A year ago, when the Vikings were 3-10 and wallowing near the bottom of the NFC, while many fans were predicting losses to close out the season, Vikings opponents -- Miami, as a great example -- weren't taking the Vikings seriously. With Miami simply needing a win at the Metrodome to secure a playoff spot, a 53-yard field goal by Gary Anderson ended that dream.
For the Vikings, those final regular-season games were their playoffs. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Players, coaches and fans from throughout the country look at the sports pages and see the Vikings are one of just three teams left unbeaten. Now they have the bulls-eye directly attached to them, which makes this next three-game stretch so critical.
When the Vikings return to action, they will play three straight home games against teams that all have legitimate playoff aspirations but need to beat the Vikings to keep their dream alive. In each case, we may seem teams bordering on desperation.
First comes Denver. The Broncos are off to a great 5-1 start but are a game behind the unbeaten Chiefs and have already lost to them. A loss to the Vikings would complicate that scenario and dig the Broncos a bigger hole to get out of.
The following week, the Giants come to the Metrodome. With a 2-3 record following Sunday's loss, the G-Men are two games behind Dallas with a home loss to the Cowboys already checked against them. It won't be midseason yet by the time these two teams play, but a loss to the Vikings could go a long way to killing the Giants' chances of winning the NFC East. At the least, it would be a nail in the coffin and would force the Giants to get help from other teams to get Dallas to fall back to the pack.
Finally, the Vikings end their Metrodome trifecta with the Packers. Green Bay is teetering on the verge of sustaining a knockout blow. After losing in overtime to the Chiefs, the Packers are three back in the loss column to the Vikings. A win at the Metrodome for the Vikes would give them a season sweep of the Packers and force Green Bay to finish the year with a better overall record than the Vikings to win the NFC North.
All three of these games are winnable and, most likely, the Vikings will be favored to win all three. Whether that happens or not will unfold in the next three weeks. But, as teams like Miami learned last year, when a team is down is when it is most dangerous. The Broncos, Giants and Packers will all view their meetings with the Vikings as must-win games, which could mean they will pull every trick out of their bags to create big plays.
While the playoffs are more than two months away, look at this coming three-game stretch as a barometer to how far the Vikings can go this season. These will have a playoff atmosphere and the Vikes will need to play them as such.
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