The Minnesota Vikings’ loss to the Cardinals Sunday puts them in a much worse playoff scenario than they were two weeks ago when they were flying high at 8-3. At 8-5, the look is much different, but far from reason for panic.
The simple fact remains that, if the Vikings do their business the next two weeks against teams with losing records – the New York Giants and Chicago Bears – there is virtually no way to keep them out of the playoffs. In fact, if they win their next two games, the Week 17 battle with Green Bay will be for the NFC North title unless the Packers lose all of their next three games. But, from the realistic side of things, it’s hard to imagine Green Bay doing that because they’re at home against Dallas Sunday and heading into Oakland the following week, where the Raiders has lost four of their last five games and have fallen hopelessly out of playoff contention in the AFC.
For better or worse, the Vikings are forced to scoreboard watch and hope for the best. The reality of their situation is that there are only four teams they really need to concern themselves with – Green Bay, Seattle, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Everyone else in the conference that would be contending for a division title or one of the two wild card spots is at least two games under .500 and, even if they could pull a horseshoe out of their pocket, would finish 9-7 at best.
Barring epic collapses, there are seven teams legitimately competing for five of the six playoff spots in the NFC. Somebody has to win the NFC East, but none of them will be in competition for a wild card spot.
In breaking down the competition, there are only four teams the Vikings need to concern themselves with. Carolina and Arizona are already in and no threat to fall far enough to come back to the pack.
Here is what the Vikings are up against for fans who will be watching everybody else in the NFC playoff race:
GREEN BAY (8-4) – DALLAS, at Oakland, at Arizona, MINNESOTA. Beating Detroit last week could potentially have huge implications, but, it still appears that the Week 17 matchup with the Vikings could well be for the NFC North title, barring a Vikings collapse or the Packers running the table. The Packers are far from dominant. The Packers are 2-4 since Nov. 1 and should be 1-5. There is legitimate reason for concern because the only team they’ve dominated in their last six games was Minnesota. The only thing Dallas has going for them Sunday is that the weather could have been much worse and perhaps a revenge factor from getting jobbed out of the playoffs last year. But Matt Cassel is no Tony Romo.
The Packers make long road trips the following two weeks and Arizona will still have something significant to play for in Week 16. If the Packers go 2-1 in the next three games, the Vikings only need to win one of their next two to make Week 17 for the NFC North title. If the Packers win all three, the Vikings must win both home games to make Week 17 division-title meaningful.
SEATTLE (7-5) – at Baltimore, CLEVELAND, ST. LOUIS, at Arizona. From the Vikings’ perspective, this would appear to be a lost cause. The Vikings would have to finish a full game ahead the Seahawks in a wild card race to finish in the current wild card God Spot at No. 5 (yeah, you’re on the road, but you’re playing the last-man standing from the NFC Least Division). The Seahawks are currently a half-game behind the Vikings, but it’s hard to imagine Seattle losing any of their next three games. Facing Matt Schaub, Johnny Manziel and Nick Foles (who has one touchdown and five interceptions in his last five starts). Done deal if they win those. They need to be included for the purpose of comparison, but perhaps not realistic comparison. The two-time NFC champs will be in the playoffs – even if Russell Wilson snaps a leg in the first quarter Sunday. With that talent, T-Jack could lead them to two wins in their next three games.
TAMPA BAY (6-6) – NEW ORLEANS, at St. Louis, CHICAGO, at Carolina. This is the silent concern at Winter Park in a worst-case scenario. Right now, the Vikings are looking at handling their business against lesser teams as they have done all year (San Francisco excluded). In that case, Lovie and Les are swimming fast, but not catching the boat. Chicago may have something to say with that in Lovie Bowl. If Carolina has 16-0 in sight, Week 17 could have two wildly alternate versions for the Bucs. They’re a long shot, but they’ve made it this far flying under the radar and, if they are legit at 6-6, they may be more legit at 9-6 in a couple of weeks.
ATLANTA (6-6) – at Carolina, at Jacksonville, CAROLINA, NEW ORLEANS. Once 5-0, now 6-6 with two of their next three games against the lone undefeated team in the NFL. The south won’t rise again, but for now they’re still alive and, if they should get hot, they have a head-to-head loss to the Vikings, which is likely a coffin nail they can’t overcome.
Like it or not, the Vikings are forced to scoreboard watch despite currently controlling their own destiny. The outlook would be vastly different had the Vikings won Thursday night. But, as things stand, they still control their own playoff future, whether for a division title or a wild card spot. Given what is at stake, the competition for what the Vikings are shooting for is being pared down to a handful of teams with similar aspirations. The Vikings remain in the driver’s seat for the postseason, but they have to look at the competition and see what they’re up against because you can bet they’re doing the same when it comes to trying to bury or catch the Vikings.