MINNEAPOLIS — The narrative at the start of this Vikings season was that their schedule during the first half would be considerably easier than it would be in the second half. The Vikings got to play five of their first eight games at U.S. Bank Stadium, while one of their three away from home in that stretch, where they were technically the road team, was really a neutral-site game in London against the awful Browns.
Conventional wisdom was that the Vikings needed to take advantage of the early schedule before things got harder. That still seems to be the prevailing sentiment now that Minnesota has a 6-2 record at the midpoint, which coincided with their bye this past weekend.
But a stat from Pro Football Focus caught my attention earlier this week. Per PFF’s metrics, the Vikings have had the fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL so far this season. And their second-half schedule only ranks as the 11th-toughest. So PFF is saying things actually get easier? Are they for real?
Well, let’s go back and look at the teams played in the first half of the season. Here was their first-half schedule, with results:
New Orleans (W), Pittsburgh (L), Tampa Bay (W), Detroit (L), Chicago (W), Green Bay (W), Baltimore (W), Cleveland (W).
New Orleans has turned out to be much better than most people thought. After starting 0-2, the Saints have rattled off six wins in a row. Pittsburgh is a Super Bowl contender. The Packers at least had Aaron Rodgers at the start of the game against the Vikings before he was injured. All three teams went into the weekend in the top 10 of FiveThirtyEight’s ELO strength rankings (as are the Vikings, at No. 9). That said, Cleveland, Chicago and Tampa Bay are all in the bottom five.
In the second half, the Vikings face, in order: Washington, the L.A. Rams, Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Chicago. The only top-10 teams, per FiveThirtyEight, in that mix are Atlanta (No. 6) and Green Bay (No. 10). Both of those games looked tougher when the schedule first came out, before the Falcons sputtered a bit and Green Bay was ravaged by injuries.
Carolina and the surprising Rams are good teams with winning records, while the Vikings play Detroit again (this time on the road). Cincinnati (19th going into the weekend), Washington (20th) and Chicago (29th) round out the potentially easier games, with the Vikings getting both the Bengals and Bears at home over the final three weeks.
It doesn’t look at least from first glance like that second-half schedule is any easier than the first half — particularly when you consider four of the first five after the bye are on the road.
Pro Football Focus also projected the Vikings, after running simulations, to finish with 9.9 wins (let’s just round that up to 10 since I’m pretty sure the NFL does not allow fractions of victories). That would mean the Vikings would go 4-4 down the stretch against what PFF calls an easier schedule than they went 6-2 against at the start.
The most favorable way to read that, in regards to PFF and the Vikings, is that Minnesota overachieved in the first half. Another way to look at it is that there are more true tossup games in the second half of the year. The Vikings won’t play a team as good as Pittsburgh, but they also won’t face a team as easy as Cleveland.
In that sense, going 4-4 against the second-half slate would make some sense — and put them right at that PFF 10-win mark. If PFF’s numbers are truly to be believed, however, the Vikings could do even better than that against this next slate of eight opponents.