"I think you're going to have to find a new daycare."
As I drove home from Mankato fresh off my last day of covering 2013 Vikings Training Camp last month, my wife relayed the message from our daughter's daycare provider to me on the phone. Our little one was only three weeks into her mom returning to work and the lady in charge of watching her was already throwing in the towel.
I was in utter disbelief. How could our happy-go-lucky baby who barely ever cried at home be bawling nearly the entire time she was at daycare? It couldn't have been separation anxiety; we had already left her with grandparents, aunts, and friends with exactly zero issues. Were we coddling her too much? (Is it even possible to coddle a 3-month-old too much?) Was this highly-recommended provider not living up to her billing? Were we going to have one of "those kids" that was going to be difficult no matter where we brought her?
We spent the next week frantically making phone calls and setting up interviews. Instead of focusing on how my favorite team was arranging depth chart changes, I was consumed with arranging where my favorite girl was getting diaper changes. After hours upon hours of deliberation we decided on a new daycare, dropped our daughter off, and crossed our fingers for a more pleasant outcome.
The new place? Night. And. Day. Our daughter is her normal smiley self and then some there. It's coos and giggles instead of screams and tears when I drop her off now. For whatever reason, that one person made all the difference.
Depending on your opinion of certain Vikings personnel, one person could make all the difference between the fan base smiling or crying in 2013.
(Yes, I realize that I am now comparing the importance of crucial Vikings players to daycare providers. One of my first posts on Daily Norseman 4 1/2 years ago compared the team's quarterback search to picking up drunk girls at the bar. If that isn't a sign of me getting older, I don't know what is.)
Expert predictions for how the Vikings will fare this year are generally down, but still all over the map. Case in point: the Vikings got votes everywhere from 14th to 31st in the first SB Nation Power Rankings of 2013. I personally voted them 15th--right near the middle of the league because I think it could really go either way. I wouldn't be totally shocked with anything between 11-5 and 5-11 this year for the Vikes. In the NFL, the difference between those two records can be razor-thin and is usually boiled down to the performance of a key player or two.
The most obvious key player for the Vikings is Adrian Peterson. He put the franchise on his surgically reconstructed knee and carried (...and carried...and carried) them to a playoff berth last year. We can hope for a repeat performance of his historic season, but we certainly shouldn't expect it. By now you might have heard that none of the previous six running backs that had a 2,000 yard season have come within 500 yards of the mark the following season. By now you know that Adrian Peterson is unlike anyone else on the planet much less any of those previous six running backs, but he's still going to need more help this time around. The Lions and every other opponent will be stacking the box until the Vikings can consistently make them pay with other offensive weapons.
Those offensive weapons obviously need enough time to operate and ample space to move through. The entire starting offensive line returns this year for the Vikings; the continuity should make an already formidable O-line even better this year. Should. But if the preseason was any indication, we shouldn't bank on better play in the offensive trenches just yet. If Matt Kalil struggled last year as mightily as he did this August, we would have been hearing whispers of "bust". Phil Loadholt is the poster child for the old saying "speed kills" with how often he still gets beat around the edge on pass rushes, but that's nothing new. The Vikings cannot afford to have Kalil's sophomore slump extend into the regular season. The play of the linchpin of their offensive line could make or break the season in a variety of ways.
The deciding factor for the Vikings could be on the defensive side of the ball. Jared Allen is entering a contract year and brings a ton of talent with him at defensive end in Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. Allen is going against untested Detroit left tackle Riley Reiff to start the season. A good way to lighten the offense's burden would be for Allen to add to his ridiculous career stats against the Lions: 13.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles, and 1 interception in 11 career games.
Or perhaps the most significant difference maker on the defense will be someone that isn't even there. The absence of Antoine Winfield could really hurt the Vikings throughout the season but especially in Detroit this week. It's no secret that Matthew Stafford will throw the ball to Calvin Johnson many, many times. It's also no secret that Megatron will rarely see single coverage. Even if Chris Cook and the Vikings safeties limit Johnson to a good-but-not-great game, it will be up to the likes of Josh Robinson and Xavier Rhodes to stifle Detroit's other weapons. Robinson must play better than he did in the preseason game against the 49ers, where he allowed roughly 47 consecutive completions to the man he was defending. If he continues to struggle, Brandon Pettigrew and our old pal Nate Burleson could have big days.
Although Johnson will always give defensive coordinators nightmares, I think Detroit's biggest difference maker could be Reggie Bush. The former Mr. Kardashian can create matchup problems all over the field. He might not run for 100 yards against Minnesota but he could easily see 8 to 10 targets out of the backfield and wreak havoc in Detroit's pass-happy system.
All the players mentioned could be crucial in the first game and throughout the season for each team. But most Vikings fans would agree that the biggest difference maker--for better or worse--will be the quarterback that isn't wearing Honolulu Blue on Sunday. For Week 1 and beyond Christian Ponder represents the fulcrum of Minnesota's success. I've had countless people ask me how I think the Vikings will do this year. My answers have always boiled down to this: if Ponder improves and shows more consistency, I think the team can make the postseason again and do some damage in January. If he doesn't make "the leap" in his third year, I think the team could be in big trouble.
The Lions defense isn't making any leaps but it is improving. (Insert your favorite "nowhere to go but up" joke here.) They have first round picks all over their front four and some talent at linebacker. But Ponder couldn't ask for a better secondary to start the season against. He should be able to find a lot of Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, Jerome Simpson, and Cordarrelle Patterson with single coverage as long as #28 is behind him. If Ponder can't beat Detroit through the air, which team can he beat?
I think the Vikings will beat Detroit just enough on offense while making just enough stops on defense to eke out a late victory. Minnesota had a rough preseason, especially when compared to Detroit's multiple blowout wins. But right now I think the Vikings have the better difference makers to leave their fans smiling...
...instead of the alternative...
...on Sunday afternoon.
Prediction: Vikings 31, Lions 27
And now for the rest of my Week 1 picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
BRONCOS over Ravens: Baltimore won via a Hail Mary in the playoffs last year. There's no way their prayers will be answered again without God's Linebacker gyrating in pregame warmups and getting credit for tackles after being the third defender in on a play.
SAINTS over Falcons: New Orleans finished 7-9 last year WITHOUT A COACH, YOU GUYS. Well not quite, but the Superdome is going to be nuts for Sean Payton's return. There's a reason the Saints are favored over a consensus Super Bowl contender.
Patriots over BILLS: On one hand you have Tom Brady, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who makes anyone he throws to an instantly viable fantasy football starter. On the other you have E.J. Manuel, a rookie coming off a "minor procedure" on his knee that limited him to barely any playing time in the preseason and who is probably being rushed back into the starting lineup because the only other option the Bills have at quarterback is something called Jeff Tuel. Aaaand that's how I arrived at my first Survivor Pool pick of the Week. (I went 14-3 last year. Fair warning: choosing the Pats knocked me out in Week 2 last year.)
BEARS over Bengals: Watching Hard Knocks has nearly brainwashed me into thinking that Cincy will win the Super Bowl this year. I swear that show could make the 2011 Vikings look like the 1972 Dolphins. So I'm over-correcting my annual HBO bias by picking the Bears in Week 1.
BROWNS over Dolphins: I'll take Cleveland to grab the pole position in the "Perennially Awful AFC Team That Might Not Be That Awful This Year" standings.
STEELERS over Titans: Tennessee lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the preseason. They are obviously terrible.
COLTS over Raiders: I agree with the group of stat nerds that thinks that the Colts will regress this year. But they're not going to regress into Raiders territory. Come on now.
Chiefs over JAGUARS: Kansas City should be a lot better this year, but they still won't be good enough to make this game watchable. So let's welcome back the only reason why half of you read my rambling weekly previews: the Gratuitous Picture of the Week!
Buccaneers over JETS: I think the loser of each week's Jets game should automatically be declared the laughingstock of the league for the week following the game. Luckily for New York's opponents, the Jets should comfortably hold that title for the majority of the season.
Seahawks over PANTHERS: Wait, I'm confused. Seattle and San Francisco actually have to play 17 or 18 games before their inevitable clash in the NFC Championship Game? If you say so.
Packers over 49ERS: Yes, I watched Colin Kaepernick run roughshod over the porous Green Bay defense in the playoffs last year. Yes, the Niners are at home and still have one of the best teams in the league. Yes, this might be a transparent attempt at reverse jinxing the Packers.
RAMS over Cardinals: The battle for third place in the NFC West begins!
Giants over COWBOYS: Football season hasn't really started until Tony Romo loses a nationally televised game and ESPN runs graphics of how he isn't "clutch" over footage of the same four Cowboys B-roll miscues on a loop the following day.
Eagles over REDSKINS: On a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Chuck Klosterman said what I have been thinking regarding the Eagles since they hired Chip Kelly. He thinks they'll get off to a fast start thanks to Kelly's wacky new offense, then go into a funk while teams adjust and have tape on them, and then finish strong while Kelly adjusts to the adjustments. I couldn't agree more, and I think it starts against a rusty Robert Griffin III on Monday.
Texans over CHARGERS: Football season hasn't really, really started until Philip Rivers goes berserk on a teammate or coach on the sidelines during a loss and then gives short, snotty answers while wearing an oddly cut t-shirt in the postgame press conference.
Last year's regular season picks total: 176-79-1 (Good for first in the Daily Norseman Pick'em League...WHICH I COULDN'T EVEN JOIN THIS YEAR BECAUSE THE GROUP FILLED UP WHILE I WAS OUT OF TOWN THIS PAST WEEKEND! Oh well, you guys can read this post every week and know that I would have defended my title.)