday night national TV matchup, but it won’t be easy.
Nov. 27—Home vs. Chicago: WIN…The Vikings stretch their mid-season winning streak to four with this Monday night victory over the Bears as Cousins improves his prime-time record with these back-to-back wins.
Dec. 10—At Las Vegas: LOSS…Coming off the bye, this feels like a letdown game against the Raiders if their new QB Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy at this point in the season. Garoppolo has a 40-17 record as a starter in New England and San Francisco and is an underrated QB when he can stay on the field. The Raiders were a playoff team two years ago and are trying to rebound in the rugged AFC West.
Dec. 17—At Cincinnati: LOSS…Jefferson shares the field with his former LSU championship teammates Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, who will be difficult for the Vikings defense to contain. The Bengals are my AFC Super Bowl pick if Burrow stays healthy. They have too many weapons on offense, along with an underrated defense. The Vikings almost pulled off a 2021 opening-day win in Cincinnati before falling short by three points. I doubt it will be that close this time unless Burrow is out of the lineup.
Dec. 24—Home vs. Detroit: WIN…The two meetings between the Vikings and Lions in the final three weeks will likely determine who wins the division. The Lions have improved the league’s worst defense from 2022 with free agent signings in the secondary (corner Cam Sutton and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson), but this is a game where top Vikings pick Jordan Addison and K.J. Osborn (who caught the winning TD pass at home against the Lions last year) can explode as the Lions focus on Jefferson. The Vikings win at home with a big game from Hunter against Lions QB Jared Goff.
Dec. 31—Home vs. Green Bay: WIN…The Vikings will ring in the new year by pressuring Love into a couple of turnovers while Cousins directs a division-clinching win on Sunday Night Football (unless the game is flexed to earlier in the day) before the home Viking fans who drown out the Packers fans who find their way into U.S. Bank Stadium.
Jan. 7—At Detroit: LOSS…With the division wrapped up, the Vikings rest their starters, and the Lions get the win with a wild card berth at stake for them, which would be their first trip to the playoffs since 2016. If this game winds up being for the division title, there’s a good chance it could be flexed to the final game of the season on Sunday Night Football, but I think the overrated Lions are eliminated from the division race the week before and do make the playoffs with this win.
Final tally: 10-7, NFC North champions for the second straight season under O’Connell and the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs, where I think the Vikings will win a wild card round game before falling in San Francisco in the NFC Divisional Playoffs to the second-seeded 49ers.
As for my Super Bowl pick, I’ve got the Eagles over the Bengals.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl