The Minnesota Vikings began this season with matchups against 2015 playoff teams in three of their first five games, including a visit to defending NFC champion Carolina in Week 3. The schedule eases up after the team's Week 6 bye, however. Just three of Minnesota's final 10 opponents made last year's playoffs. The team's chances of repeating as division champs could come down to a pair of rivalry games to end the season. Minnesota faces the Green Bay Packers in Week 16 before ending the season against the Chicago Bears. Here's a more detailed breakdown of the Vikings' opponents:
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY SportBrace Hemmelgarn
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 11 at Tennessee Titans
2015 record: 3-13 Key players: Quarterback Marcus Mariota (230-370 passing, 2,818 yards, 19 touchdowns, 10 interceptions), running back DeMarco Murray (193 rushes, 702 yards, six touchdowns), tight end Delanie Walker (94 receptions, 1,088 yards, six touchdowns), defensive tackle Jurrell Casey (34 tackles, seven sacks). The skinny: The Titans were among the NFL's worst teams on both offense and defense last year, with Mariota, the No. 2 overall draft pick, starting 12 games. The team traded for Murray in the offseason and also dealt the No. 1 pick to the Los Angeles Rams for a bevy of draft picks. The Titans have not posted a winning record since 2011 and have not made the playoffs since 2008.
Weeks 2, 16: Sunday, Sept. 18; Saturday, Dec. 24 vs. Green Bay Packers
2015 record: 11-7, lost in divisional playoffs Key players: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (347-572, 3,821 yards, 31 touchdowns, eight interceptions), running back Eddie Lacy (187 rushes, 758 yards, three touchdowns), wide receiver Jordy Nelson (91 receptions, 1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2014), linebacker Clay Matthews (49 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks), linebacker Julius Peppers (25 tackles, 10 1/2 sacks). The skinny: The Packers will be looking for revenge in the first regular-season game at U.S. Bank Stadium after losing to Minnesota in last year's regular-season finale at Lambeau Field. Green Bay began last season 6-0, despite losing Nelson to an ACL tear in the preseason, before finishing 4-6. The Packers have won 10 of their past 13 meetings against the Vikings dating back to 2010.
2015 record: 17-2, lost in Super Bowl Key players: Quarterback Cam Newton (296-495, 3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 636 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns), running back Jonathan Stewart (242 rushes, 989 yards, six touchdowns), tight end Greg Olsen (77 receptions, 1,104 yards, seven touchdowns), linebacker Luke Kuechly (76 tackles, four interceptions), linebacker Thomas Davis (75 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks, four interceptions), defensive tackle Kawann Short (36 tackles, 11 sacks). The skinny: The Panthers return all of their key players from last season's NFC champion squad, with the exception of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. Last year was the best season in the history of the franchise, and the team averaged a league-high 31.3 points per game. The Panthers have made the playoffs for three straight seasons.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY SportBrace Hemmelgarn
Week 4: Monday Oct. 3 vs. New York Giants
2015 record: 6-10 Key players: Quarterback Eli Manning (387-618, 4,432 yards, 35 touchdowns, 14 interceptions), wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (96 receptions, 1,450 yards, 13 touchdowns), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (52 tackles, three interceptions). The skinny: The Giants added five potential starting defensive players during free agency, including defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. They should help a defense that ranked 30th in the NFL in points allowed per game in 2015. Under first-year head coach Ben McAdoo, the team will be looking to make the playoffs for the first time since it won the Super Bowl in 2011.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY SportBrace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9 vs. Houston Texans
2015 record: 9-8, lost in wild card Key players: Defensive end J.J. Watt (57 tackles, 17 1/2 sacks), quarterback Brock Osweiler (170-275 passing, 1,967 yards, 10 touchdowns, six interceptions), running back Lamar Miller (194 rushes, 872 yards, eight touchdowns), wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (111 receptions, 1,521 yards, 11 touchdowns). The skinny: The Texans signed Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million deal in free agency, even though he's started just seven games over four NFL seasons. He will lead an offense that features one of the NFL's best receivers in Hopkins but had four different players start at quarterback last year. Houston has posted a winning record in four of the past five seasons.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23 at Philadelphia Eagles
2015 record: 7-9 Key players: Wide receiver Jordan Matthews (85 receptions, 997 yards, 8 touchdowns), safety Malcolm Jenkins (86 tackles, two interceptions), defensive end Fletcher Cox (50 tackles, 9 1/2 sacks). The skinny: The Eagles traded multiple draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to acquire the second-overall pick, which they used on quarterback Carson Wentz, who is now the team's starter after Bradford was dealt to the Vikings. The team lost or traded away multiple players from the Chip Kelly era in the offseason, including cornerback Byron Maxwell and Murray. The team switched to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, which will allow the dominating Cox more freedom.
Andy King/Associated PressAndy King
Weeks 8, 17: Monday, Oct. 31; Sunday, Jan. 1 vs. Chicago Bears
2015 record: 6-10 Key players: Quarterback Jay Cutler (311-483 passing, 3,659 yards, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions), wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (54 receptions, 807 yards, four touchdowns), linebacker Danny Trevathan (73 tackles), linebacker Jerrell Freeman (66 tackles, three sacks). The skinny: The Bears lost offensive mainstays Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett to free agency, but the team re-signed its biggest offensive star in Jeffery. It will also benefit from the return of former first-round pick Kevin White, a receiver who missed last season because of injury. The team improved its defense by adding Trevathan and Freeman in free agency and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd in the Draft and also added a backup quarterback in Brian Hoyer.
Ann Heisenfelt/Associated PressAnn Heisenfelt/Associated Press
Week 9, 12: Sunday, Nov. 6; Thursday, Nov. 24 vs. Detroit Lions
2015 record: 7-9 Key players: Quarterback Matthew Stafford (398-592 passing, 4,262 yards, 32 touchdowns, 13 interceptions), wide receiver Golden Tate (90 receptions, 813 yards, six touchdowns), defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (39 tackles, 14 1/2 sacks). The skinny: The Lions lost future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson to retirement, dealing a serious blow to the offense. They signed Marvin Jones to help fill the void and will rely on him and Tate in the passing game. Detroit lost both its meetings vs. the Vikings last year but won six of its final eight games, with one of the defeats coming on an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY SportsTim Fuller
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13 at Washington Redskins
2015 record: 9-8, lost in wild card Key players: Quarterback Kirk Cousins (379-543 passing, 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions), tight end Jordan Reed (87 receptions, 952 yards, 11 touchdowns), linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (33 tackles, 9 1/2 sacks), cornerback Josh Norman (48 tackles, four interceptions). The skinny: The Redskins made one of the biggest free-agent splashes by signing Norman away from the Panthers. The team surged late last regular season, winning four straight to win the NFC East, and returns the core of an offense that ranked 10th in the NFL in points last year. The team added to the offense in the draft, selecting wide receiver Josh Doctson 22nd overall.
Ann Heisenfelt/Associated PressAnn Heisenfelt
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20 vs. Arizona Cardinals
2015 record: 14-4, lost to Panthers in NFC championship game Key players: Quarterback Carson Palmer (342-537 passing, 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns, 11 interceptions), wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (109 receptions, 1,215 yards, nine touchdowns), safety Tyrann Mathieu (80 tackles, five interceptions), cornerback Patrick Peterson (33 tackles, two interceptions). The skinny: The Cardinals continued to improve their team this offseason after their third straight 10-win season, most notably with their trade for defensive end Chandler Jones. The Cardinals ranked second in the NFL in points last season and seventh in points allowed, priming them for another deep playoff run. They return all their key offensive players, including 1,000-yard receivers Fitzgerald and John Brown and have a mending Mathieu, after he tore his ACL late last season.
APRoss D. Franklin
Photos of the Week: 8/23/15-8/29/15
2015 record: 4-12 Key players: Quarterback Tony Romo (83-121 passing, 884 yards, five touchdowns, seven interceptions), running back Ezekiel Elliott (289 rushes, 1,821 yards, 23 touchdowns in 2015 at Ohio State), linebacker Sean Lee (76 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks), wide receiver Dez Bryant (31 receptions, 401 yards, three touchdowns). The skinny: The Cowboys struggled in 2015 in part because of injuries to Romo, who re-injured his back in the team's third preseason game. Rookie Dak Prescott appears poised to fill the void, but Romo could be back in the saddle by the time Dallas is in Minnesota. The team selected Elliott in the draft, whom many think will contend for Rookie of the Year honors. He could help the Cowboys improve an offense that ranked 31st in scoring last year.
Tony Gutierrez/Associated PressTony Gutierrez/Associated Press
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11 at Jacksonville Jaguars
2015 record: 5-11 Key players: Quarterback Blake Bortles (355-606 passing, 4,428 yards, 35 touchdowns, 18 interceptions), wide receiver Allen Robinson (80 receptions, 1,400 yards, 14 touchdowns), wide receiver Allen Hurns (64 receptions, 1,031 yards, 10 touchdowns), defensive tackle Malik Jackson (34 tackles, five sacks). The skinny: Jacksonville matched its highest win total since 2011 last year and acquired several players who could help them build on that total in Jackson, running back Chris Ivory and cornerback Prince Amukamara. The team also selected several potential impact defensive players in the draft, notably defensive back Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Those new players should help a defense that allowed 28 points per game last year, which ranked 31st in the NFL.
APPhelan M. Ebenhack
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18 vs. Indianapolis Colts
2015 record: 8-8 Key players: Quarterback Andrew Luck (162-293 passing, 1,881 yards, 15 touchdowns, 12 interceptions), wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (69 receptions, 1,124 yards, five touchdowns), safety Mike Adams (52 tackles, five interceptions), cornerback Vontae Davis (38 tackles, four interceptions). The skinny: Luck is returning from an injury that forced him to miss the final seven games of last season but has returned to the Colts' lineup this preseason. The team lost his top tight end, Coby Fleener, to free agency, and also lost top linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Indianapolis will likely need Luck to return to top form if it's to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, however. It might be tough as the Colts might have the worst offensive line in the NFL.