A lot has been made in the national media about the NFC being clearly the weaker conference. Some have gone as far as to say the AFC's sixth-seeded wild card team – heading into this week being the Jaguars – could beat any of the NFC playoff teams.
While that may not be true, the Vikings have positioned themselves to take advantage of the struggles of the rest of teams vying for a playoff spot. The Bears clinched the NFC North two weeks ago by beating the Vikings and the Saints won the NFC South title Saturday night with a loss by the Falcons. At 9-5, Dallas has a stranglehold on the NFC East title and, despite being in free fall at 8-6, the Seahawks need just one more win or a 49ers loss to clinch the NFC West.
That leaves two playoff spots up for grabs. Heading into today's action, those spots would belong to the Giants and Eagles – both of whom are 7-6. By virtue of their loss Saturday night, the Falcons dropped to 7-7 with a 5-5 record in the conference and, barring a tie between the Giants and Eagles, one of those teams will fall to 7-7 as well.
With a victory today, the Vikings would move to 7-7 and, based on conference record, move ahead of Atlanta and, regardless of whether the Panthers beat the Steelers today, would have the tie-breaker advantage over Carolina having beaten them in Week 2.
While the playoff tie-breaker scenarios are murky at best, the best thing the Vikings may have going for them is a conference record of 6-4. It seems clear they will need wins over the Packers and Rams to close the season at 9-7 to make the playoffs. As it stands, both the Giants and Eagles would hold a tie-breaker advantage if the wild card procedure would go to the third step. Step One is head-to-head, which won't apply since the Vikings haven't played either the Giants or Eagles. The second step is conference record, which, if the Vikings were to finish 9-7 would end up at 8-4. The best Atlanta can finish in the conference is a 7-5 record which would put them behind the Vikings. The best the Panthers can finish is 6-6, which would also eliminate them in any tie-breaker scenario at 9-7.
However, while the Vikings aren't publicly talking about scoreboard watching, it was clear earlier this year when Brad Childress mentioned at a press conference that the Vikings were, at that time, the sixth seed in the NFC. He may not mention it out loud to his close personal friends among the Twin Cities media, but you have to know that, behind the scenes, they've laid out several scenarios by which the Vikings will or won't make the playoffs.
The most logical at this point almost requires that the Vikings finish 9-7. A look at the remaining games shows the Vikings have by far the cleanest path to the playoffs. The Giants host the Eagles today, then play the red-hot Saints before heading to Washington to play the Redskins. The Eagles are at the Meadowlands today, head to Dallas next week and finish off the season by hosting Atlanta. The Panthers have the Steelers today, head to play the Falcons next week and go into New Orleans for the season-ending game. The Falcons close out by hosting Carolina and traveling to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the Vikings have the Jets at home, head to Green Bay next Thursday and host the Rams to close out the season.
While the Vikings might be kicking themselves for not coming away with a November win against the Packers, 49ers or Dolphins, they still realistically control their own destiny. While there is a scenario under which they wouldn't make the playoffs at 9-7, that would require the loser of today's Giants-Eagles game to win their remaining two games, while the winner goes 1-1 or 2-0 in the final two games.
It may seem hard to believe, but Childress may have to wind up cheering against his former Eagles buddies. They appear to be the weaker of the two teams and, given their schedule – three straight division road games – are the most likely to drop two games.
The picture will come into much clearer focus by tonight, but, as it stands right now, all the Vikings might have to do is control their own business in the final three games of the year and they will earn a trip to the playoffs – most likely on the road to Dallas or Seattle. If the team any motivation on how to salvage what has been an up and down 2006 season, that should be enough.
* Former Viking great Randall McDaniel will be inducted into the Vikings Ring of Honor at halftime of today's game. McDaniel, who was a dominating guard, was named to the Pro Bowl eleven straight years from 1989 to 1999. If that isn't a Hall of Fame resume, nothing is. But McDaniel remains humble about his place in the history of league and isn't going to get his hopes too high for potential induction when he becomes eligible for the hall in 2007
"I've never been that way," McDaniel said of potential Hall of Fame induction. "I loved the game and I went out and played it to the best of my ability, and I enjoyed that. I always treated it as a game. Now with this Hall of Fame stuff coming up, more people talk about it than I do. They don't bring it up and ask me what I think. My thing is always this, if it happens, you won't be at the house to see me jump up and down for those brief moments, but I probably would. If it doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world. I'll still go on and do what I do."
If there is any justice in Hall of Fame voting, McDaniel should be a lock for induction – both as a player and quality human being.
* The Vikings are allowing just 54.1 yards a game rushing through 13 games. To date, they have allowed 703 rushing yards. The 16-game modern-day record was set in 2000 by the Ravens with 970 yards, meaning the Vikings could allow 266 yards – or 85 yards a game – in the remaining three games to set the record.
* Teams are averaging 2.7 yards a carry against the Vikings this year – the same average the 2000 Ravens had when they set the current 16-game record.
* Travis Taylor remains the Vikings' leader receiver with 45 receptions, four ahead of tight end Jermaine Wiggins. Taylor also leads the team with 507 receiving yards. Despite both missing significant time, Marcus Robinson (381 yards) is second on the team in yards from scrimmage and Troy Williamson (380) is third.
* Kenechi Udeze still hasn't registered a sack this season. Darrion Scott leads the team with 5.5 sacks, followed by Kevin Williams with five.
* The Vikings have missed just three field goals this year – making 21 of 24 attempts – but opponents are at about the same clip, making 25 of 29 field goal tries.
* Brad Johnson has a passer rating of 71.0. The only quarterbacks with worse passer ratings are benched starters Jake Plummer (70.5) and Andrew Walter (55.0) and rookies Bruce Gradkowski (66.3) and Vince Young (65.7).
* In the 12 games he has played, Chester Taylor is averaging 22 carries and 92 yards a game.
* The Vikings come into today's game with the 14th rated offense (16th passing, 11th rushing) and the fourth-rated defense (27th passing, 1st rushing).
* Ryan Longwell will be the sixth different Viking to lead the team in scoring in the last five years. He joins Paul Edinger (106 points in 2005), Morten Andersen (99 points in 2004), Aaron Elling and Randy Moss (102 points each in 2003) and Gary Anderson (90 points in 2002) as the last Vikings to lead the team in scoring.
* Defenses have been clamping down on Jets wide receiver Laveranues Coles in recent weeks. After catching 68 passes in his first 11 games – an average of more than six catches a game – thanks to numerous double-teams by the Packers and Bills the last two weeks, he has just seven catches in the last two games.
* In Saturday night's game, Morten Andersen's four extra points moved him past Gary Anderson as the NFL's all-time leading scorer.
* Former Viking Brian Russell was placed on injured reserve this week by the Browns.
* Gambler alert! Don't bet against Brett Favre Sunday. Since becoming the Packers starter, he is 15-0 in home games vs. the Lions – the Packers' opponent today at Lambeau Field.
Vikings Control Own Destiny...Sort Of
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