The Vikings have ascended to a tie for the NFC North division lead with the Packers at the exact midpoint in both their seasons, which makes this a fine time to wonder: just how serious is Minnesota’s challenge for the division title?
As someone who predicted at the start of the season that the division title would come down to Week 17 at Lambeau, I’m feeling pretty good about that. But the numbers still say the Packers are strong favorites to prevail.
Per ESPN.com and a video by Ben Alamar (one of their top analytics guys and, in the interest of full disclosure, a friend for whom I was best man in his wedding), the site’s Football Power Index says the Packers are 71 percent favorites to win the division and are expected to win 11 games this year. Green Bay’s FPI also says they are 4 points better than the average team. The Vikings, meanwhile, have a 66 percent chance of making the PLAYOFFS but just a 29 percent chance of winning the NFC North. They are expected to win 9 or 10 games per the FPI. That model considers the Vikings to be an average team.
The numbers at FiveThirtyEight are similar and even slanted a little more toward the Packers, where Green Bay has a 74 percent chance of winning the NFC North even though both teams are 6-2 right now.
This all speaks to a few things: first, the Vikings’ schedule will stiffen considerably in the second half. Second, ESPN’s model has the Packers favored to win at TCF Bank Stadium in two weeks. If that game flips to the Vikings, things will clearly be a lot more interesting. Third, it’s an indication of how the Vikings have been winning: close, requiring entire team efforts and key plays at key moments. It can be a tough way to survive, though I would say this: I don’t think we’ve seen the Vikings play their best yet this year, particularly on offense. Hitting on 1-2 more big plays a game — plays that have been there, as Mike Zimmer alluded to this week, but that the passing game has missed on — would make the Vikings a far more dangerous team over the final eight games.
Regardless, the Vikings have gone from a team projected to have roughly a 25 percent chance of making the postseason at the start of the year to a team with the same odds now of winning the division and a 2 in 3 shot at reaching the postseason in any capacity. They’ve come a long way in half a year. What’s to say they don’t go further in the next half?