As the Vikings get ready to travel to Oakland to face the Raiders on Sunday, there is no question the team is entering the hardest part of their schedule to date. In fact, NFLTradeRumors.com has a list of the remaining strength of schedule of every NFL team, and the Vikings have the hardest remaining schedule in the league.
It all starts in Oakland, where the Raiders are much improved over past squads. This isn't the worthless Raiders team of the past few years. Second-year quarterback Derek Carr really has the offense rolling. Over the past three weeks the Raiders have scored a total of 106 points, averaging 35.3 points per contest.
Still, something will have to give. The Vikings are the lone team in the league to not allow more than 23 points in a single game this season.
After Oakland, the Vikings will face the Packers at home, go to Atlanta, face Seattle at home, go to Arizona, face Chicago and the New York Giants at home and end the regular season at Green Bay. The teams in those last seven games have a combined record of 36-22 this season, with only the Bears (3-5) being under .500.
Looking at some statistics for those teams, it's easy to see the Vikings will face some good competition. Oakland ranks eighth in offense with 374.6 yards per game, but are 30th in defense at 411.5 yards per game.
The Packers, co-leaders of the NFC North with the Vikings, are actually struggling statistically this year, ranking 25th in offense at 340.9 yards, and 23rd in defense allowing 382.1 yards.
Atlanta is fifth in total offense with 402.2 yards, and 10th in defense with 342.3 yards allowed. Seattle, the defending NFC champion, is 19th in offense with 353.1 yards and second in defense with 284.9 yards. Arizona is third in offense at 417.4 yards per game and third in defense allowing only 312.8 yards per game.
While Chicago is struggling, its stats aren't that bad — 22nd in offense with 347.1 yards per game and ninth in defense allowing 341.9 yards. The Vikings' second-to-last opponent might be the easiest challenge because the Giants are 21st in total offense with 349.7 yards per game and dead last in defense allowing 422.6 yards per game.
A lot can change over the coming weeks and months, but if the Vikings are going to stay atop the NFC North, they are going to have to beat some of the best teams in the NFL.
Potent Raiders offense
It seems like it has been forever since the Raiders were competitive. Last year they had the worst offense in the NFL, averaging only 282.2 yards per game, and it didn't seem like there was much hope that would change. But the play of Carr, much like the play of Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, has rejuvenated the whole squad.
Carr has thrown for 2,094 yards with 19 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and his 104.3 passer rating is sixth best in the NFL.
Still, the word out of Oakland is running back Latavius Murray, (a team-leading 630 rushing yards), rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper (a team-high 653 receiving yards on 45 catches) and center Rodney Hudson all missed practice Wednesday, so the Raiders might be hurting a bit because of injuries.
Oakland is a three-point favorite Sunday, even though its defense allowed Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown to grab 17 passes for 284 yards last week in a 38-35 loss.
Iowa's easier schedule
The Hawkeyes' 9-0 season sure looks impressive, but no team has benefited from an easier schedule. Iowa doesn't have to play Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State this season. The combined record of their opponents this year is 43-39 — and that includes Division I-AA Illinois State (7-2), who the Hawkeyes faced in their season opener.
Only four other of their opponents have winning records in Pittsburgh (6-3), Wisconsin (8-2), Illinois (5-4) and Northwestern (7-2).
However, Minnesota has not had good luck against Iowa, the Gophers' opponent Saturday night, after the Hawkeyes hold a wrestling dual meet in the afternoon when 32,000-plus fans are expected to jam Kinnick Stadium for the "Grapple on the Gridiron" with No. 1 Oklahoma State.
Yes the Gophers did beat Iowa 51-14 at TCF Bank Stadium last season after Iowa marched 76 yards on 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead. However, the Hawkeyes beat the Gophers by a combined scored of 54-20 in 2012 and 2013. One thing in the Gophers' favor is Iowa doesn't have a running back this year like Mark Weisman, who rushed for 177 yards in 2012 and 147 yards the following season. In 2013 alone, the Hawkeyes rolled up a 464-165 total yards advantage, including a 246-30 margin on the ground. The Gophers did limit Weisman, who has graduated, to 21 yards on 14 carries and outrushed Iowa 291-84 last season.
After that decisive Gophers victory and a 7-6 record last season, many Hawkeyes fans and boosters wanted to get rid of longtime coach Kirk Ferentz. To buy out Ferentz, however, it would have cost the Iowa athletic department $13 million on a contract that has five years to go at $3.5 million per season.
Well, it is a different story this season. Everybody in Iowa loves Ferentz, a great guy, because the Hawkeyes are undefeated.
•Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns had five double-doubles in his first seven games going into Thursday's game with the Warriors. Towns is only the fourth NBA player in the past 30 seasons to accomplish this, joining Shaquille O'Neal, Dikembe Mutombo and David Robinson. … Wolves guard Ricky Rubio ranks second in the NBA in assists (9.0 per game) and second in assist-to-turnover ration (4.5-1) He also is tied for fourth in steals (2.33 spg).
•Because of all the injuries to the Gophers football team this season, the following true freshmen will see action against Iowa: defensive backs KiAnte Hardin, Antonio Shenault and Blake Cashman, running back Shannon Brooks, wide receiver Rashad Still, offensive lineman Tyler Moore and linebacker Julian Huff.
•The top future college basketball recruit in the state is Apple Valley junior guard Gary Trent Jr., who is being sought by most every big-time basketball program. … Tony Poljan, the Lansing (Mich.) Catholic dual-threat quarterback who has committed to the Gophers, had a big night last week, passing for 155 yards and rushing for 107 yards and two TDs to spark his team to a district football title. He told the Lansing State Journal he was solid in his commitment to Minnesota after the university announced Wednesday they were hiring interim coach Tracy Claeys to replace Jerry Kill as head coach.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. email@example.com