An Early Look at the Vikings' Daunting Slate of 2021 Opponents

The Vikings have a chance to be very good in 2021, but the schedule does them no favors.
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The Vikings have a chance to be a very good football team in 2021. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered and decisions that need to be made, but the pieces are there. 

With a reliable veteran quarterback, three incredible offensive weapons, and an ascending tight end, they might be a couple competent guards away from being a top-five offense. Defensively, they've got some key players returning from injury and a few young cornerbacks who should continue to develop. With some additions to the defensive line, that side of the ball could be pretty good too. Special teams are a disaster, but it shouldn't be too difficult to merely become decent in that phase.

That is, of course, a very optimistic view of things. A pessimist would point out the large number of holes on the roster and the minimal salary cap space the team has to fix them, especially if Danielle Hunter wants a major raise. 

Another cautionary argument about the 2021 Vikings season would be simply to look at the opponents on the schedule. The Vikings have a pretty daunting schedule next year, taking on a pair of really good divisions in the NFC West and AFC North along with their usual four games against the Packers and Bears. Nine of their 16 games are against teams who made the postseason this year. Let's take an early look at each of those opponents and what Minnesota should expect this fall.

Home opponents

Green Bay Packers (13-3 in 2020, 3rd in DVOA)

The Packers will be tough, just like they are every year that Aaron Rodgers is healthy. Rodgers had his best season in a while in 2020, leading the Packers to a 13-3 record and the NFL's top offense on the way to likely receiving his third MVP award. Their defense is merely average, though, and Aaron Jones could leave in free agency.

Seattle Seahawks (12-4, 5th)

The Seahawks finished with a winning record for the ninth straight year (dating back to Russell Wilson's rookie season in 2012) and made the playoffs for the eight time during that span. However, Wilson's play fell off badly in the second half and they were quickly bounced by the Rams in the wild card round. The Vikings will just be happy to finally get the Seahawks at home after playing in Seattle for three straight years.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, 8th)

Another team that started out hot and limped to the finish line, the Steelers lost five of their last six games (including a first-round playoff exit) after cruising to an 11-0 start. The front seven is loaded and there are some impressive offensive weapons in place, but Pittsburgh has needs at quarterback, O-line, and cornerback.

Cleveland Browns (11-5, 18th)

Kevin Stefanski will return to Minnesota to play against his old team after putting together a highly impressive first season in Cleveland. The Browns have an elite offensive line and running game, a solid defense, and appear to have found a sustainable recipe for success.

Los Angeles Rams (10-6, 9th)

The Rams have a dynamic offense schemed up by Sean McVay and a dominant defense led by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. The only thing really holding them back has been Jared Goff. When these teams last met in 2018, Mike Zimmer's defense was torched for over 550 yards.

Chicago Bears (8-8, 15th)

The Bears snuck into the playoffs thanks to a 5-1 start and a late three-game win streak, but went 1-7 against other playoff teams. Chicago's defense should remain stout, but they have big decisions to make about the futures of QB Mitchell Trubisky, head coach Matt Nagy, and general manager Ryan Pace.

Dallas Cowboys (6-10, 23rd)

The Cowboys are one of just two non-playoff teams that the Vikings have on their home slate, and yet they could potentially be one of the tougher opponents Minnesota has to play. Assuming Dak Prescott is back and healthy, this offense should return to being very good. The big questions lie on the defensive side of things.

Detroit Lions (5-11, 27th)

The one thing the Vikings can (almost) always count on in life is beating the Lions. They've won seven straight games against Detroit, but things could look a lot different with this franchise next year. The Lions are currently looking for a new head coach and GM, and Matthew Stafford's future is unclear.

Away opponents

Green Bay Packers (13-3, 3rd)

Baltimore Ravens (11-5, 7th)

Playing in Baltimore will almost certainly be one of the Vikings' most difficult games of 2021. Lamar Jackson is 30-7 in the regular season as a starter and will present major challenges for Minnesota's defense. Meanwhile, Baltimore's defense is loaded with talent on all three levels.

Chicago Bears (8-8, 15th)

Arizona Cardinals (8-8, 13th)

The Cardinals started 5-2 but wound up missing the playoffs as Kyler Murray struggled down the stretch. Part of that may have been due to Murray playing through injury, though. When he's running all over the place and throwing dimes to DeAndre Hopkins, this offense can be very explosive. The defense has some solid pieces, too.

San Francisco 49ers (6-10, 11th)

The 49ers had a down season after winning the NFC in 2019, but they could be in line for a bounce-back year in 2021. Having George Kittle stay healthy would be big. They also need to figure out if Jimmy Garappolo is their QB going forward or if they can make an upgrade there. The 49ers might lose several top assistant coaches this offseason, but I'm not betting against Kyle Shanahan figuring things out.

Detroit Lions (5-11, 27th)

Carolina Panthers (5-11, 21st)

The Panthers probably need to find a franchise quarterback this offseason, as Teddy Bridgewater was fairly disappointing. They have the weapons on both sides of the ball to take a step forward in year two under Matt Rhule.

Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1, 30th)

The Bengals were one of the worst teams in football in 2020, but there's reason to believe they should get better next year. Joe Burrow will be in his second year and will hopefully stay healthy. Zac Taylor has a lot of work to do, but this can't be counted as an "easy" win for the Vikings.

Potential 17th game

Los Angeles Chargers (7-9, 26th)

The NFL is reportedly planning to expand to 17 games in the regular season, though that hasn't been finalized yet. Per SI's Albert Breer, the divisional crossovers for a 17th game would include the NFC North playing the AFC West. If that's the case, the Vikings would match up against the third-place Chargers and rookie of the year favorite Justin Herbert in 2021.

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