5 games that could define Vikings rookie QB J.J. McCarthy in 2024

Minnesota Vikings QB J.J. McCarthy
Minnesota Vikings QB J.J. McCarthy / Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

With the 10th pick in the 2024 NFL Draft last month, the Minnesota Vikings selected former Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy. The Vikings believe McCarthy will replace Kirk Cousins as their new franchise signal-caller.

In order to ease McCarthy’s entrance into pro football, Minnesota signed former first-round pick Sam Darnold this offseason as well. The idea is to have Darnold serve as a bridge quarterback until McCarthy is ready. Of course, a head coach’s job is tied to performance on the field. If the Vikings struggle early, or there is an injury to Darnold, McCarthy will likely be thrust into action whether he's ready or not.

Minnesota has been down this road twice in the past 13 years. In 2011, Minnesota took Florida State’s Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick and also traded for former Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Commanders veteran QB Donovan McNabb to start. That lasted all of six weeks until McNabb was benched, and Ponder started in Week 7 of his rookie season.

Three years later, the Vikings drafted Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater in the first round in 2014 and planned to have him learn from veteran signal-caller Matt Cassel. When Cassel went down with a season-ending injury in Week 3, Bridgewater was the starter for the remainder of the year.

There are no guarantees in the NFL, and the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry (as the saying goes). No one is hoping Darnold gets hurt, and fans are praying for a good start to the 2024 season.

Unfortunately, real life gets in the way and we’ll likely see McCarthy start sooner rather than later. Should that happen, here are five games that could define McCarthy in the upcoming 2024 season.

5 games that could define Minnesota Vikings QB J.J. McCarthy in 2024

1. Week 7 vs. Detroit Lions

The Vikings upgraded their roster in free agency and the draft, which means there should be improvement on both sides of the ball in 2024. Having said that, it’s a stretch to believe Minnesota will begin the year 5-0. 

The Vikings have a difficult contest against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2, then they meet a rapidly rising Houston Texans squad in Week 3, followed by a matchup with the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin in Week 4. Week 5 has Minnesota playing the New York Jets in London. Optimistically, their record will be 3-2, but more likely 2-3 heading into the bye week after the Jets game.

This is where McCarthy comes in. Regardless of whether Minnesota has two or three wins, head coach Kevin O’Connell will want to salvage the season before the losses begin piling up. When the team exits their bye, McCarthy will get his first career start against the Lions in Week 7.

The Lions were one of the NFL’s darlings of 2023. Head coach Dan Campbell’s crew surprised almost everyone when they went 12-5, won the division for the first time since 1993, and came within a whisker of competing in Super Bowl LVIII.

Minnesota will be at home against the Lions for this game, and the U.S. Bank Stadium crowd will be raucous. This will be a great test of just how ready McCarthy is. If he can pull out a victory against the NFL’s newly minted $212 million man, Jared Goff, he will begin his coronation as the face of the franchise.

2. Week 8 at Los Angeles Rams

This should be a fun one. Rams head coach Sean McVay and Kevin O’Connell are two of the bright young offensive minds in the game. Under McVay’s watch, the Rams have played in two Super Bowls since 2018. 

Quarterback Matt Stafford helped LA rebound from an awful 3-6 start in 2023 to a 10-7 finish and a Wild-Card loss to Detroit. Pitting McCarthy against Stafford will be a good test to see how well the rookie can compete against a player with a world title on his resume. 

The Rams will no longer have All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald on the field, as he retired after last season, but the organization reloaded in the draft and won’t slow down much. McCarthy to Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison and Stafford to Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua will be must-see viewing. 

3. Week 12 at Chicago Bears

Before Week 12, the Vikings play the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans. McCarthy against Anthony Richardson, Trevor Lawrence, and Will Levis will be interesting to watch. However, the big story for the Week 12 game will be two NFC North rookie QBs squaring off for division supremacy.

Caleb Williams was the first overall selection of the 2024 NFL Draft last month before McCarthy was taken nine picks later. Williams and Chicago are a potent unit with a sleek offense that includes veteran receivers D.J. Moore and Keenan Allen, rookie Rome Odunze, running back D’Andre Swift, and tight end Cole Kmet.

Barring unforeseen, catastrophic setbacks for the Bears, the team should have a winning record by the time these two NFC North foes meet for the first time next season. McCarthy will look to silence the frenzied Chicago fans who desperately want to prove that their team has (at long last) found their franchise quarterback.

A win could potentially keep the Vikings in contention to win the division crown. It will also give McCarthy bragging rights over WIlliams, at least for three weeks until the two teams meet again in Minneapolis. 

4. Week 14 vs. Atlanta Falcons

This is a no-brainer. Kirk Cousins left Minnesota after last season and having never led the organization past the divisional round of the playoffs. He departed for greener pastures and a greener wallet for free-spending Atlanta.

The NFL gods then felt it necessary to have Cousins return to Minnesota to meet his replacement. Captain Kirk was a beloved figure in the Twin Cities, and Vikings fans will probably give him a welcome return, at least until the game starts.

Both teams have potent offenses and defenses that are (hopefully) much improved. Cousins will try to stifle the SKOL crowd while finding weapons Drake London, Kyle Pitts, and Bijan Robinson early and often.

McCarthy beating Cousins will go a long way in affirming that the Vikings’ front office was correct in not re-signing their former franchise QB. It will also mean that the organization has taken another positive step forward in the McCarthy era. 

5. Week 17 vs. Green Bay Packers

When the 2023 season began, it looked like the Packers’ decades-long run of top-notch quarterback play was over. After having Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers under center since the early 1990s, the Pack appeared doomed with Jordan Love.

Suddenly, a 3-6 start gave way to a scintillating 9-8 finish, an upset of Dallas in the wild-card round, and a near upset of the 49ers in the divisional round. Along the way, Love suddenly became the next superstar signal-caller for Green Bay. Numerous media members have vacillated between the Packers and the Lions as the favorites to win the division next season. Green Bay entered the discussion because Love looks like the second coming of Rodgers.

This is the second of two games between Minnesota and the Packers next season. When they first meet in Week 4, Darnold will likely still be starting. If McCarthy truly gets to play after Minnesota's bye week, he’ll be fully ensconced in the Vikings’ offense and be sufficiently battle-tested.

Both teams in this game could be angling for playoff seeding, and Minnesota will likey need a win in this contest and in Week 18 against the Lions in order to have a chance at competing in the postseason.

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