Vikings fans can officially begin plotting the team's return to the playoffs after a year's absence. What should fans look forward to in the second season at U.S. Bank Stadium? FOX Sports North breaks down the matchups and explains what you need to know about each one.
Week 1, Monday, Sept. 11, 6:10 p.m.
Vikings vs. New Orleans Saints. Skinny: If it feels like the Saints have been 7-9 for ages, it’s because, well, they have been. Drew Brees’ team has exactly seven wins in four of the last five seasons, the only outlier being the 11-5 squad in 2013. As usual, New Orleans' offense will revolve around the 38-year-old Brees, who threw for 5,208 yards and 37 TDs in 2016. One potential subplot: Will this be Adrian Peterson's new team in 2017? The Saints were reportedly a suitor weeks before the draft. That certainly would spice up the prime-time opener. Either way, Minnesota should be favored in this game, especially since it’s at U.S. Bank Stadium and the Saints had one of the worst defenses last year and did little to improve it. Fun fact: This will be just the second time in 10 years that Minnesota will open at home.
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Week 2, Sunday, Sept. 17, 12 p.m.
Vikings at Pittsburgh Steelers. Skinny: Minnesota will hope it won’t have to play ketch-up at Heinz Field when it takes on former Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin and his Steelers. Last time the Vikings visited Pittsburgh? It was 2009, and Brett Favre’s 334 passing yards weren’t enough in a 27-17 loss. It marked the first loss of the season after a perfect 6-0 start to the magical ’09 season. Sigh. Winning against this Pittsburgh team will be a tough task as well. The Steelers have won 32 regular-season games the past three years and possess perhaps the best wide receiver (Antonio Brown) and running back (LeVeon Bell) in the league. If you subscribe to quarterback wins as a viable stat, Ben Roethlisberger is 123-60 over his career, although he has missed six games over the past two years.
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Week 3, Sunday, Sept. 24, noon
Vikings vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Skinny: In the words of the late Dennis Green, "Taaampa Bay Tampa Bay" comes to town. The Bucs are one of the more intriguing teams heading into 2017. Quarterback Jameis Winston seems to have matured (on the football field, at least), throwing 28 touchdowns to only 18 interceptions and posting a career-best 86.1 quarterback rating in 2016, his second season out of Florida State. Tampa Bay already has Mike Evans (96 catches, 1,321 yards), one of the best receivers in the NFL, and added speedy Desean Jackson in the offseason, giving Winston another deep threat target. This is a game which will truly test Minnesota's secondary.
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Week 4, Sunday, Oct. 1, noon
Vikings vs. Detroit Lions. Skinny: The Vikings lost both games to Detroit last season. Kicker Matt Prater's 58-yard field goal as time expired sent a Week 9 contest into overtime. The Lions went on to win, signaling the Vikings’ third straight loss after a 5-0 start. It was the first "uh-oh" of the year. Detroit should be in the running for a division title, a feat it hasn’t accomplished since winning the Central Division in 1993.
Week 5, Monday, Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m.
Vikings at Chicago Bears. Skinny: Many Bears fans were probably happy when longtime quarterback Jay Cutler, a lightning rod of criticism in Chicago, was cut by the team after eight seasons in the Windy City. It might be a good thing for Minnesota as Cutler went 8-5 and threw for 3,054 yards and 25 touchdowns in 13 career games against the Vikings. Taking over for Cutler is Mike Glennon, who was signed to a three-year deal in the offseason despite having thrown all of 630 passes in this three years with Tampa Bay.
Week 6, Sunday, Oct. 15, noon
Vikings vs. Green Bay Packers. Skinny: The headline before this game will read: "Is Aaron Rodgers’ run in Green Bay over?" The Packers' record will be something like 2-3, causing cheeseheads to call for No. 12’s job. They’ll realize that maybe Olivia Munn wasn't the problem. Minnesota might sneak out a victory here, but we all know Rodgers will laugh it off, throw a few Hail Mary passes and have Green Bay in the playoffs again.
Week 7, Sunday, Oct. 22, noon
Vikings vs. Baltimore Ravens. Skinny: The Joe Flacco elite-or-not-elite debate rolls into Minneapolis on Oct. 22. Baltimore finished second in the AFC North last year with an 8-8 record. The Ravens started out 3-0, but, like Minnesota, lost four straight games and never recovered. While Flacco passed for over 4,000 yards, Baltimore isn't exactly loaded with a lot of talent at the skill positions (although can you say Mike Wallace homecoming?). The defense doesn't conjure images of the Ray Lewis-Ed Reed years, but it is one of the better units in the league. Another hard-nosed team from the AFC, Baltimore will be a tough test for the Vikings at home.
Week 8, Sunday, Oct. 29, 8:30 a.m.
Vikings vs. Cleveland Browns in London. Skinny: Who’s ready for tea time, Vikings fans? Minnesota travels to London to face the Browns at Twickenham Stadium, which is usually the home for England’s national rugby team. The Vikes last played in London back in 2013, when Greg Jennings (yes, Greg Jennings) caught two touchdowns in a 34-27 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns are coming off a one-win season and we really have no idea who will be the quarterback. Minnesota's biggest obstacle in this one might be overcoming the time change and jet lag. Will fans be awake enough to enjoy this one?
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Week 10, Sunday, Nov. 12, noon
Vikings at Washington Redskins. Skinny: Is there a more dysfunctional franchise in the NFL? We presume Kirk Cousins (4,917 passing yards) will be on the roster in 2017, but who knows. Cousins' top receivers last year, Pierre Garcon and Desean Jackson, both departed. Instead, Washington now has Terrelle Pryor, who it hopes isn't a one-year wonder, and Brian Quick, who never lived up to his hype with the Rams. A matchup with Washington last season ended in quarterback Sam Bradford’s cry for help from the offensive line. With one minute to play, the Vikings were down six points and driving to the red zone. But Bradford was sacked twice in the final three plays, turning the ball over on downs and Minnesota lost its fourth straight game after starting 5-0.
Week 11, Sunday, Nov. 19, noon
Vikings vs. Los Angeles Rams, noon. Skinny: The Rams moved their franchise before it was cool. If there was anything close to a guaranteed win for the Vikings, this might be it. Los Angeles lost 11 of its last 12 games to finish in the bottom five of the NFL, but the trade to move up in last year’s draft to select quarterback Jared Goff leaves the Rams without a first-round selection. L.A. has a new head coach in Sean McVay and the Rams hope he can super-charge the offense which was stagnant under Goff and 2015 phenom running back Todd Gurley. Let’s hope the Vikings get ahead by 40 points at halftime (hey, for Los Angeles' players this is like a 10 a.m. kickoff) so Case Keenum can take the field and get some sweet revenge on his former team.
Week 12, Thursday, Nov. 23, 11:30 a.m.
Vikings at Detroit Lions. Skinny: For the second straight year it is Vikings-Lions on Thanksgiving. Expect Detroit's fate to once again rely on the right arm of Matthew Stafford, who even without Calvin Johnson and no real No. 1 receiver threw for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2016. Wide receivers Golden Tate (91 catches, 1,077 yards) and Marvin Jones (55-930) as well as tight end Eric Ebron (61-711) are Stafford's top targets. The Lions' running game is a far cry from the Barry Sanders days, with Theo Riddick leading the team in rushing yards last season with 357. (No, that was not a typo.) But Detroit made some big moves in free agency to improve its offensive line, signing tackle Rick Wagner and guard T.J. Lang, to help protect Stafford and allow them to run the ball more effectively. The defense remains a mixed bag.
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Week 13, Sunday, Dec. 3, 12 p.m.
Vikings at Atlanta Falcons. Skinny: U.S. Bank Stadium is officially no longer the newest home in the NFL. The Falcons kick off in Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the Vikings with a poor taste in their mouths following an infamous collapse in Super Bowl LI. The NFC champions return perhaps the most dangerous offense in the NFL (the Falcons had a league-high 540 points in 2016) behind quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and a pair of devastating running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. At least Coach Zim will know to not fret if his team finds itself down 28-3 in the second half.
Week 14, Sunday, Dec. 10, noon
Vikings at Carolina Panthers. Skinny: This will be a fun one. Everson Griffen and the rest of Minnesota’s defensive line will get their first shots in a real game against Matt Kalil, who signed with Carolina in the offseason. Captain Munnerlyn is back with the Panthers, too, after playing in Zimmer’s defense for the past three seasons. Vikings fans hope Kalil gives up six sacks. How sweet would that taste … but maybe not for Cam Newton, of course. The Carolina quarterback is always a dual threat, although his receivers have been a bit inconsistent beyond tight end Greg Olsen. Jonathan Stewart led the rushing attack in '16, but the Panthers are expected to nab a new running back in the draft … Leonard Fournette or Christian McCaffrey, perhaps?
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Week 15, Sunday, Dec. 17, noon
Vikings vs. Cincinnati Bengals Skinny: Ahh, a matchup with Mike Zimmer’s former team. Should be easy, right? Probably not, although Cincy limped to a 6-9-1 record last season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. But if they can stay healthy, it’s hard to look past the combination of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, not to mention a defense that has done well in Zimmer's absence.
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Week 16, Saturday, Dec. 23, 7:30 p.m.
Vikings at Green Bay Packers. Skinny: In all seriousness, Rodgers is coming off a terrific season (4,428 passing yards, 40 TDs) and Green Bay added two more weapons for him in tight ends Marcellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks. However, the Packers' running game is a big question mark and the defense fell apart. Could this prime-time game help determine the NFC North winner?
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Week 17, Sunday, Dec. 31, noon
Vikings vs. Chicago Bears. Skinny: The Bears are in full rebuild mode. Not only is Cutler gone (as mentioned above) but also wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey left via free agency for Philadelphia. Chicago seems to be trying to build a team in the usual John Fox mold -- behind a solid defense and running game. Rookie Jordan Howard rushed for 1,313 yards last year and figures to get a lot of carries in 2017, too. The personnel hasn't mattered much in recent years as Minnesota is 1-8 in its last nine games played in Chicago. At this late stage, might we see a rookie quarterback at the helm?