Playoffs? Playoffs?

The loss to the Steelers Sunday threw water on the Vikings' fire, but it didn't put it out completely. In fact, for the eternal optimist, there's plenty of hope for a playoff run yet.

After Sunday's game, Vikings coach Mike Tice said that, despite being told otherwise, the Vikings controlled their own destiny heading into their game with the Steelers -- win out and you're in the playoffs.

"I've told the players not to look ahead, but as a coach you have to," Tice said. "With the teams that were playing each other, somebody would have to knock each other out."

Now the Vikings need to be scoreboard watchers and big fans of teams like the Packers and Panthers, because they're going to need help to make the playoffs ... a lot of help.

The least complicated way to make the playoffs would be to win the NFC North, which is still possible -- but not probable. It would require a Christmas present from the two games next Sunday -- the Vikings beating the Ravens and the Bears losing to the Packers. In that scenario, the game with the Bears in Week 17 would be one game for all the NFC North marbles. If the Vikings could win that game, both they and Chicago would finish 10-6, but the Vikings would win on a divisional tie-breaker.

The wild card is a much more complicated situation. The only team the Vikings had a clear advantage over was the Giants, but with the Cowboys loss Sunday, New York now has a two-game lead in the NFC East and needs just one win or a Cowboys/Redskins loss to clinch the division -- negating any tie-breaker edge that the Vikings had.

So that leaves five teams fighting for two playoff spots. At 9-5, the Bucs have the inside track, but four other teams -- the Vikings, Cowboys, Redskins and Falcons -- are all at 8-6 fighting for what looks to just be one playoff spot.

Because the Vikings have bad tie-breakers with the entire NFC South contingent fighting for the playoffs, the question gets a little dicier. The Redskins have come out of nowhere to pretty much control their own destiny. If Washington wins out, they will finish 10-6, but 10-2 vs. the NFC (they lost all four of their games vs. the AFC West).

But all hope isn't lost. With the Panthers still hoping for a Bears stumble so they can get a first-round bye, Carolina has a chance to take care of half the wild card field on behalf of the Vikings. Effectively, the Vikings need to win their final two games and for the Cowboys, Redskins and Falcons to all lose once. Carolina can do much of the dirty work for them -- they host Dallas this week and play at Atlanta in Week 17. That leaves the Redskins, who host the Giants this weekend and go into Philadelphia in Week 17. Neither of those will be easy games, but the Vikings desperately need the Redskins to lose at least one of them.

The different scenarios will become much clearer after this weekend, but, the one clear point is that the Vikings no longer control their own destiny and not only need some help, but will need a lot of help to make it past Jan. 1 for the 2005 season.

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