Heading into the 2010 NFL regular season, many pundits have posited that the Green Bay Packers are poised to dethrone the Minnesota Vikings as the NFC North champions. That line of thinking is the outgrowth of the perception that the Packers took giant steps last year and are on the cusp of taking yet another step forward this year.
As the old saying goes, however, it's not who you play, but when you play them. And an objective, albeit early, assessment of the 2010 schedules for the Vikings and Packers suggests that the teams that the Packers play in 2010 could create more problems for the green and gold than will the teams that the Vikings play this year.
For the Vikings, the schedule appears far more appealing than many football analysts have suggested. Though it is true that the team begins the season with numerous challenging opponents, including the New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Green Bay Packers, and New England Patriots, the team benefits from two early season bye weeks, one of them during which they play the Detroit Lions.
The difficulty for Minnesota will be weathering the first seven weeks of the season, during which the team plays four games on the road against teams against whom they likely will be slight underdogs. If the Vikings can sweep Miami, Detroit, and Dallas at home, a reasonable proposition, and win at the Jets and or at New England, that daunting seven game stretch will successfully be in the rear view mirror.
After the opening seven-game gauntlet, the Vikings face mostly average to below-average teams for the remainder of the season, barring a resurgence by the New York Giants, with their most likely challenges likely to be a home game against the Packers and at Philadelphia. The rest of the schedule includes the Lions, the Bears, twice, the Cardinals without Kurt Warner, Washington, and Buffalo. Assuming no major injuries, the return of Favre, even remotely modest play at cornerback and safety, and modest line play, the Vikings should be able to record at least at an 11-5 record, allowing for one home hiccup and assuming road victories against lesser opponents.
Unlike the Vikings, the Packers have the difficult portion of their season interspersed throughout their schedule. If Minnesota stumbles out of the gate, that could favor the Packers. But, if the Vikings simply do as suggested above, the burden will fall on the Packers to keep pace in the second half of a schedule that should be tougher for Green Bay than should be Minnesota's for the Vikings.
Though the Vikings and Packers play a similar slate of opponents, the Packers play at Chicago early in the season when the Bears will still believe they are playing for something and close against a Chicago team that likely will be looking to spoil the Packers' playoff hopes.
The Packers' season very well could hinge on games at home against Minnesota and, more importantly, on the road at Atlanta. Victories in both games, and a split with the Bears, will put the pressure on Minnesota to meet its performance expectations. A loss in either will reduce that pressure and put even more pressure on the Packers to forge through a schedule which, though containing no long stretches that ought to test the Packers' fortitude, neither permits the Packers any stretches of even relative rest.
Comparisons between the Vikings' and Packers' schedules are far more apt than is the the suggestion that the Packers have the easier of the two schedules. But the difference in when the Vikings and Packers play the meat of their schedule could bode well for the Vikings. And should the Vikings weather the early weeks of the season, the Vikings can make the case that the pressure will be on the Packers through the remainder of the season in what should be a one game divide between two of last year's NFC playoff teams.
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