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These next six games will be the turning point in the NFC North

The Vikings start a six game stretch that begins with the Saints, ends with the Seahawks, and has three division games in between.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at New York Jets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

For fans of the NFL, every year we look at the schedule when it comes out and we try to decipher wins and losses, and make our season predictions. I do it, you do it, and we’re all usually pretty wrong, because what the perception of most teams is when the schedules come out differs greatly from reality when the a lot of these games are actually played.

For the Minnesota Vikings, most of us thought they would be a pretty good team, and in looking at the schedule there’s always a slate of several games in a row that you can point at and say ‘this is where the season will turn, one way or the other.

Last year, coming out of the bye the Vikings had a five game stretch against Washington, the Rams, Detroit, Atlanta, and Carolina. The only home game was the Rams, and most everyone thought that if they could do well in that stretch, they were a serious playoff team. They won the first four before falling short against the Panthers. In that stretch, the VIkings transformed from a team with a lot of questions to a team that was a serious contender in the NFC. That 4-1 stretch helped vault them way ahead of everyone else in the NFC North, essentially secure the division championship with about a month to play, and put themselves in the driver’s seat for first round bye in the playoffs.

This year, I feel that part of the schedule is now upon the Vikings, only this year it’s six games. None of the teams the Vikings are scheduled to face have a losing record, and their aggregate W-L is 22-14-1. The three non-division opponents are the Saints (home), then back to back road games against the Seahawks and Patriots. And while those games are important, it’s the three divisional games, two of which will be at home, that are critical.

Again, looking to last season’s five game stretch, the win over the Lions was crucial. The Vikings came in to that game 8-2, and Detroit was 6-4 with a win over Minnesota already under their belt. A Lions win puts them only one game behind the Vikings with a tiebreaker advantage, and it would have left the Vikings little room for error the rest of the year.

This year has much of the same vibe for me, and these three divisional games are all huge. Detroit has rebounded from an 0-2 start and is now 3-3, as are the Bears, with the Packers sitting at 3-2-1. Here, let’s take a look at what the NFC North will be doing over the next six games for each team:

Chicago has two very winnable games with the Jets and Bills before playing the Lions twice, the Vikings, and the Rams. Detroit has a six game stretch that has them facing the Seahawks, Vikings, Bears twice, Carolina, and the Rams. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows for Green Bay right now, either. With four road games in five games against New England, the Rams, Seattle, and then the Vikings, the Packers season hangs in the balance.

I look at these slate of games, and I see a gauntlet for everyone. Green Bay has the toughest non-divisional schedule, and their only divisional game in this stretch is on the road against the Vikings. A loss in that game puts them 1-2-1 in the division, with the tiebreaker going to the Vikings. I think Minnesota has the toughest overall schedule, with the Saints, Patriots, and Seahawks sandwiching those three crucial division games. The Bears have it relatively easy, and two of their three divisional games are at home, but those are three tough division games. Detroit has already beaten the Patriots, but the two games against the Bears are huge, as are the Panthers and Rams, which will both be at home. If either Detroit or Chicago can get a sweep of the other, that will go a long way to settling things for those teams in the division, but a split (which is what I think will happen) will only add to the drama.

With the Vikings riding a three game winning streak and Everson Griffen back, the Vikes got an emotional boost just as they got some wind in their sails, and a 4-2 or even a 5-1 run isn’t unrealistic. Of course, a lot can happen, and with key defensive players like Anthony Barr and Xavier Rhodes out, the defense, which has been playing really well, could see a fall off at the worst possible time.

Still though, the Vikings now have an offense that can go toe to toe with anyone in the NFL, and if they need to win a shootout, they can. Kirk Cousins has brought an explosiveness to the passing game, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have become the best WR tandem in the NFL, and Latavius Murray has given the ground game a much needed boost these last two weeks.

4-2 (lose to NE and SEA) in this stretch feels right to me, and depending on how Seattle plays the next month, 5-1 isn’t an outrageous prediction. If they can win at least four of those games, especially the three division games, and they’ll have the inside track to their third division title in four years.

Skol Vikings, let’s go.


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