The Vikings remained in the sixth spot in the NFC playoff picture after a 41-17 win over the Dolphins on a day where none of the conference’s six playoff spots changed hands.
A pair of upsets after the Vikings got off the field on Sunday, though, mean the Vikings’ list of wild-card scenarios is significantly longer than it was at the beginning of the day.
If the season ended today, the Vikings would still be slated to play the third-seeded Bears in the first round, a week after facing them at U.S. Bank Stadium to end the regular season. But the Seahawks’ loss to the 49ers means the Vikings are once again only a half-game out of the No. 5 spot in the NFC, while the Eagles’ victory over the Rams on Sunday night means two teams — Philadelphia and Washington — remain just a half-game behind the Vikings for the final playoff spot.
The Eagles’ victory also puts the Bears a game behind the Rams, giving Chicago a chance to catch Los Angeles for the No. 2 spot after beating the Rams at Soldier Field a week ago. If the Bears beat the 49ers on Sunday, they’d be assured of going into Week 17 with a chance at a first-round bye, likely depriving the Vikings of a chance to play a Chicago team that’s resting many of its starters.
And while the Cowboys still are on track for the No. 4 seed, with a one-game lead in the NFC East before two games against the Buccaneers and Giants, their loss to the Colts on Sunday gives both the Eagles and Redskins a chance to win the NFC East.
So, we’ll attempt to make this as painless as possible. With two weeks to go — and with the help of ESPN’s redoubtable Playoff Machine — here’s how the Vikings could end up playing a first-round game anywhere from the West Coast to the Midwest to the East Coast, or staying home altogether:
Vikings at Bears: This remains perhaps the most likely scenario, with the two teams on track to meet if everything stays the same in the NFC standings. The Rams face the Cardinals and 49ers, and would keep the Bears stuck at No. 3 if they win both games. A Rams win and a Bears loss in Week 16 is the only way Chicago would come to U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 17 with no chance of a bye.
Vikings at Cowboys: If the Vikings can pass the Seahawks — who have a difficult Week 16 matchup against Kansas City — they’d be the No. 5 seed, facing the fourth-seeded Cowboys in the first round if Dallas holds on to the NFC East lead.
Vikings at Redskins: Hoping for a game rife with storylines — Kirk Cousins and Adrian Peterson each facing their former teams — as well as a favorable matchup for the Vikings’ defense against journeyman quarterback Josh Johnson? Here’s what you’re rooting for: The Vikings to pass Seattle, Dallas to lose its final two games and the Redskins to win out against Tennessee and Philadelphia.
Vikings at Eagles: Same scenario as the Redskins, except it’d be the Eagles who’d need to win out against Houston and the Week 17 matchup with Washington. Of the two teams, the Eagles are playing with the more accomplished backup quarterback (Nick Foles — remember him?), so this might be more plausible, though expecting Philadelphia to beat the Texans might be a tall order.
Vikings at Rams: This one is tricky, simply because it would either require the Vikings to stay in the No. 6 seed while losing to the Bears, or the Rams finishing the season with losses to both the Cardinals and 49ers. But if Seattle stays in front of the Vikings, the Bears pass the Rams and neither the Redskins nor the Eagles or Panthers catch the Vikings, we’d have a rematch of the wild Week 4 game at the LA Memorial Coliseum.
Vikings stay home: Lastly, with two teams just a half-game behind the Vikings, this remains a plausible scenario. Carolina plays host to New Orleans on Monday night, and would fall to 6-8 with a loss to the Saints that would potentially cripple its playoff chances. But a pair of Panthers wins at home against the Saints and Falcons, followed by a Week 17 game where the Saints could be resting starters, makes Carolina a potential spoiler if it can stop its slide in time. The other complicating factor here is that because the Eagles and Redskins play each other in Week 17, one of them is likely to come out with a win, meaning the Vikings can’t afford a loss if one of those two teams wins its Week 16 matchup.