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Zulgad: Playoff bound? Game-by-game predictions for the Vikings’ 2021 schedule

Nfl: Chicago Bears At Minnesota Vikings
Dec 20, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Chicago Bears defensive back Duke Shelley (20) tackles Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

If the Vikings are going to rebound from a 7-9 finish in 2020 and return to the playoffs, they are likely going to need a strong finish to the regular season.

The NFL released its schedule on Wednesday evening and the Vikings learned they will play their final four games against NFC opponents and three of four against NFC North foes. So how will the Vikings fare with a revamped defense and what should be an improved offensive line for Kirk Cousins?

Let’s make some predictions. (Note: The new 17-game season means the Vikings will play nine road games and eight at home this season. Next season, that will switch.)

Sunday, Sept. 12 at Cincinnati, noon, FOX: The Vikings will open the season on the road for the first time since 2016 and play in Cincinnati for the first time since 2013. Mike Zimmer was the Bengals’ defensive coordinator at the time and became the Vikings’ coach in 2014. The Vikings are 5-2 under Zimmer in season openers. This should be Joe Burrow’s first game back from the knee injury that ended his rookie season in Week 11. Zimmer will do his best to make it an unpleasant experience. Prediction: Win, 1-0

Sunday, Sept. 19 at Arizona, 3:05 p.m., FOX: Cornerback Patrick Peterson, who spent his first 10 seasons with the Cardinals, will face his former team for the first time. It won’t be an easy test with Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray having receivers like DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green to make life difficult for Peterson and the rest of the Vikings’ cornerbacks. Prediction: Loss, 1-1

Sunday, Sept. 26 vs. Seattle, 3:25 p.m., FOX: The Vikings seem to play the Seahawks every season but usually in Seattle. This will be the first meeting between these teams in Minnesota since 2015. The Vikings have a seven-game losing streak against the Seahawks and Russell Wilson often gives the Vikings’ defense problems. However, playing their first game at home before a potentially sold out crowd should give the Vikings an energy they lacked last season when the stadium was mostly empty because of the pandemic. Prediction: Win, 2-1

Sunday, Oct. 3 vs. Cleveland, noon, CBS: Longtime Vikings assistant Kevin Stefanski returns to lead the Browns against his former boss. The Browns are a much-improved team and figure to provide a tough test. This could be an early-season hiccup for the Vikings. Prediction: Loss, 2-2

Sunday, Oct. 10 vs. Detroit, noon, FOX: The Vikings lost their first two games against the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium but have won three in a row since. The Lions have a new coach in Dan Campbell and a new quarterback in Jared Goff, but that doesn’t mean things will change for them. Prediction: Win, 3-2

Sunday, Oct. 17 at Carolina, noon, FOX: The Vikings beat the Panthers by a point last season at U.S. Bank Stadium after trailing by 11 points in the fourth quarter. The guess here is Sam Darnold will throw a couple of picks and coach Matt Rhule will be guilty of poor clock management. Prediction: W, 4-2

Sunday, Oct. 24 Bye

Sunday, Oct. 31 vs. Dallas, 7:20 p.m., NBC: The Vikings will face the Cowboys for the third consecutive season and the second time in three years in prime time. Last season, Dallas beat the Vikings, 31-28, in Minneapolis. This is the type of game the Vikings will need to win if they are going to be taken seriously. Prediction: W, 5-2

Sunday, Nov. 7 at Baltimore, noon, FOX: The Vikings will be looking to win in Baltimore for the first time since they came away with a victory in 1998. This will be nose tackle Michael Pierce’s first game against his old club since signing as a free agent with the Vikings in March 2020. He opted out for last season because of concerns about COVID-19. It will be interesting to see what Zimmer draws up for his defense against Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP. Prediction: L, 5-3

Sunday, Nov. 14 at L.A. Chargers, 3:05 p.m., FOX: The Vikings beat the Chargers on the road, 39-10, in 2019 but this will be Minnesota’s first game in the new SoFi Stadium. In order to beat the Chargers, the Vikings will have to hold quarterback Justin Herbert in check. Herbert, the sixth-overall pick in the 2020 draft, beat out Vikings’ 2020 first-round pick Justin Jefferson for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Prediction: W, 6-3

Sunday, Nov. 21 vs. Green Bay, noon, FOX: The Packers cruised to a Week 1 victory against the Vikings last season but that was with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and U.S. Bank Stadium empty. This time the stadium figures to be full and it’s unclear if Rodgers or Jordan Love will be at quarterback. Given how things are going between Rodgers and the Packers, odds seem good it will be Love under center. Prediction: W, 7-3

Sunday, Nov. 28 at San Francisco, 3:25 p.m., FOX: The Vikings return to where their 2019 season came to an end in the playoffs. The Vikings are 1-1 in the regular season against the 49ers under Zimmer. There is another quarterback question here. Trey Lance, the third-overall pick by San Francisco in last month’s draft, figures to be the starter by this point, but there’s a chance it could be Jimmy Garoppolo. Prediction: L, 7-4

Sunday, Dec. 5 at Detroit, noon, CBS: The Vikings own a four-game winning streak at Ford Field and that shouldn’t change. One of these years the Lions are going to turn around things. Until it happens, the Vikings will control this series. Prediction: W, 8-4

Thursday, Dec. 9 vs. Pittsburgh, 7:20 p.m., FOX, NFLN, Amazon: Ben Roethlisberger is 39 and is likely in his last season as the Steelers’ quarterback. What makes this game tough for the Vikings is that it will be on a short week and will conclude a stretch where they have to travel to the West Coast twice and will be home only twice in a little over month. If ever the Vikings are going to be dealing with fatigue, it figures to be for this game. Prediction: L, 8-5

Monday, Dec. 20 at Chicago, 7:15 p.m., ESPN: This will be the 16th Monday night meeting between the Vikings and Bears. Minnesota holds an 8-7 lead, having defeated the Bears on MNF last season at Soldier Field. Will the Vikings be facing veteran Andy Dalton or rookie Justin Fields at quarterback? It likely will be Fields, the Bears’ first-round pick, by this point. Prediction: L, 8-6

Sunday, Dec. 26 vs. L.A. Rams, Noon, FOX: The Vikings will face a good Rams team that now has former Lion Matthew Stafford at quarterback. Los Angeles figures to be in the playoff mix, but the Vikings should be as well. The Vikings figure to need this game and they will get it. Prediction: W, 9-6

Sunday, Jan. 2 at Green Bay, 7:20 p.m., NBC: The Vikings haven’t beaten the Packers in consecutive seasons at Lambeau Field since 2004-05, but if Green Bay doesn’t have Rodgers it could be a long year for the Packers. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook became the first player to surpass 200 yards from scrimmage and score four touchdowns at Lambeau in beating Green Bay, 28-22, last season. Prediction: W, 10-6

Sunday, Jan. 9 vs. Chicago, Noon, FOX: The Vikings have finished the season against Chicago five of the past six seasons. The NFL’s new 17-game, 18-week schedule means this will be the latest regular-season game in Vikings history. Chicago could have a big say in the Vikings’ season, considering these teams will play twice in the final four weeks. Prediction: W, 11-6

The verdict: The Vikings will continue their streak of going to the playoffs every other season under Zimmer. It’s hard to know what to make of the NFC North until we get official word on Rodgers’ situation in Green Bay, but right now you have to figure the race will be between the Vikings and Bears.