Little Separates Playoff Hopefuls

The Vikings are in a large pile of teams looking at their wild card possibilities, but only two of the realistic seven will go. We break it down simply and hear from a few of the Vikings about their outlook.

The Vikings hope history repeats itself when the regular season ends later this month. Remember, it was just two years ago that the 8-8 Vikings qualified for the playoffs. But before we get to that point, prepare yourself to hear ad nauseum week-by-week mathematical analysis involving the Vikings' chances to qualify for postseason.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Vikings, at 5-7, should not dare to talk about postseason considering they are closer to the bottom of the National Football Conference than they are to the top. But look again. At 5-7, the Vikings indeed are on the outside looking in, but at least they're on the doorstep and within arm's length of the doorknob.

Chicago (10-2), Dallas (8-4), New Orleans (8-4) and Seattle (8-4) are all division leaders by at least two games. That leaves two wild-card berths that are realistically attainable by seven teams who are separated by no more than one game. So with four weeks to go in the regular season, it appears there are more NFC playoff scenarios than there are holiday sales.

The New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers are all 6-6. The Vikings, the San Francisco 49ers, and St. Louis Rams are all 5-7. Two of those teams will win wild-card berths. Rather than focus on what teams need to win and what teams need to lose, it really is simple for the Vikings: When you assess the pile of ho-hum NFC teams, if any of them run the table and win their remaining four games, they will probably qualify.

The good news for the Vikings is that of the four 6-6 teams, all four play each other twice, which makes it doubtful any of them will win out. For the Vikings, that means wins at Detroit, vs. the New York Jets, at Green Bay, and vs. the St. Louis Rams would produce a 9-7 record that probably would be good enough to secure a first-round road game in the playoffs.

So, in essence, that makes the Vikings' job simple – focus on themselves.

"We need to concentrate on our game and see how we wind up," safety Dwight Smith said. "We're two or three plays from being 8-4. If we won all the games we've got left, then hopefully we'll get to the dance."

Said receiver Travis Taylor: "Fortunately, the thing about the NFC teams right is that 6-6 teams are contenders."

So are the 5-7 teams like the Vikings, who haven't been winning much but continue to stay near the playoff cutoff line.

"Someone is looking down on us and giving us a second chance. Like a cat, how many lives are we going to have?" safety Darren Sharper asked. "We keep saying must-win games, then we lose one and we still have a chance to stay in the playoff picture. We need to relish this chance. You keep hoping for second chances and sooner or later you're not going to have anymore. It's a very pivotal game for us."

It was just two years ago the Vikings qualified at 8-8, then marched into Lambeau Field and knocked off the Green Bay Packers before losing a week later in Philadelphia. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, seven 8-8 teams reached the postseason. So there are possibilities (we'll let the season evolve at least one more week before figuring them out now) where the Vikings would only need to win three of the four.

The immediate task at hand is Sunday, when the Vikings travel to face the lowly Lions. While the Vikings are clinging to a best-case scenario, the Lions are heading toward the top of the NFL Draft. But the Vikings claim they won't look past them.

"All we can worry about is the Detroit Lions," head coach Brad Childress said. "Detroit gave New England a run for their money…"

Smith said the Vikings were a few plays from being 8-4, but the reality is they are only a few plays from being 2-10 as well.

Other than space in the standings, it could be argued there is even little difference between the playoff hopefuls at 5-7 like the Vikings and the basement dwellers at 2-10 like the Lions.

"We were up 17-3 the first time," Lions receiver Roy Williams said of the Oct. 8 game, "and they came back and won that football game."

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