Last year, the Vikings needed a win at home against the Washington Redskins to ensure a wild card berth in the playoffs. The lost 32-21 and closed the season out with a 22-19 overtime loss at Denver in a game that turned out to have no bearing on their playoff hopes.
This year, the Vikings can clinch the NFC North title with a win in either of their final two games or with a loss by Chicago in either of their next two games.
"I don't think anybody is really thinking about last year," said linebacker Ben Leber. "It's certainly on people's radar as far as not having a letdown and understanding the magnitude of this game. We just want to go out and play relaxed and have fun and let our talents take over, not try to do anything extra special, just do the little things right."
The Vikings' final three games of the 2008 regular season provide a good gauge of where this team is as they move closer to a playoff berth. They beat the Cardinals last week in Arizona, 35-14. The Cardinals had already clinched a playoff berth by winning the NFC West.
This week, the Vikings host the Atlanta Falcons, who, like the Vikings, are 9-5 and hoping to win their division. Next week, it's the New York Giants coming to the Metrodome, and the Giants have already clinched the NFC East.
So just how big is this final three-game stretch to the psyche of the Vikings players?
"You obviously want to go into the playoffs on a high note and with a lot of momentum. If we can come out and play these playoff-caliber teams and if we come out with these next two wins, that would be tremendous for our confidence," Leber said. "That would be tremendous for this team and just a great barometer of where we're at as a whole, complete football team."
Wide receiver Bernard Berrian turned the question around with a wry smile.
"It's kind of a measuring stick … for them – they get to measure themselves against a good team like the Vikings," he said. "No, it's a measuring stick. It lets you know where you're at, especially going into the playoffs is even better."
The Vikings started the season 1-3 but never stopped believing they could claw their way back into contention. Leber admitted it would help the players' confidence if they can end the season with three wins against playoff-caliber teams.
"Yeah, I definitely think so. You look at Arizona – I don't know what's going to happen with them – but if they go on a little bit of a skid here and they get in the playoffs, they might not have the same type of confidence and umph that they've had the previous few games. I'd always love to have momentum on our side."
In fact, winning the next two games in the Metrodome to close out the regular season would give the Vikings a six-game winning streak and the potential to get the No. 2 seed in the NFC. But, once again, the players are trying to stay "in the now," as head coach Brad Childress likes to say.
"It's really a week thing – we focus on who we've got this week. Just the playoffs right now are not in our focus," said cornerback Benny Sapp. "I only hear about the playoffs around here after the game, when everybody is concerned about who won. But during the week it's about Atlanta."
THE OTHER SIDE
Sapp might be trying to avoid talk of the playoffs, but he's seen the other end of the spectrum as well – playing on a Kansas City Chiefs team last year that ended the season with a 4-12 record and no hope of the playoffs in the final two months.
"It's tough just knowing there is no ending. You're just playing to be playing – still love the game, but you love the game because you're playing for something," he said. "You plan for that Super Bowl, and once you find out that's not even a question, you play for your teammates and to have a better record, but after the season that's it."
He sees a dramatically different attitude in the Vikings locker room this December than he did in the Chiefs locker room last December.
"Everybody is into it. There isn't anybody to have to pick up and say, ‘Come on, man. Come on.' You look over to the side and that person's desire is just like yours. Everybody is into it," Sapp said.
"First, you don't want to really have to anticipate playing from behind in the fourth quarter. You don't ever want that. If it happens, I think he'll be fine," receiver Bobby Wade said. "I think he runs the two-minute offense and I think he understands where the ball needs to go in certain looks. I guess the biggest question would be how me manages it – does he throw the crazy pass, does he take shots?"
"After our game, that type of reality kind of sets in – you want to know what's going on," Sapp said. "You forget about it on Monday, come in and lift weights. You might talk about it a little bit. Other than that, you just let it go."