MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings players and coaches return from the team's bye week on Monday in the middle of a muddled NFC in which only five teams are better than 2-3. Even as they trail the undefeated Green Bay Packers by 2½ games in the NFC North, the Vikings are in solid position to make a playoff push.
Their ability to stay in that position, though, might hinge on their ability to take advantage of what should, at least in theory, be the softest portion of their schedule.
It begins this week, when the Kansas City Chiefs come to town without Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs likely lost their best offensive threat for the season on Sunday when a preliminary diagnosis showed a torn ACL for Charles. The Chiefs, sitting at 1-4 after a last-second loss to the Chicago Bears, have an impressive collection of pass-rushers but have given up 13 touchdown passes this season and allowed Alex Smith to be sacked 21 times.
Then comes a pair of divisional road games against the Detroit Lions (0-5) and Bears (2-3), followed by a home game against the 2-3 Rams and a trip to Oakland to face the 2-3 Raiders. All told, the Vikings play five teams with a combined record of 7-18 in the next five weeks, before the Packers come to town.
And here's why the Vikings need to take advantage of the next five weeks: The Packers' trip to TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 22 doesn't just end the soft portion of the Vikings' schedule. It kicks off a stretch of four games in 18 days when the Vikings will face three teams currently leading their divisions and the two-time defending NFC champion Seahawks. Put simply, if the Packers-Falcons-Seahawks-Cardinals stretch is going to define the Vikings' season, they need to play well enough in the preceding five games for it to mean something.
To this point under Mike Zimmer (and this year's season opener in San Francisco notwithstanding), the Vikings have done a solid job against the teams they should beat. They went 7-2 against teams with losing records last year and didn't lose to a sub-.500 team at home. Winning on the road hasn't been a consistent habit for the Vikings -- they have only NFC North road victory since 2011 -- but facing a couple beatable opponents in the division should provide the Vikings with an opportunity to get things going.
The Vikings probably can't afford to waste that opportunity in the next few weeks, particularly in light of what comes after the Raiders game. The Vikings are looking at a forgiving portion of their schedule from now until mid-November, and the ability to head into the Packers game with a 5-4 or 6-3 record would put the Vikings in a strong spot.
It's unlikely Zimmer or anyone in the Vikings' locker room will publicly characterize this as the easiest portion of the team's schedule, but the facts make that eminently clear. To keep themselves on a solid postseason track, the Vikings would do well to stockpile some wins now.