As the Vikings and Bengals kick off the 2021 season, Cincinnati is striving to get back to the middle of the pack. Minnesota seems like they might be stuck there.
I turned 40 over the summer.
It didn’t feel like a particularly huge or ominous milestone. Turning 30 felt much more significant to me; turning 40 felt like just another birthday. Maybe it’s because despite the world being…well, you know, [broadly gestures] the world…for over 18 months and counting, I consider myself extremely fortunate. I have a wife that
somehow still puts up with my shit is incredibly kind and supportive, two daughters that I over-post about on social media adore, a challenging but fulfilling day job, and a fun side gig where I get to commiserate with fellow Vikings fans online. Could be worse!
That said, according to most definitions, I’m officially middle aged now. The annual Fall beard I’m currently growing out has a lot more gray in it this time around. Both workouts and nights out that I used to consider mild can leave me feeling incapacitated for days at a time. Between officially entering the full-time coach/chauffeur stage of parenting and NFL Game Pass abruptly taking away their All-22 film, carving out time for this fun side gig has become increasingly difficult. It never feels like there are enough hours in the day, and it’s easy for resources to get spread too thin with so much going on.
Speaking of resources being spread too thin and running out of time: ladies and gentlemen, I present your 2021 Minnesota Vikings!
(Now that I’m 40, I really should have stretched before making that sudden transition. I think I just pulled something.)
The Vikings have taken a “stars and scrubs” approach to team building over the past handful of years. The strategy has allowed the Vikings to retain many of their best players (and also Kirk Cousins) with big contracts, like the recent extensions for Harrison Smith and Brian O’Neill. But it also puts an onus on finding cheap/young players to fill out the margins of the roster. Unless you can unearth some gems that can perform well before their own big paydays, lack of depth can be a big problem. Mike Zimmer admitted as much in his press conference on Wednesday.
Mike Zimmer when asked about the Vikings’ depth: “It’s concerning.”
“I feel good about our top guys, but some of the young guys gotta step it up. When you’re top-heavy with your finances, that’s what you have to do.”
— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) September 8, 2021
Two weeks ago, I half-joked that the Vikings were in great shape as long as nobody missed any time for any reason. (Right on cue, Irv Smith Jr. was ruled out for most/all of the season a few days later.) While there is a lot of talent on the current Vikings roster, the margin for error is scarce on a lot of fronts. The defense brought in a lot of new and returning pieces, but many of those pieces aren’t on the books for 2022 and beyond. The tight end, linebacker, quarterback, and safety positions currently don’t have much to offer if a starter misses time. And getting back to the postseason might be the only way that Zimmer and Rick Spielman ensure their future employment with the franchise. Most power rankings and sports books currently have the Vikings right near the middle of the league. If they finish the year mired in the mediocre muck, it might be time to hit the ol’ reset button. Hovering within a game of the .500 mark and missing the postseason—like they have in every even year under Zimmer—could very well mean that there isn’t another even year under Zimmer.
Hovering around the .500 mark doesn’t sound all that bad for the Vikings’ Week 1 opponents. The 2020 Cincinnati Bengals were a bad team. Not quite as bad as their 2-14 iteration the season before, but improving to 4-11-1 probably wasn’t what Zac Taylor had in mind for his second year at the helm. Heading into 2021, there are some valid reasons to think that the Bengals could keep improving, and perhaps even avoid their sixth straight losing season.
Despite looking a bit shaky early in the preseason, Joe Burrow is ready to return from the left knee injury that stopped his rookie season short after ten games. He’ll have some talented skill players around him as well. Workhorse back Joe Mixon is back at full strength after missing the final ten games of the 2020 campaign. Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are joined by 5th overall pick Ja’Marr Chase to form a formidable receiving corps. Yes, Chase had some problems with drops in the preseason after opting out of the 2020 NCAA season. But if anyone should know about the potential of first round wide receivers from LSU after slow starts, it’s the Vikings.
The main concern on the Cincinnati offense should sound very familiar to Vikings fans: the Bengals offensive line could submarine the potential of their skill players. Like the Vikings replacing the likes of Dakota Dozier and Dru Samia, the Bengals are hoping that “addition by subtraction” of departing players like Michael Jordan and Bobby Hart helps keep Burrow upright this year. And the comparisons don’t stop there! Just like the Vikings, there are still some major question marks for the Bengals O-line, especially along the interior. Former first round pick Jonah Williams and old friend Riley Reiff make for respectable bookends at the tackles, but the guard and center positions aren’t exactly littered with Pro Bowlers in Cincinnati.
After an uncharacteristically anemic year in 2020, the Vikings defensive line should be back to being one of the better units on the team. Danielle Hunter looks ready to do his best John Wick impression on NFL tackles this season. D.J. Wonnum, Everson Griffen, and Stephen Weatherly provide a solid rotation on the other side. Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Sheldon Richardson are (quite literally) a huge upgrade in the middle. They could all make Burrow’s experience very uncomfortable on Sunday.
Something that could also make Burrow’s experience uncomfortable: his lack of experience. Sunday will be his 11th career start. Under Mike Zimmer, the Vikings are 10-2 against starting quarterbacks with 11 or fewer career starts, holding their opponents to an average of 15.1 points per game in those contests. In all but one of those games—the 27-6 debacle against the Bills in 2018—the opponent had a quarterback rating of less than 80.
Of course, Burrow is a lot more talented than most of the inexperienced quarterbacks the Vikings have faced under Zimmer, and we can’t just assume that the Vikings defense will be the same old pre-2020 Zimmer defense right out of the gate. The Athletic’s Arif Hasan wrote about how they should improve almost by default, but just how much they improve isn’t known yet. While it’s true that the defense needed to replace a lot of its parts after last year, we probably shouldn’t expect the new unit to be a well-oiled machine in Week 1.
Like the Vikings, the Bengals defense has a good chance to be better in 2021 because they were almost as much of a train wreck in 2020. They were ranked 23rd in overall defense by PFF, 27th in defensive DVOA by Football Outsiders, and 20th in both yards and points allowed per drive. In another similarity to Minnesota, Cincinnati’s secondary looks better on paper this year thanks to some offseason changes. However, Trae Waynes has yet to play in a game for the Bengals since joining the team last season, and he won’t get a shot at a revenge game on Sunday. That leaves Eli Apple—a 2016 first round pick who is already on his fourth NFL team and has allowed a passer rating of 100.2 over his career—and fellow new addition Chidobe Awuzie tasked with keeping track of Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson when they’re on the outside. The addition of versatile nickel corner Mike Hilton from Pittsburgh should be a huge help for Cincinnati, but Minnesota’s lethal 1-2 wide receiver punch should still be able to make a few big plays on Sunday.
The only thing better than a lethal 1-2 punch at wide receiver is a lethal 1-2-3 punch. The Vikings certainly haven’t established that yet, but it appears that they’ll have all the possible WR3 options available to them in Week 1. Dede Westbrook was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice, which is a good sign for his availability on Sunday. Even if Westbrook is ready to go, it’s entirely possible that KJ Osborn and Ihmir Smith-Marsette see more snaps. Hopefully one of the second-tier receivers can start to become a reliable option in the passing attack now that Smith is out and Tyler Conklin (limited on Wednesday) is still working his way back from a hamstring injury. Everyone—including the Bengals coaching staff—knows that Jefferson, Thielen, and Dalvin Cook are going to get their touches. But having a reliable option outside of the “big 3” on the Vikings offense could make a big difference, both on Sunday and throughout the season.
I have a feeling that Sunday’s contest at Paul Brown Stadium won’t be the most aesthetically pleasing game of football we have ever seen. It could be a good old-fashioned rock fight between two teams working out their many kinks. Klint Kubiak needs to prove that his twist on his dad’s offense works better with all the starters in place, unlike what they showed in the preseason. Mike Zimmer, Andre Patterson, and Adam Zimmer need to prove that they can consistently put all the new pieces in the right places. And there’s a good chance that doesn’t completely come to fruition right away.
For all of their questionable depth and possible growing pains, the talent on the Vikings roster should be able to handle the Bengals, a team that’s still probably a year or two away. It might not always be pretty, but the Vikings should head to Arizona next week with a 1-0 record.
But if the Vikings lose on Sunday to start on the trajectory of another season doomed to finish somewhere in the mediocre middle…
…you know what? I don’t even want to go there until I absolutely have to. After all, I’m getting too old for this shit.
Vikings 20, Bengals 16
And now for the rest of my Week 1 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
BUCCANEERS over Cowboys
Dak is back, and Dallas could very well win a completely-up-for-grabs NFC East this year. But betting on Tom Brady has usually worked for literally half of my 40 years, so I’ll pick the defending champs.
FALCONS over Eagles
The “They Weren’t as Bad as Their 4-Win Record Last Year” Bowl! I’ll take Atlanta because they’re at home, and their “well let’s just try to get to 35 points before our opponents” philosophy is more defined than whatever they’re currently trying to do in Philadelphia.
BILLS over Steelers
I think Buffalo is going to be one of the best teams in the NFL this year, and I think Pittsburgh is going to be closer to Cincinnati than they are to Cleveland or Baltimore.
49ers over LIONS
Detroit is probably going to suck again this year, but at least they might suck in a more entertaining manner! Apologies in advance if Kyle Shanahan puts fellow North Dakota State alum Trey Lance in for any type of gadget play and I act like it was the greatest play call in the history of football on Twitter.
TITANS over Cardinals
I don’t have a good feel on this matchup at all, so I’ll pick Tennessee to win just to feel a little better about the Vikings’ chances in Arizona next week. (Or do I actually want the Cardinals to win so they come in overconfident?)
Seahawks over COLTS
I’m less excited about the former North Dakota State quarterback in this game. It’s nice that Carson Wentz is on track to play after it looked like his foot injury was going to keep him out for quite a while. But I’m going to need to see Frank Reich resurrect the 2017 version of Wentz before I pick the Colts to beat a perennial playoff team like Seattle.
FOOTBALL TEAM over Chargers
I’m not hallucinogen-level high on Washington as Mike Greenberg, but I do think they’ll be better with Ryan Fitzpatrick replacing the turd charcuterie board of quarterbacks they had last year. The Chargers have avoided their annual tradition of having roughly eight key players out for the season before Week 1, but I’m still taking Washington at home here.
Jets over PANTHERS
I know that the Jets are…well, the Jets, and they’re a 4.5-point underdog in Carolina. I just can’t ignore the poetic storyline of Sam Darnold finally being free of Adam Gase’s black hole in New York, only to get beaten by the new regime in his first game after his escape.
Jaguars over TEXANS
The thought of picking Urban Meyer on the road in his first game as an NFL head coach almost makes me physically ill. But the thought of picking this putrid Texans team without Deshaun Watson under any circumstances should be punishable by sacrificing your power of attorney to a loved one.
CHIEFS over Browns
Kevin Stefanski coaching in the marquee game of the week, just like we all envisioned in 2019! (I like the Browns to win the AFC North this year, but I can’t pick them against Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid at Arrowhead just yet.)
PATRIOTS over Dolphins
If you’re a Vikings fan and you’re complaining about how they could have drafted Mac Jones at 14 instead of trading back for Christian Darrisaw, please show me your tweets reflecting that sentiment back in late April. Because I can basically guarantee that you didn’t feel that way on draft night.
Packers over SAINTS (in Jacksonville)
After the 2009 NFC Championship Game, it takes some very special circumstances to get me to root for anything related to Sean Payton and the Saints. But between being displaced by Hurricane Ida and who their Week 1 opponents are, I’m actually rooting for New Orleans here. (More for the city and its people than the football team, but still.)
Broncos over GIANTS
Are there things to like about both of these teams? Yes. Are there some very large concerns that both teams must address before being considered playoff contenders? Also yes. Did I pick the Broncos just because Teddy Bridgewater is their starter, even though he is probably one of Denver’s aforementioned concerns? One hundred percent.
RAMS over Bears
My first Survivor Pool pick of the year. It feels like Chicago is sacrificing Andy Dalton to this scary Rams defense before throwing Justin Fields into the fray a few weeks down the road.
Ravens over RAIDERS
If I’m Las Vegas, I’m mad that the NFL isn’t doing the Week 1 Monday Night Football doubleheader this year. If this game kicked off at 9:15 CT, I’d feel much better about the Raiders’ chances, because something weird always happened during that super-late game.
Season so far: 0-0
Last year: 171-84-1