The Minnesota Vikings (9-5) are closing in on a playoff berth for the first time in three years. They might even get there before they play their next game.
If the undefeated Carolina Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons (7-7), a game that starts at noon Central on Sunday, the Vikings are in the playoffs because Atlanta would hold a three-way tiebreaker advantage over the Vikings that has a small chance of happening and includes the Seattle Seahawks (9-7) losing each of their last two games.
If the Seahawks beat the St. Louis Rams, a game that starts at 3:25 p.m. Central on Sunday, the Vikings are in.
And if neither of those two things happen, if the Vikings beat the currently Odell Beckham-less New York Giants on Sunday night, Minnesota is in the playoffs.
Don’t expect head coach Mike Zimmer to celebrate publicly.
“I don’t feel too good about it yet,” Zimmer said Monday. “Our goal really isn’t to get into the playoffs. Our goal is to win the division first.”
In order to do that, the Vikings would have to beat the Giants and the Green Bay Packers, who hold a one-game lead over the Vikings, in the next two games.
But either way, the progress of the Vikings can’t be denied. When Zimmer took over in January 2014, Minnesota was coming off a 5-10-1 season. In his first year, the Vikings went 7-9. With their win Sunday, they guaranteed themselves a winning record at least, prompting Zimmer to tell his team in the locker room that no one can call them “losers” any more.
But Zimmer said earlier this season he is striving to make the franchise a consistent winner like the Packers of recent vintage have been. Since the 2015 season started, he hasn’t talked too much about his division title hopes.
“You talk about those things at the beginning of the year. Really, all we’ve talked about is this week, winning each week,” he said Monday. “Focusing on the task at hand this week and here’s what we have to do to win and stack them up at the end. I’ve said that many times – we’ll count them up at the end and see where we’re at and now we’re close enough to, I think, have that realization that we have an opportunity to do that.”
Like most teams, the Vikings battled various adversities to get in contention. The offseason was littered with speculation on whether or not star running back Adrian Peterson would return, and then when he did, how effective he might be. Now, he’s currently in the lead for the NFL rushing title.
The preseason brought what would eventually be season-ending injuries to two starting offensive linemen. The defense has also endured injuries that took away arguably their three best defenders for the better part of the last three games.
But, even there, Zimmer could see a silver lining.
“I think it’s good for this football team when they see guys that haven’t played a lot step in and perform the way they’ve performed,” he said. “I think it gives everybody confidence that the guys can go in and be effective. There’s no, ‘Woe is me because somebody is hurt.’ I think they have confidence in really what we’re trying to do defensively, so I think it’s good for the team. Sure, we’d like to have those other guys back in there because they’re better players at this particular point in time.”
But the Vikings are seeing another December with their young quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, performing well. His final five games of his rookie season provided optimism that he would be the franchise quarterback. In the last two games, he is has thrown five touchdowns passes, no interceptions and had a quarterback rating above 100 in each of them, including a 154.4 rating Sunday in a 38-17 win over the Chicago Bears.
“In every game we’ve had shots and quicks and crossing routes and deep outs and they get called,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s always seeing the coverage the right way, it’s just getting the ball to the right guy all of the time.”