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BALL FIVE: Road schedule will make repeat of last year’s 13-3 record hard to match

I saw in a headline the other day that Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer gave his prediction for the upcoming NFL season.
It wasn’t really a prediction, but it was a heck of a quote. Following the Vikings’ practice at new TCO Stadium on Saturday, Zimmer told a huge crowd of Vikings faithful that, “You’re going to be really proud of this team in February.”
All Zim really said was something we already know, the Vikings are going to be a really good team and a Super Bowl contender again this year.
Does that mean they can go 13-3 and make it to the NFC title game again? It might, but they will have to be a better team than they were last year. Maybe a lot better. Their schedule is why. It is flat out nasty.
First, with new quarterback Kirk Cousins and a healthy second-year running back Dalvin Cook, the offense should be even more explosive than it was last year. Face it, with Case Keenum at the helm last year, the offense was good, but a lot of the explosiveness came from how good the players around Keenum were, not how good he was. Cousins raises the fear factor for other defenses. So does a healthy Cook. Remember, he was leading the NFL in rushing when he got hurt last year.
The Vikings had the best defense in the NFL last year. Everyone is back and the team added defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. The 2013 Rookie of the Year and former pro bowler will only make the second coming of the Purple People Eaters a nastier lot.
Okay, now on to the killer schedule the Vikings face this year. Most of the ugliness comes on the road. The Vikings start the season at home against San Francisco. The 49ers won their last five games last year after attaining Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots. Then they hit the road for three of the next four with their only break a home game against the Buffalo Bills in week three. But how big a break? The Bills made the playoffs last year. In week two, the Vikings go to Green Bay to square off against their division rivals and a healthy Aaron Rodgers. The Packers are right with the Vikings as favorites to win the North. After the Buffalo game, the Vikings have a short week before heading to Los Angeles to face the Rams, a team that won the West last year and many are picking as a Super Bowl team. The next Sunday they go cross-country to take on the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. The next two weeks are the Cardinals at home and the Jets on the road. On Thursday, Oct. 28, the Vikings and Saints play at TCF Bank Stadium in a rematch of last year’s Miracle in Minneapolis game.
The next three weeks are divisional games with the Lions at home, the Bears on the road and then a Sunday night matchup with the Packers. After that, the Vikings hit the road to take on the AFC champion New England Patriots and then go west to face the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football. The last three games are going to be meaningful with Miami at home, the Lions on the road and then the Bears at home in the regular season finale.
That, folks, is a nasty schedule. And don’t forget, the Lions were a 9-7 team last year. The Bears went 5-11, but are expected to be improved enough that the Black and Blue Division is widely considered the best division in the NFL this year.
The Vikings are going to be an outstanding football team, but winning enough games to perhaps host the NFC title game is going to be a monumental task.