The phrase "if the season ended today" has never been more of a potent threat than it is in 2020, but still: the fact that the Vikings would make the playoffs if the season ended today does not at all guarantee that's where they will finish once four more games have (probably) been played.
At 6-6, the Vikings have resurrected their season after a 1-5 start, and by virtue of the third tiebreaker (a slightly better record in games against common opponents as 6-6 Arizona) would be the No. 7 seed in the expanded NFC playoffs and face ... drumroll please ... No. 2 seed Green Bay in the first round of the playoffs.
But while what has already happened can tell us plenty, playing out scenarios for what might happen in the future is more useful in the big picture. With that in mind, let's take a look at how the season could play out as it relates to the Vikings' attempt to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in more than a decade.
*The simplest answer: Win and they're in. If the Vikings can manage to run the table and defeat, in order, Tampa Bay, Chicago, New Orleans and Detroit, they are guaranteed to make the playoffs at 10-6. That's a massive "if," of course. Even after a 5-1 run that included a quality win at Green Bay, the Vikings haven't shown the type of consistency to make one think they can win four more in a row — particularly with high-quality teams Tampa Bay and New Orleans on the remaining schedule.
But running the table is possible. And while it would leave the Vikings with just a 7% chance of winning the NFC North, per FiveThirtyEight, it would at least put them in the mix for the top wild card spot — and a chance to face the winner of the mediocre-to-lousy NFC East in the first round.
*Going 3-1 would put the Vikings in great shape. Let's say the Vikings manage to beat Tampa Bay on Sunday (more on that in a minute) and add wins over Chicago and Detroit while losing to New Orleans. That would leave them at 9-7 — and still give them a 94% chance of making the playoffs, again per FiveThirtyEight's QB-adjusted playoff projections. That's not a guarantee, but that's an awfully good spot.
*Winning the Tampa Bay game could "make" the Vikings, but losing it wouldn't "break" them. A victory Sunday, again per FiveThirtyEight, would give the Vikings a 71% chance of making the playoffs. A loss would drop them to 24%. That seems like a pretty big swing. A win would give them a clearer path to 9-7 and give them a head-to-head tiebreaker with Tampa Bay, which would also be 7-6.
But there's also a reasonably clear path to the playoffs even with a loss. That's because ...
*Tiebreakers generally work in the Vikings' favor. The NFL's tiebreaker gauntlet is a complicated web that probably shouldn't get too much attention until Week 16 or 17. But the Vikings, by virtue of having losses against AFC foes Tennessee and Indianapolis, generally fare well in common opponent and conference record tiebreakers.
That leaves them with a chance to make it even at 8-8 — requiring "only" wins over Chicago and Detroit, for instance. With no other games played out, the Vikings have a 35% chance to make the playoffs if they lose to Tampa Bay and New Orleans while defeating the Bears and Lions. That's not great, but it's not far off from where they stand now (40%).
One specific path that involves those four Vikings outcomes: The Cardinals also finish 8-8, including a win over San Francisco when they meet later this month but two losses against the Eagles, Giants and/or Rams, while the 49ers (currently 5-7) also lose one more game beyond a loss to Arizona to finish 7-9 or worse. A lot of other 5-7 teams (including the Bears and Lions) could factor into things, but the Vikings pretty much would need to win their remaining games against those teams to have a chance — and adding a loss to either one would severely hamper their playoff hopes.
*Game to watch: That Week 16 game between the Cardinals and 49ers seems like it will be pretty important. There are some three-team tiebreakers between the Vikings, 49ers and Cardinals that would vault San Francisco into the playoffs at 8-8 while leaving Minnesota and Arizona behind. It all depends on how the victories stack up. As long as the Vikings defeat Detroit in Week 17 — a near-must in any scenario anyway — they will retain the common opponent tiebreaker edge over the Cardinals in a two-way tie.
What it all means: The Vikings control their destiny when it comes to the making the playoffs, but even just getting to 8-8 gives them a fighting chance. The last time the Vikings made the playoffs at 8-8 was 2004 — when Randy Moss fake mooned the Packers in a playoff win at Lambeau Field.