So how are the Minnesota Vikings not already in the playoffs?
They’re at nine wins and the only three teams that can also finish 9-7 in the NFC are the Seahawks, who have already clinched, the Redskins, who, if they finish 9-7 will win the NFC East, and the Falcons, whom the Vikings have already beaten.
It’s the complexity of the playoff format that explains the scenario under which the Vikings don’t make the playoffs.
By virtue of their win Sunday, the Vikings eliminated the Eagles, Giants, Bears, Buccaneers, Saints and Rams from playoff contention. There will be no team that finishes 8-8 that can be a wild card in the NFC.
The only scenario in which the Vikings won’t be in the playoffs is that the Vikings, Falcons and Seahawks would all finish tied at 9-7.
If the Vikings win one of their final two games, they’re in.
If Seattle wins one of their final two games, the Vikings would get in based on a two-team wild card scenario with a win over Atlanta.
If the Falcons lose one of their final two games, the Vikings are in.
The only way the Vikings wouldn’t get in is if the Falcons defeat currently undefeated Carolina, which would boost their strength of victory record.
In the NFL’s tie-breaker procedure, when there are three or more teams involved, the goal is to eliminate teams, at which point the tie-breaker procedure would revert from three teams to two.
The first step is within divisions, but the three teams in question are in different divisions. It moves to the next tie-breaker.
The second tie-breaker would be based on a head-to-head sweep. The Vikings, Seahawks and Falcons didn’t all play each other and the Vikings went 1-1 against the two of them. Move on.
The third tie-breaker is conference record. If all three finish 9-7, they will all have conference records of 6-6. Move on.
The fourth tie-breaker is best record against common opponents, with a minimum of four. None of the teams have played the same four opponents. Move on.
The strength of victory component would be next. The Vikings currently have the best record in that regard. With the Detroit game still being played at New Orleans Monday night, the Vikings’ strength of victory is 50-74 (40.3 percent), with either two wins or two losses being added to that equation depending on whether Detroit wins or loses. Seattle’s current strength of victory is at 40 percent (46-79, pending the outcome of Detroit’s game). The Falcons seven wins have come against teams with a combined record of 38-60 (38.8 percent), which currently has them in last among the three, but not for long.
They can’t add to their strength of victory total. Only Atlanta can and it would change things dramatically.
For Atlanta to finish 9-7, it would mean they would have to defeat currently undefeated Carolina. That would add a team with a 14-1 record to the strength of victory. If Carolina and New Orleans would lose all their remaining games, the Falcons would have, at worst, a strength of victory record that would include 57 wins by the teams they beat.
Under league tie-breaking procedures, only one team can advance on any step of the tie-breakers along the way. By virtue of the best strength of victory records, Atlanta would advance and the two-team tie-breaker procedure would kick in. Thanks to Seattle’s win over the Vikings, the Seahawks would land the other wild card spot.
This explains how Seattle has clinched a wild card spot, but hasn’t clinched the first wild card spot.
Under this unlikely scenario, the Vikings would be left out in the cold. Seattle would have to lose both their games, the Vikings would have to lose both of theirs and Atlanta would have to beat Carolina and New Orleans.
If any one of those six things doesn’t happen, the Vikings are in.
That’s the worst-case scenario. The best case scenario is that the Seahawks win at home against St. Louis and Green Bay loses at Arizona. If that happens, it doesn’t matter what happens next Sunday night. The Vikings will take the field knowing they’re in the playoffs and that the regular season finale at Green Bay will be for the NFC North title.
That’s a lot easier to determine than the insane wild card scenario.