The losses the last two weeks for the Vikings couldn't have come at a worse time. Both of those losses – at home to Tampa Bay Oct. 20 and at Seattle Sunday – were against teams the Vikings have the talent to beat. Had they won both of them, they would be in the conversation for potentially being NFC North champion and firmly cementing themselves as a playoff contender. Had they won one of those games, they would be sitting at 6-3 and likely would only need four more wins to lock up a playoff spot.
Instead, they're 5-4 and, for the first time since the NFL started looking at where teams sit in terms of playoff positioning in Week 5, the Vikings are out of the current playoff picture. As recently as last week, the Vikings maintained their position as the No.1 wild card team (Green Bay was the No. 2 wild card team). Now Seattle is sixth and Green Bay fifth in NFC playoff seedings.
Complicating matters for the Vikings was that the other three teams in the NFC North all won. The Bears pounded Tennessee into submission by scoring a half-a-hundred points and improved to 7-1. Green Bay surgically disposed of Arizona to go to 6-3 after being left for dead a month ago. The Lions beat down an overmatched Jacksonville team to improve to 4-4 and get back into the discussion for the playoffs.
Thanks to Sunday's loss by the Vikings, not only has Green Bay checker-jumped them in the wild card playoff chase, but the Vikings no longer control their own destiny. Seattle's win pushed them to 5-4 – the same record as the Vikings – and, by, virtue of their head-to-head win over the Vikings, if the two teams finish tied for a potential wild-card spot, Seattle would win the tie-breaker.
Muddying the water even more is the fact that Tampa Bay, which has averaged 36 points a game in the four games since their bye week, improved to 4-4 and has just three more games against teams with a record above .500. By virtue of their win against the Vikings, much like Seattle, if the Vikings are to make the playoffs, they will need to have one more win than the Bucs as well. They lose all ties.
As a result, a win over Detroit Sunday at the Metrodome is critical. After Sunday, the Vikings won't come back home until Dec. 9 – the only home game they will have until after Christmas. It's going to be a long and winding road for the Vikings the second half of the season. As a result of Sunday's loss, the Vikings have no tie-breaker edge with either Seattle or Tampa Bay. They currently hold an edge over Detroit. If they win Sunday, they push the Lions 1½ games behind them with two wins in hand – effectively a 2½ game lead. If they lose, the Vikings will be in last place in the division with a 3-4 record in the conference and have lost any advantage they currently hold over the Lions.
To say Sunday's game against the Lions is "must-win" may be viewed as cliché, but realistically, it is. It won't eliminate the Vikings from playoff contention if they lose, but it will give them a three-team disadvantage they don't need if they're looking to make a legitimate playoff run.
To co-opt a phrase, as the Vikings prepare for the game heading into their bye week, their meeting at the Metrodome Sunday can realistically be referred to as a "must-win." Almost by definition. If they win, they head into their bye week at 6-4 with one team (Detroit) put in the rearview mirror. If they're going to make the playoffs, others must fall that have an advantage over them. At this point, the only one they can control is Detroit.
"We haven't been playing well and we've lost a couple in a row. Things are going to seem worse than they are," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "But the reality is we are 5-4 with every opportunity to win every game on the way out. So there's nothing to say we don't right the ship. Obviously that's the mentality we have to have. You can't be doom and gloom with seven games left."
A fifth loss in the 2012 season is coming. It's only crippling if it comes on Sunday.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.