The Vikings almost won at Arizona, against the team with the NFL's best record.

The Vikings almost lost at home, against the team with the NFL's worst record.

Sunday, in another weird burrito of a game, the Vikings almost lost to one of the worst teams you will ever see that had a winning record, the Carolina Panthers.

Appearances and perceptions aside, the Vikings are on a two-game winning streak that has gotten them to 3-3. They have not beaten a team that currently has a winning record. They remain a mystery, and the most intriguing aspect of that mystery has been their offense, because offenses featuring talented skill-position players are always intriguing.

Their defense, now without top cornerback Patrick Peterson, might be more important to their survival.

Before the Vikings played at Carolina, some observers, including myself, predicted that their next six games, all against contenders, would determine their fate.

As athletes say after making a mistake that could not be blamed on anyone else, "My bad.''

Carolina stinks. The sixth game in this supposed murderer's row is San Francisco, which is 2-3. The 49ers might be good, but they are just as unproven as the Vikings.

So let's get to the heart of the matter and the heart of the schedule. Starting on Halloween night, the Vikings will play four games against high-quality teams featuring excellent quarterbacks and a wealth of skill-position stars.

All four will stress the Vikings' defense, a defense that has allowed late-game rallies to the winless Lions and the unwatchable Panthers.

How the defense performs against four dynamic offenses may determine whether the Vikings will be in contention in December.

On Oct. 31, the Vikings play at U.S. Bank Stadium against the 5-1 Cowboys, who might have the deepest roster of talented skill-position players in the league. The Cowboys produced 567 yards on Sunday at New England, and they have enough balance between their running and passing games to devise a game plan to attack a defense's weakness.

On Nov. 7, the Vikings play at Baltimore and quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is playing far better this year than he did when he won the MVP award in 2019. Former Gophers receiver Rashod Bateman made his NFL debut on Sunday and caught four passes for 29 yards. He could become a star in a passing offense lacking standout receivers. Jackson might be the greatest running quarterback in NFL history, and he ranks ninth in passing yards this season.

On Nov. 14, the Vikings play in Los Angeles against the Chargers, who played their worst game of the season on Sunday in a loss to Baltimore. The Chargers are 4-2 and Justin Herbert might be the best of a promising group of young NFL quarterbacks, and receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen rank alongside Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen as one of the league's best receiving duos.

On Nov. 21, the Vikings play host to the Green Bay Packers, who have won five straight as Aaron Rodgers has played as if none of that offseason commotion occurred.

Prescott, Jackson, Herbert and Rodgers - all four, in some order, could be near the top of an NFL writer's early-season MVP ballot.

The Vikings will be missing Peterson for at least a few weeks, after he was placed on injured reserve Monday with a hamstring injury. They rank 16th in the NFL in yards allowed per game, even though they've played their last three games against Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has a shoulder injury and was highly inaccurate; the winless Lions; and the Panthers without star running back Christian McCaffrey.

This may be the month that determines whether Mike Zimmer gets a new contract. It will be his defense against four diverse offenses. It's fitting, in a way.

If Zimmer's defense can survive this month-long offensive onslaught, the Vikings will enter December with the look of a true contender, and Zimmer will deserve much of the credit.