The Vikings finish their only homestand of the 2021 season on Sunday against the winless Lions, in what could be an oasis between a 1-3 start and a six-game blur that defines their season.
Though the Vikings are the only NFC North team to outscore their opponents through the first four games of the season, they are 1-3 after a trio of one-score losses, trailing the Packers by two games in the division as coach Mike Zimmer continues to say his team is close to a turnaround.
The Vikings are 10-point favorites on Sunday, the 10th time they've been favored by that much in Zimmer's eight seasons. They are 8-1 in their previous nine games as such heavy favorites under Zimmer; they might need to make it 9-1 to maintain a realistic chance of proving their coach right about what they can achieve this year.
After Sunday, the Vikings play six games against teams with combined records of 17-7. Four of those games are on the road — including two on the West Coast — and four are against NFC teams the Vikings currently trail in the playoff standings. Last season, they got back to .500 after a 1-4 start with a six-game stretch that included three wins over 10-loss teams; the Vikings might not be so lucky this year.
"It's a razor's edge," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "It's a play here, a play there. Last year we were so close to getting into the playoffs with the new [seven-team] format, so there's so much play for, and it's a long season, a lot of football up ahead and that's really what we're focusing on.''
While a matchup with the Lions in Week 5 might not seem like a must-win game, here are four reasons it's pretty close.
1. It's a chance for correction
Though the Vikings have talked frequently about how close they are to being 3-1 or 4-0, they're sitting at 1-3 because of some repeated mistakes: offensive penalties that have made it difficult to continue drives, defensive lapses at the end of the first half and a lack of offensive production in the second half.
The Lions will be the first team the Vikings have played with a losing record, and Detroit is missing enough starters that Sunday could be a more forgiving environment for the Vikings to develop some consistency, build some confidence and gain some momentum heading into a difficult stretch of the schedule. It's also a home game for a team that's never lost more than twice at home in playoff seasons under Zimmer.
Put simply, it's the kind of game that good teams should be able to put away.
2. The playoff path might lead North
The Vikings trail Green Bay by two games in the division, but the Packers have four of their next five on the road, including a game with Cincinnati on Sunday and back-to-back games at Arizona and Kansas City at the end of the stretch. Green Bay is also dealing with injuries to key defenders like Za'Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander, after a year that began with tension over Aaron Rodgers' possible departure.
Chicago is 2-2 but could go through lapses while turning things over to rookie quarterback Justin Fields, and the Lions are 0-4. There's enough instability in the division that the Vikings might have an opportunity to challenge for the North title if the Packers slip — provided they can win their division games like they did last year, when they went 4-2 against NFC North opponents.
3. The schedule gets tougher
A victory Sunday would put the Vikings at 2-3 before the most grueling stretch of their schedule; a loss would put them in a 1-4 hole that might be too difficult to escape.
Next weekend, the Vikings travel to Charlotte, N.C., to face the 3-1 Panthers. Then it's a bye week, followed by a Halloween night game at home against the 3-1 Cowboys and a November schedule with three road games. The Ravens (3-1) are up first on Nov. 7, followed by the Chargers (3-1) on Nov. 14. The Vikings return home to face the Packers (3-1) on Nov. 21, and then make another trip to the West Coast to take on the 49ers (2-2) on Nov. 28.
Road teams are 34-31 this season, so the Vikings keeping their season afloat while they are away from U.S. Bank Stadium isn't out of the question. But they would have to handle back-to-back games on opposite coasts, the two aforementioned West Coast trips and a four-week stretch against Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Rodgers.
A victory Sunday, and a split in the six-game stretch, would mean the Vikings are 5-6 heading into a December/January schedule that includes four division games. A loss on Sunday, and a 1-4 record to start the stretch, would force the Vikings to get hot right as their schedule gets toughest.
4. The stakes are high in the organization
Coming off a season when the Vikings started 1-5, finished 7-9 and lost a December home game to the Bears that ultimately cost them a playoff spot, the team signed a handful of veterans to one-year contracts, while restructuring deals for Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr that essentially trigger decisions on both players after this year.
The way the 2021 Vikings are built, coupled with the implications a second consecutive losing season could have on the futures of General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer, means a reset might be coming if the team can't work its way into the NFC playoff race.
Eight key Vikings defenders — Everson Griffen, Stephen Weatherly, Barr, Nick Vigil, Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Xavier Woods and Mackensie Alexander — are scheduled to be free agents in March, while the Vikings added an $18 million roster bonus to Hunter's deal that will essentially force them to extend the defensive end's deal or trade him. Cousins has a $45 million salary cap figure in 2022, and the Vikings would only have to absorb $10 million of the deal next year if they traded him.
Losses in games like Sunday's could push the Vikings closer to some difficult decisions, particularly with the trade deadline looming on Nov. 2.
There are obvious caveats here: The NFL's decision to add a 17th regular-season game means the Vikings have 13 games left, not 12, to rebound from their 1-3 start. And while the 2008 Vikings remain the only team in franchise history to make the playoffs after starting 1-3, the league adding a seventh playoff team to each conference means the 2020 Vikings would have come back from a 1-5 record to reach the postseason if they had beaten the Bears at home last December.
But as the Vikings wrap up a three-game run at home with an inviting division game on their schedule, no one within the organization is interested in making the job any more difficult than it's been through four weeks.
"We want to win games; that's the goal in this league. That's why we're here," center Garrett Bradbury said. "There's a bunch of stats in this league, but that's really the only one that matters. So, that's our focus now. We want to earn a win. We have a good chance this week against a great team. That's where we're at."