The NFL has a knack for finding a "winner-take-all" divisional game to feature in the final game of the regular season. It's no coincidence that all 16 games on Sunday are divisional games. It's been planned out by deeper minds than ours. The hope is that a division title will be on the line in at least one of the eight divisions that makes the game flexed to Sunday night have meaning and relevance.
Thanks to the historically tight battles in the NFC East, they have seemed to be the pick each of the last few seasons since the flex schedule was adopted. Nothing has changed. Dallas heads to Washington with the winner taking the division title and the loser more than likely being eliminated.
As such, the winner of the Sunday night game will win the NFC East. Given the strange circumstance surrounding the first round of the playoffs this year, it seems inevitable that, if the Vikings beat the Packers Sunday, the two teams will meet again in the playoffs next Saturday.
The NFL tries to give level playing field advantages to all teams in the postseason. That's why they eliminated Saturday games and Monday night games in Week 17. It potentially gave a few teams a competitive advantage to have an extra day of rest. Given the demand for the NFL product in prime time, the league couldn't avoid having a Sunday night game, but, by doing so, they gave the Cowboys and Redskins a competitive disadvantage if the winner had to play on Saturday. In this year's case, that is especially true if Dallas wins Sunday at Washington.
Teams that play during the day Sunday are typically home (even for road games) in time to see most of the Sunday night game. Those teams that play on Sunday night lose out on extra rest and healing because they play until late into the night Sunday. To have that team play a Saturday game would create a perceived disadvantage in the playoffs, despite, in this case, that team being at home. To have, for example, Dallas play Seattle in an early game Saturday, when the Seahawks' players were home and recuperating from the bumps of bruises of their game at about 7 p.m. local time and the Cowboys not home and in bed until about 3 a.m. local time is a huge disparity when the work week is shortened.
Because of that, you can assume that the winner of Sunday night's game between the Cowboys and Redskins will get the Sunday NFC playoff game. As things currently stand, Green Bay is the No. 2 seed and in line for a bye week next week. But if the Vikings beat Green Bay Sunday and either San Francisco or Seattle wins (they are at home against the Cardinals and Rams, respectively), the Packers would fall to the No. 3 seed. It would create a scenario under which the NFL would likely give the Vikings and Packers the early game on Saturday and almost assuredly a Saturday game of some kind – whether the early or late game.
The typical sticking point in the playoffs is when a West Coast team is involved. While only the AFC and NFC West have teams that are in the Pacific Time Zone, they determine who plays when in the postseason. But, on wild card weekend, if the Vikings beat the Packers and Denver wins at home against Kansas City (currently 0-11 against the AFC), there won't be a West Coast team hosting a wild card playoff game. With that scheduling hurdle out of the way, it would seem logical (and fair) that the Dallas-Washington winner gets a Sunday game – and most likely the later of the two games that are played.
What does all this mean? If the Vikings hold their home turf Sunday afternoon at the Metrodome, Minnesota and Green Bay will likely renew the rivalry six days later at Lambeau Field. The schedule has yet to be announced because there are several moving parts involved, but any scenario that includes a Vikings-Packers rematch seems likely to be played on Saturday, Jan. 5.
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.