Minnesota Vikings' 2021 schedule: Five-game stretch after bye will determine season

Dalvin Cook and the Vikings will get their first look at the Packers on Nov. 21 in Minneapolis. Mike Roemer/AP Photo

The Minnesota Vikings' 2021 schedule was released along with the rest of the NFL slate on Wednesday.

The 2021 NFL season will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9, with the world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers playing host to the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET). ESPN's Monday Night Football opener on Sept. 13 will feature the Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Baltimore Ravens (8:15 p.m. ET).

The NFL will change its schedule for the first time in 44 years, expanding to 17 regular-season games. The final regular-season games will be played Jan. 9, 2022. The playoffs begin Jan. 15, 2022, and continue through Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, 2022, at Los Angeles' SoFi Stadium.

Here's what in store for the Vikings:

Schedule

Sept. 12: at Cincinnati

Sept. 19: at Arizona

Sept. 26: vs. Seattle

Oct. 3: vs. Cleveland

Oct. 10: vs. Detroit

Oct. 17: at Carolina

Oct. 24: Bye

Oct. 31: vs. Dallas

Nov. 7: at Baltimore

Nov. 14: at Los Angeles Chargers

Nov. 21: vs. Green Bay

Nov. 28: at San Francisco

Dec. 5: at Detroit

Dec. 9: vs. Pittsburgh

Dec. 20: at Chicago

Dec. 26: vs. Los Angeles Rams

Jan. 2: at Green Bay

Jan. 9: vs. Chicago

Strength of schedule: Fifth-hardest (.531)

Biggest takeaway

Minnesota is set for some new experiences within the expanded 17-game schedule. After four consecutive home openers at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings are headed to Cincinnati in Week 1 to face the Bengals. It's a game with storylines galore: Mike Zimmer coaching against his former team (he was the defensive coordinator from 2008-13); the LSU connections between Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson and former teammates and current Bengals Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase; and, dare we call them revenge games for ex-Vikings Riley Reiff and Trae Waynes. For the first time in the Zimmer era, Minnesota will be on the road for the first two weeks of the season, going from Cincinnati to Arizona. It appears the Vikings also earned their way back into the good graces of the prime-time gods. Minnesota has two Sunday night games (Dallas in Week 8 and Green Bay in Week 17), a Thursday night matchup (Pittsburgh in Week 14) and a Monday night showdown in Chicago in Week 15 a year after pulling off just their third win at Soldier Field since 2010.

The stretch that will determine the direction of the season

For a second consecutive year, the Vikings’ bye falls in Week 7 after facing two playoff teams (Seattle and Cleveland) in the first six weeks. Coming out of the break, Minnesota hosts Dak Prescott and the Cowboys in prime time. That's followed by road games against the Ravens and Chargers. We don’t know yet who will be at quarterback when Green Bay comes to town in Week 11, but chances are third overall pick Trey Lance will be under center with his loaded 49ers when Minnesota rounds out a critical five-game stretch at San Francisco in Week 12.

What Vegas thinks

The oddsmakers have the Vikings' win total at 8.5. Minnesota hitting the over is contingent upon Zimmer’s defense being at full strength after injuries and inexperience caused this unit to stumble in 2020. The 7.3 net yards per pass attempt allowed by the Vikings' defense ranked 30th in the league while opponents totaled 19 rushing touchdowns, eighth-most in Vikings history. After Zimmer called the 2020 defense the worst he’s ever had (393.3 yards allowed per game, 27th), the Vikings spent most of their resources on that side of the ball, signing Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods and Mackensie Alexander for quicker fixes in stopping the run and within the secondary. If the defense bounces back and Kirk Cousins and the offense find another gear after a season in which they scored the third-most points (430) in franchise history, the Vikings could find their way back into the postseason.

Bold prediction

Just like in 2020, the Vikings will beat all three of their NFC North opponents on the road but this time they will find their way back into the playoffs as a wild-card team.