One of the first pieces of advice I received when writing about the NFL came from former Vikings General Manager Mike Lynn.
“It’s not who you play,” he would say, holding the team’s schedule. “It’s when you play them.”
The 2016 Vikings are putting a new spin on that notion. It’s not who you play; it’s how you play them.
The Vikings had to use their backup quarterback in the season opener at Tennessee. The game felt a lot like the Vikings’ awful opener in San Francisco the year before — a road game against a team with a strong running attack that did not yet comprehend just how bad it could be as the season progressed.
This was the worst time to play the Titans. The Vikings scored two defensive touchdowns and won going away.
In Week 2, the Vikings played their first regular-season game at U.S. Bank Stadium. They faced the Packers, and a quarterback who can handle crowd noise in Aaron Rodgers. In fact, the crowd was so loud that the Vikings offense often couldn’t hear its own calls.
Sam Bradford broke in as the Vikings’ starting quarterback against a quality opponent in a difficult setting. The Vikings won going away.
In Week 3, the Vikings played at Carolina with a banged-up offensive line in a place where the Panthers hadn’t lost since 2014 and against an offense that was averaging 40 points per game. This may have been the toughest game on the schedule. The Panthers took a 10-0 lead; guard Alex Boone left with an injury; and the Vikings dominated the last three quarters to win going away.
In Week 4, the Vikings played on Monday night against one of the best receivers in the game, Odell Beckham, Jr. Beckham had been frustrated in previous games and is known for making big plays on big stages. The Vikings shut him down while harassing quarterback Eli Manning and won going away.
The first quarter of the season promised to be the toughest on the Vikings even if they had Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson available. Instead, they cruised through the first four games at 4-0 without Bridgewater, Peterson or a stable offensive line.
The Vikings have set themselves up for an exceptional season by powering through what appears to be the toughest part of their schedule.
In 1998, the Vikings set a franchise record for wins with 15. They had an excellent offense. They also were lucky to play a soft schedule.
Here are the starting quarterbacks they faced in ’98, other than Brett Favre (twice): Trent Dilfer (twice), Tony Banks, Charlie Batch (twice), Erik Kramer, Gus Frerotte, Billy Joe Tolliver, Neil O’Donnell, Troy Aikman at the end of his career, Steve Stenstrom, Jim Harbaugh at the end of his career, Jonathan Quinn and Steve McNair.
The ’98 team pummeled bad competition. The 2016 Vikings have already pummeled the best competition they will see in the regular season.
They have beaten three straight quarterbacks who have played in Super Bowls. They will play just one more game against a quarterback who has played in a Super Bowl — the rematch with Rodgers in Lambeau Field.
They likely will play three games against quarterbacks who are in their first year with their team — rookies Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, and the Texans’ Brock Osweiler.
The Texans are 3-1 but were embarrassed 27-0 in their only difficult matchup this season, at New England. The Philadelphia Eagles are 3-0 with a rookie quarterback and have one impressive victory, a 34-3 blowout vs. Pittsburgh.
After the next two games, the Vikings have only two games on their schedule against teams currently with winning records — Dec. 1 vs. the Cowboys (3-1) and the Packers (2-1).
You need a lot of luck to win 15 games. What’s impressive about the Vikings’ 4-0 start is they haven’t needed luck at all.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On