Just as the Minnesota Vikings were starting their playoff run to the 2009 NFC Championship Game, their current head coach was learning a lesson about handling a playoff team at the end of the regular season.
Mike Zimmer, then the defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals, was coaching a team that was 10-5 and set to face the New York Jets on Jan. 3, 2010 in the regular-season finale. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis decided to rest many of his starters for that game and the Bengals lost in ugly fashion, 37-0.
“We were already in the playoffs. They had to win to get in the playoffs,” Zimmer recalled. “We didn’t play anybody and we didn’t play very good. We got beat (37-0) and guess who we played in the first round of the playoffs? The Jets at Cincinnati, and they beat us again. So, that’s probably not going to be my approach.”
The Vikings face the Green Bay Packers in the regular-season finale and could face them again in the first round of the playoffs, similar to what happened with the Bengals and Jets in 2009.
In that 2009 regular-season finale, Carson Palmer completed only one of 11 passes for no yards and finished with a brutal 1.7 passer rating. Backup T.J. Sullivan completed only 3 of 8 passes for 31 yards, and running back Cedric Benson was inactive.
When the Bengals and Jets faced off in the first round of the playoffs six days later, the score was closer, 24-14, but the result was the same. The Bengals lost and their season was over.
All of that provided context as Zimmer’s Vikings could have a playoff spot wrapped up before they play on Sunday night. If the Atlanta Falcons lose to the Carolina Panthers in their early afternoon game or the Seattle Seahawks beat the St. Louis Rams in the late afternoon game Sunday, the Vikings will be in the playoffs before they kick off against the New York Giants on Sunday night.
“I think there’s a risk-reward with the last game, depending on the scenario that happens,” Zimmer said. “You try to look at the big picture, then make your decisions based on that. But it’s not going to be wholesale (inactives). I won’t do that.”
Zimmer has to submit his inactive players 90 minutes before the Vikings’ 7:30 p.m. Central kickoff, meaning the Seahawks game likely will still be going on, as will the Green Bay Packers’ game at Arizona. If the Packers lose, the Vikings will have a chance to compete for the NFC North division title in the regular-season finale at Green Bay whether the Vikings win or lose against the Giants.
Zimmer will have some decisions to make with injured players like running back Adrian Peterson (ankle), defensive tackle Linval Joseph (foot), linebacker Anthony Barr (knee) and safety Harrison Smith (knee/hamstring).
“If the guy is iffy health-wise and we we’re already in the playoffs, then I may sit him for another week,” Zimmer said. “But there’s a fine line because, like I said, I don’t want guys to be rusty going into Green Bay and I don’t want to have bad momentum if we do get into the playoffs. So it’s a fine line.
“We’re planning on, if guys are ready to play, play.”