The Minnesota Vikings returned from their bye week on Monday, beginning preparations for what looks to be the toughest stretch of their 2017 schedule. That journey begins Sunday afternoon when they visit the Washington Redskins.
The Vikings will be playing four of their next five games on the road. All five opponents currently are sitting at .500 or better and provide formidable challenges to this team. How they get through these next five games could be the difference between being the top team in the NFC, giving them home field throughout the NFC playoffs, and being out of the postseason completely.
Washington Redskins (4-4)
Total Offense: 343.0 yards per game (14th)
Total Defense: 363.9 yards allowed per game (18th)
Don’t let the numbers fool you; this will be a test for the Vikings, particularly Washington’s defense. After pulling out a big win against the Seattle Seahawks on the road, they will be looking to turn this big win into momentum with a second straight win over what should be a well rested Vikings team.
Keys to Vikings Win: The Vikings defense will need to control Kirk Cousins. If they can force a turnover or two, it will go a long way in leaving Washington with a win as they have the sixth most giveaways in the league with 14. As long as the Vikings offense can remain balanced, they should have enough success moving against Washington’s defense and put points on the board.
Los Angeles Rams (6-2)
Total Offense: 382.1 ypg (3rd)
Total Defense: 327.0 ypg (16th)
The Rams have been a totally different team on offense in 2017 and, as a whole, could be the Vikings’ toughest remaining opponent. This team is very balanced and could potentially give the Vikings defense a run for their money. They are fifth in the NFL in rushing, 10th in passing, and lead the league in scoring.
Keys to Vikings Win: If the Vikings are to win this one, the defense and running game will likely be the determining factors. The Rams are 26th in the NFL against the run. They also have a habit of giving away possessions as they have turned the ball over 12 times this season. If the team’s fourth-ranked run defense can take away L.A.’s running game, this game could turn into a long day for Rams’ quarterback, Jared Goff, and a possible win for the Vikings.
Detroit Lions (4-4)
Total Offense: 335.9 ypg (16th)
Total Defense: 341.8 ypg (21st)
Despite being an up-and-down team this season, Detroit did pull out a win against the Vikings in Week Four in Minneapolis. On paper, one would believe this should be a win for the Vikings but looking at recent history, it is not the case. Outside of quarterback, Matt Stafford, the Lions’ talent is limited across the roster compared to that of the Vikings, so it does seem odd that the Vikings have had troubles versus the Lions recently. The Vikings will be looking to snap a three-game losing skid against these Lions on Thanksgiving.
Keys to Vikings Win: Simply put, they need to stop shooting themselves in the foot with mistakes. In all three losses, Detroit took advantage of Viking miscues (all of them late in games) that directly contributed to those defeats. Other than the quarterback position, the Vikings have the better roster from top to bottom at this stage. If the Vikings play to their ability on both sides of the ball, Stafford would have to have career day for the Lions to have even a decent chance to win.
Atlanta Falcons (4-4)
Total Offense: 372.0 ypg (6th)
Total Defense: 321.8 (12th)
The defending NFC champions are a bit of a conundrum. They clearly have the talent to be a contending team but have struggled all season to find consistency, particularly when it comes to scoring points. However, the biggest flaw with this team appears to be the lack of a killer instinct: an inability to put opponents down and keep them down. Personally I think this matchup is the Vikings’ most favorable during this stretch.
Keys to Vikings Win: The Vikings will need to rely on their core defensive players to bring their A-game here. Xavier Rhodes will need to limit Falcons’ receiver, Julio Jones, and force quarterback, Matt Ryan, to get his other pass options to beat them. The Vikings will also need to control the Falcons running tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Falcons’ defense has shown, dating back to last season, that if an opponent’s offense can hang around, they will find a way to take advantage of it.
Carolina Panthers (6-3)
Total Offense: 313.1 (21st)
Total Defense: 274.1 (1st)
This team is up there with the Rams for possibly our toughest remaining game (outside of the division). Though their offensive numbers look subpar through the first half of the season, they could possibly be rounding into better shape after unexpectedly trading away top wide out, Kelvin Benjamin, to the Buffalo Bills at the trade deadline last week. They’re struggling to score points, but Cam Newton is still a dual threat quarterback who can make things difficult for the Vikings defense if they allow him to get hot.
Keys to Vikings Win: Stop Cam Newton! The Vikings need to keep him contained and force him to win from the pocket. Limit his runs and put hits on him often. This strategy has proven to work time and time again and he has continued to struggle against it most of his career. If they can rattle Newton, the Vikings can walk out with a win. They utilized this same strategy in last season’s meeting and won convincingly.
The Vikings are in the driver’s seat in the NFC North and have some momentum. These next five weeks could go a long way towards tightening their grip on a second division title in three seasons. Going 3-2 over this stretch would put the Vikings in great shape to all but clinch it while also possibly keeping them in the hunt for one of the top two spots in the conference.
There is danger with all five of these opponents, but a strong argument can be made that, with the Rams being the lone exception, none of them are playing at the level that the purple and gold are currently playing at, so it is not out of the realm of possibility for the Vikings to win four or even all five of these games, setting the stage for a race for home-field advantage in the NFC.