As the league moved to a balanced 32-team, eight-division league, the inherent advantages given to teams that had poor records the previous year was greatly diminished. The balanced format meant that the schedule difference between a first-place team and a last-place team has become much less significant … unless you’re the 2014 Vikings.
Thanks to the new schedule format, all teams play six games within their division, four games against a division in the own conference and four games against a division outside of their conference. For the teams in the NFC North, that translates to playing all four teams from the NFC South and the AFC East. That leaves only two games different for the four NFC North teams, but, in a sport that the difference between success and failure is minimal, the Vikings have a chance to take advantage of the scheduling quirks.
The only difference in the schedules are who the teams play in the two in-conference games. The formula is done to create a bit of a competitive advantage for the worse teams. By virtue of finishing last in the NFC North, the Vikings get two games against the last-place teams from the NFC East and NFC West – Sunday at St. Louis and Nov. 2 at home against the Washington football club.
Why could that be significant? Because the Packers have already been bit by that portion of the schedule and the Bears will be facing a tall order next Sunday night.
While the Vikings got St. Louis and Washington out of the deal, the Packers drew division champs Seattle and Philadelphia, the Bears got San Francisco and Dallas and the Lions drew the Cardinals and Giants.
Green Bay already lost their game against the NFC West and the Bears are going to travel to San Francisco next Sunday night for their game with the wild, wild NFC West. The Vikings have a chance to steal a road win at St. Louis that would give them a critical advantage if they end up in a tie-breaker situation at the end of the season.
When it comes to tie-breakers, the first is head-to-head record, followed by division record. The third tie-breaker within a division is conference record, where the Packers are already 0-1 and Chicago will be a prohibitive underdog next week at San Francisco. If it comes to a wild card tie-breaker, conference record is the first one used, making it more critical as the season winds down in late December.
While most fans won’t remember September games at Christmas time when playoff spots are on the line, one of the bigger differences might be what happens in the first two weeks for the Vikings, Packers and Bears. The Pack is already 0-1. The Bears will have to play extremely well to beat the 49ers on the road. The Vikings could take a big early edge with a win. September games are rarely must-win games, but the Vikings could be banking tie-breaker advantages if they can win at St. Louis today that could pay off down the line.
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.