The Minnesota Vikings may find themselves in an unusual position Sunday night when they face the New York Giants, a dilemma typically only posed to teams that have clinched the top spot in the postseason seeding.
Given the fact that the Vikings don’t play until Sunday night, by the time they square off with New York they will already know the pertinent results that will impact their playoff positioning.
If Carolina remains unbeaten, the Vikings will be in the playoffs with a Panthers win over Atlanta. If the Falcons can somehow pull off the upset, the Vikings would still have their playoff ticket punched if Seattle beats St. Louis at home.
But more important will be the results of the Packers-Cardinals game in Arizona. The Cardinals can clinch a first-round bye with a win over the Packers. A Green Bay loss, for all intents, would render Sunday night’s game meaningless in the division title standings. As long as the Vikings and Packers are either tied or within one game of each other, the result of their game Jan. 3 will determine the winner of the NFC North, regardless of whether the Vikings win or lose Sunday night.
Head coach Mike Zimmer likes the roll his team is on, but might consider resting some injured players another week or limit their role Sunday night if winning or losing won’t impact their ultimate goal of winning the NFC North.
“I’ve talked about it and thought about it,” Zimmer said. “I know that if we did something different other than play our best football, I’m too much of a competitor in each game that I wouldn’t want to fight. I do want to be smart and that would be more so with guys that are hurt or something like that. Our mindset is to go win both of these two games and play our guys, game plan, prepare, do everything that we do because I do think it’s important.”
One fear that may creep into the minds of the players is that the Vikings are playing as well offensively as they have in some time and turning off the switch for a week could alter the momentum they’re building heading into the playoffs. Often times, it isn’t the team with the best regular-season record that wins the Super Bowl, it’s the team that is hot and has momentum heading into the playoff tournament.
“We still want to be in good rhythm going into the playoffs and be in good rhythm as a team,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We want to win all the games. We don’t want to go out there and give half an effort because we know we’re in the playoffs or we can’t win the division (Sunday night).We want to go out there and win the game because it’s a football game we should win.”
Running back Adrian Peterson is looking to keep the team momentum moving while also looking to win his second NFL rushing title in four years. He currently leads the league in rushing and, if he was to be used like a team would approach the third preseason game – play a half and then sit out the rest of the game and let the backups do the dirty work – he likely wouldn’t win the rushing title.
Peterson’s focus is simply on the Giants Sunday, not scoreboard watching or playing out scenarios in which Sunday night’s game wouldn’t carry a lot of significance in terms of winning the division. He wants to be on a three-game win streak heading into the playoffs and doesn’t want to pull back on the reins when things are looking up.
“Our goal here is to win the NFC North,” Peterson said. “We’ll do that by taking care of business this weekend and getting ready for the opportunity to complete for that against Green Bay.”
Munnerlyn is intimately aware of what can happen when a team knows it has earned a spot to compete for a championship and suddenly has a week where they don’t play. For him, it happened in Carolina in 2013. The Panthers had earned a first-round bye and the players lost much of the momentum they had built up.
While he understands the team doesn’t want to risk new injuries or perhaps having a setback to some of the players returning from injury, he wants to keep the momentum building and that wouldn’t happen if the Vikings bench all or most of their starters in the second half against New York.
“The year I was in Carolina and we went 12-4 my last season, we had a first-round bye,” Munnerlyn said. “We came out and played the 49ers in the second round of the playoffs and we were flat. We didn’t play well at all. Those guys played the week before and were rolling. I don’t want a bye. I want to go out there and get in the same rhythm. Our offense is playing great right now. Defensively, we’re stopping teams from scoring points. We’re in a great rhythm right now and we’re in a great place as a team.”
In the end, the point may become moot. If Green Bay beats Arizona on the road, the Vikings will have to beat the Giants in order to set up a Week 17 showdown with the Packers with the division championship on the line. Zimmer doesn’t sound like he’s planning on sitting players who are healthy. Every win counts, even if it doesn’t technically matter in the standings.
“We’ve played good these last two weeks and I think it’s important that we continue to build as we continue to go forward and if we do happen to get in to the playoffs,” Zimmer said. “I think it’s important that we continue to push to where we want to get to.”