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Vikings at 49ers Preview and Week 1 Picks: The Two-Letter Word

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As the Minnesota Vikings' 2015 season kicks off in San Francisco on Monday night, one little word describes the difference between regression and the playoffs: "if".

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A couple years ago I was listening to the Rich Eisen Podcast and Joe Namath was his guest. They were discussing the possibilities of the 2013 New York Jets being a decent team in the upcoming season. (The Jets went 8-8 that season, which was much better than most people thought they would do.) Namath started listing off all the ways his former team could be better than 2012. If the offensive line could be better. If Mark Sanchez could bounce back from his butt fumbling. If the new defensive players could make an impact. If...

...before he made another proclamation, he stopped himself and uttered this very poignant phrase:

"If". What a big word for only two letters, huh?

You said it, Broadway Joe.

The Minnesota Vikings could have a very successful 2015 season. In fact, many national pundits have predicted that the Vikings are a dark horse contender in the NFC. But since there is such a razor-thin margin of error in today's NFL, a lot of "ifs" have to go in Minnesota's favor for the playoff dream to come true.

The biggest "if" has to be the offensive line. We all remember what a disaster it was last season. One of the two respectable members of that line* is already lost for the year and the other is now out for at least half of it. T.J. Clemmings has been serviceable in Phil Loadholt's stead this preseason, especially for a rookie, but not great by any means. Joe Berger is a pretty solid swing guy with starting experience. The Vikings might still be OK at offensive line--for now.

(* = It's not like Loadholt and Sullivan had All-Pro seasons themselves in 2014. Loadholt was the second highest-rated right tackle by Pro Football Focus in 2013; Sullivan was third among centers. Last year Loadholt ranked only 15th before getting hurt while Sullivan dropped to 12th.)

But what happens if anyone else on the offensive line goes down? (Including Berger, who is the third oldest player on the team.) Do they throw in Jeremiah Sirles, who has played all of 114 snaps in his career? Do they call up Isame Faciane or David Yankey from the Practice Squad? Yankey was last seen doing this at right tackle in Tennessee:

Yankey missed block

If you're not concerned about the Vikings' offensive line, ask yourself why so many fans are doing backflips because Matt Kalil has been "not terrible" in the preseason. If the 49ers and other opponents can get to the backfield in a hurry it won't matter how dynamic Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson are together.

And for all the turnover and turmoil the 49ers roster has undergone this offseason, getting into the backfield is one thing this defense can still do. Remember NaVorro Bowman, who had a gruesome knee injury in the 2013 playoffs and missed all of last season? He'll be looking to start his campaign for Comeback Player of the Year with plays like this:

NaVorro Bowman sack

San Francisco also has guys like Ahmad Brooks (for now) and Glenn Dorsey that will make it tough on lots of offensive lines. Pass rusher Aaron Lynch will look to build on a promising rookie season while Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid are still a solid safety combo on the back end. Are they the dominant defense that made them into perennial contenders for the early part of this decade? Probably not. But they still have some impressive players.

IF YOU'RE NOT CONCERNED ABOUT THE VIKINGS' OFFENSIVE LINE, ASK YOURSELF WHY SO MANY FANS ARE DOING BACKFLIPS BECAUSE MATT KALIL HAS BEEN "NOT TERRIBLE" IN THE PRESEASON.

Minnesota's defense has its fair share of impressive players as well. The talent and depth of their front four could make them one of the most formidable lines in the league this season. However, they're not without their own "ifs". For instance, if Chad Greenway can gracefully pass the linebacker torch to Gerald Hodges and Eric Kendricks instead of being asked to chase guys around that are ten years younger than him, it would probably be for the best. I'm fine with giving the vet around 40 snaps a game while the young bucks learn on the job, but the Vikings shouldn't trot Greenway out there on every down at this stage of his career.

Another example: if Robert Blanton shows that he didn't just win the starting safety job by default, the Vikings should be in pretty good shape. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin can still hurt you deep and over the middle if there isn't sufficient safety help. We have seen Harrison Smith try to cover too much ground and take bad angles at times without proper help from the other safety, leading to big plays. Blanton needs to show that he belongs as a starter in order for the Minnesota defense to operate like it truly should.

(Speaking of Boldin, what if Terence Newman covers him for most of the game? Is that the oldest opposing starting corner/wide receiver combo ever? Are they going to talk about their lawns, grandkids, and colonoscopies between plays? Won't this game be played way past their bedtime?)

The Vikings' biggest if from the preseason probably comes from their special teams. If Blair Walsh carries his severe case of the yips into games that count the team could be in big trouble. I can't even begin to imagine the collective tightness of sphincters across Viking Nation if Walsh lines up for a game-winning or tying field goal on Monday.

I CAN'T EVEN BEGIN TO IMAGINE THE COLLECTIVE TIGHTNESS OF SPHINCTERS ACROSS VIKING NATION IF WALSH LINES UP FOR A GAME-WINNING OR TYING FIELD GOAL ON MONDAY.

The "ifs" just keep popping up the more you get to thinking about the game from a Vikings perspective. What if Sharrif Floyd and Kyle Rudolph can't stay healthy long enough to make the impact we all know they're capable of? What if former rugby star and preseason darling Jarryd Hayne takes a punt return all the way back for a "try"? What if Colin Kaepernick busts out a 70-yard run that the Vikings have been so susceptible to give up to running quarterbacks over the years? What if the abysmal turf at The House of Blue Jeans claims a few purple-clad victims with its gaping sod divots? What if Reggie Bush starts doing Reggie Bush things and breaks a big play or two (before inevitably getting injured)? What if listening to Ed Hochuli's unnecessarily long penalty explanations and Chris Berman's nonsensical grunts drives us all to the brink of insanity before halftime? WHAT THEN?!

Whew. Breathe. Sorry about that. I got caught up in all the anxiety and second-guessing that has become ingrained into my Vikings fan psyche over the years. We can imagine all the ways it might go wrong for the Vikings; 49ers fans have already experienced it over the past several months. There's a reason why Minnesota is a 2.5-point favorite even though they have gone roughly 2-58 in prime time road games played on grass over the past several years. They should be bringing the better team to the final game of the Week 1 NFL slate. I don't think it'll be pretty, but I think the Vikings will do enough to start the 2015 off right.

In Zimmer and Teddy we trust. No ifs, ifs, or ifs about it.

Prediction

Vikings 21, 49ers 17

And now for the rest of my Week 1 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

PATRIOTS over Steelers

If we're going to spend 90% of the game hearing about New England's various "gates" and whether or not they're going to taint Tom Brady's legacy, is football really "back" tonight? Or will we simply be watching a really long episode of Outside the Lines with live football in the background?

Colts over BILLS

If you're relatively new to Daily Norseman and you don't appreciate my auction league fantasy football team name where I bought Andrew Luck and Dez Bryant--"Luck on Dez Nuts"--then you probably aren't going to enjoy most of the humor in my posts this season.

Packers over BEARS

If you think I'm making this my Survivor Pool pick of the week (13-4 last season) just to jinx the Pack into a hilarious 0-1 start, you're right.

JETS over Browns

If I find a way that I could care less about this game, I'll let you know. But don't hold your breath.

TEXANS over Chiefs

If I get this pick wrong, my prediction of Houston making the playoffs while K.C. misses out is going to look pretty silly just one week in.

Seahawks over RAMS

If Tre Mason wasn't banged up and St. Louis' offensive line wasn't such a potential disaster, I'd think about picking St. Louis here. But HALF of the Week 1 games feature a home underdog so I'll have plenty of time to pick the home team upsets later.

Dolphins over REDSKINS

If Miami doesn't at least make a push to unseat New England in the AFC East this year, they never will. And if they lose to the most dysfunctional franchise in football, they never will either.

JAGUARS over Panthers

If this pick surprises you, it should. I can't justify it either other than the fact I just have a weird feeling about it.

CHARGERS over Lions

If you think Haloti Ngata is going to replace the loss of Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh, think again. If you think I have a good handle on how either of these teams will perform this season, think again--again. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if either of these teams finished between 5-11 or 11-5, so I'll stick with the home team.

CARDINALS over Saints

If Rob Ryan is still employed by New Orleans next year I'd be shocked. How long does that defense have to suck before he gets the boot?

RAIDERS over Bengals

If I have to hear one more person spout the obviously incorrect opinion that Derek Carr had a better rookie season than Teddy Bridgewater, I'm going to snap. That said, I think Carr is still pretty good and Oakland won't be terrible this season.

BRONCOS over Ravens

If I had to choose one team that was considered a championship contender to miss the playoffs altogether, it would be Denver. But nobody is making me choose a team like that so I'm not going to. This isn't First Take people.

BUCCANEERS over Titans

If you aren't sick of hearing about Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota by now, you will be after Week 1. I can already see the terrible puns that SportsCenter will run depending on the outcome of the game. If the Bucs prevail they'll show something like "Wins? Ton" with meaningless QB wins stats comparing his college days to his NFL debut below. If Tennessee wins they'll display "Round 1 Goes To Pick 2" while running a B-reel montage of other notable quarterbacks picked selected second overall. I already hate this hypothetical episode of SportsCenter so much.

COWBOYS over Giants

If you could bet on something like "Will NBC's Week 1 Sunday Night Football game feature an NFC East team?" before the schedule came out, I'd do it every year. Easy money.

Eagles over FALCONS

If you thought I was going to forget to include the Gratuitous Picture of the Week in my preview articles this year, don't worry. I have you covered.

"We don't know who starts at running back / But our cheerleading backfield sure is stacked!"

Last season: 172-83-1