The 49ers’ last-minute victory over the Seahawks on Sunday night settled the Vikings’ schedule for both this year’s NFC playoffs and the 2020 regular season. They will play the third-seeded Saints in New Orleans for the wild-card round on Sunday, and they will head to Seattle for the third straight season in 2020, to face the Seahawks sometimes in the regular season.
There seems to be enough consternation about the scheduling process — and enough frustration over another trip to Seattle — that it seemed like a good idea to replace our usual morning-after-the-game blog with a FAQ on the Vikings’ upcoming schedules: both their playoff path and their 2020 slate. Here we go:
Q: Let’s start with the playoffs: If the Vikings win on Sunday, what’s next?
A: As the No. 6 seed, the Vikings will always play the highest-seeded team that’s still alive in that round of the NFC playoffs. That means their playoff schedule is fairly simple: The Saints (as the No. 3 seed) are the highest-seeded team playing on wild-card weekend, so the Vikings go there on Sunday. Win in New Orleans, and they go to San Francisco on Saturday, Jan. 11. Win there, and they’d travel for the NFC Championship Game to play whichever team is still alive (the Packers, Eagles or Seahawks). You can take your pick as to which one of those matchups would be the most emotionally-charged.
Q: If the Seahawks had won, that would’ve meant going to Seattle in Round 1 and Green Bay in Round 2, right?
Q: Bummer. That seemed like an easier path.
A: There’s certainly a case to be made that a Seattle/Green Bay path to the NFC title game would have been preferable to one that goes through New Orleans and San Francisco. While the Vikings lost at CenturyLink Field earlier this month and at Lambeau Field in September, they played both teams closely enough to build some confidence about what would happen if they had to go back. Tight end Kyle Rudolph said after the Vikings’ Dec. 2 loss that the Vikings could “be back here [in Seattle] in a month,” and sounded like he welcomed the prospect of a rematch. Instead, they’ll face a Saints team that might present their toughest possible matchup because of Drew Brees’ ability to get the ball out quickly and the tall order of slowing down Michael Thomas. Heading out west to face the 49ers’ defense is a difficult proposition, too. I don’t disagree with the idea that this could be a tougher path, but if you’re looking for optimism, the prospect of putting Kirk Cousins in a controlled climate and Dalvin Cook on a fast track are good places to start. Plus, it’s a better bet we’ll spend the week seeing more clips of the Minneapolis Miracle than of the 2010 NFC Championship Game, so Vikings fans can look forward to that.
Q: I saw the 49ers would be the only team facing an opponent on a short week in the divisional playoffs. How did that happen, and how is that fair?
A: Yes, you’re right; San Francisco would play on Saturday in the second round, and both NFC wild-card games are on Sunday this week, meaning the 49ers are guaranteed to play a team with one less day of rest than any other team with a first-round bye (the Chiefs’ second-round opponent will actually have an extra day of rest before traveling to Kansas City). The top seed in each conference usually opts to play on Saturday, so it has the potential of facing a team on a short week of rest (coupled with the prospect of extra rest before the conference championship game). It’s always possible for the top seed to get an opponent on a Sunday-to-Saturday turnaround; the NFL just guaranteed it will happen for the 49ers, and not the Ravens, by putting both NFC wild-card games on Sunday this week. It’s not ideal for the Vikings, but it’s not unprecedented. In fact, it happened the last time they were in the wild-card playoffs, when they played the Seahawks on a Sunday just before the Packers faced Cousins and the Redskins after the 2015 season.
As for why it happened? The answer to these things in the playoffs usually revolves around TV. The league often gives ESPN the first game of wild-card weekend, and that’s usually an AFC game, since the conference has smaller markets than the NFC. And this year, the Patriots are playing in the first round, giving the NFL an appealing option for the Saturday night prime-time slot.
Q: Let’s shift to the 2020 schedule: Why in the world are the Vikings going to Seattle — again? And why don’t the Seahawks ever have to come here?
A: This is the question I’ve seen on Twitter more than any other since last night, and if you’d prefer to skip the long, detailed explanation of the NFL’s scheduling process, here’s the short version: Nothing about the league’s schedule is random or asymmetrical, and the fact the Vikings are going to Seattle in 2020 for the third straight year is simply a product of the NFL schedule rotation.
Here’s how it all works: Since the Texans joined the league in 2002 and the NFL realigned to two 16-team conferences with four divisions in each, they’ve been able to follow a simple, predictable scheduling formula that eliminates quite a bit of bias. In fact, as long as the league sticks with the same formula, you could map out 14 of the Vikings’ 16 opponents every season from here until the end of the century, if you’re so inclined.
The template, for every single team in the league, is this:
–6 games (3 home, 3 away) against division opponents (for the Vikings, it’s the Bears, Lions and Packers);
–4 games (2 home, 2 away) against an entire division in the same conference, determined on a three-year rotation (for the Vikings this year, it was the NFC East — at home against the Eagles and Redskins, at the Giants and Cowboys);
–4 games (2 home, 2 away) against an entire division in the opposite conference, determined on a four-year rotation (this year for the Vikings, it was the AFC West –at home against the Raiders and Broncos, at the Chiefs and Chargers);
–2 games (1 home, 1 away) against the two teams from the remaining same-conference divisions who finished the previous season with the same division place as the team in question (the Vikings finished second in the NFC North last year, so they played at home against the Falcons, who were second in the NFC South, and traveled to the Seahawks, who were second in the NFC West). The home and away games here are also determined on a rotation, and they are the only two games in any NFL team’s schedule that are not determined ahead of time.
Still with me?
Q: Yes, I’m still with you. But you didn’t answer the Seahawks part of the question.
A: OK — let’s look at this Seahawks. Remember those games the Vikings play against an entire NFC division, determined on a three-year rotation? The home and away opponents also rotate for those. When the Vikings played the entire NFC West in 2012, they had the 49ers and Cardinals at home, and the Seahawks and Rams on the road. In 2015, it was the Seahawks and Rams at home, and 49ers and Cardinals on the road — which meant trips to Seattle and Los Angeles as part of the regular NFC North/NFC West schedule rotation in 2018.
(Side note: The Vikings and Packers always seem to be “travel partners” who visit and host the same teams for these games, as do the Bears and Lions. Why does that happen? As best I’ve been able to determine, it’s alphabetical: Chicago with Detroit, Green Bay with Minnesota; Atlanta with Carolina and New Orleans with Tampa Bay in the NFC South. Anyway … moving on.)
So let’s take the 2019 schedule, which had the Vikings slated to visit the second-place team in the NFC West. That was Seattle, meaning the Vikings went there on Monday night this year. In 2020, they’re also slated to visit the second-place team in the NFC West, while hosting the second-place NFC East team and playing the entire NFC South. Because of last night’s result, which put the 49ers first in the NFC West and the Seahawks second, it means the Vikings will go to Seattle again next year, while the Packers will again visit San Francisco.
The best answer, then, for why the Vikings keep going to Seattle? They’ve consistently finished in the same division spot as the Seahawks at a time where they were also scheduled to visit Seattle in the schedule rotation. There’s obviously frustration about this because those games haven’t gone well; the Vikings went 0-4 at CenturyLink Field in the decade, and lost a pair of important Monday-night games in December there the past two years.
But if you’ve been paying attention, you should already know the answer to when the Seahawks will visit U.S. Bank Stadium: They’ll come to Minneapolis in 2021, as part of the schedule rotation (since they were here in 2015 and the Vikings went to Seattle in 2018). And, if they finish in the same spot in their division as the Vikings in 2021, they’ll be back in 2022, when the Vikings host the same-place finisher in the NFC West while visiting the same-place finisher in the NFC South. You can get a feel for the Vikings’ upcoming schedule by visiting sites like these.
Q: What about the Bears: Why are they here in Week 17 every season?
A: In 2010 — once it had been through an entire eight-year schedule rotation after realigning in 2002 — the NFL made a change to its schedules so that Week 17 would be made up entirely of division games, creating opportunities for division titles to be determined on the field (and laying the groundwork for obvious prime-time TV matchups, like the NFC West title game between the Seahawks and 49ers last night, or the NFC North title game the Vikings played with the Packers in 2015). That practice has expanded to back-loaded division schedules in recent years — the Vikings played all three of their division home games in December this year, and played their last two games against the Packers and Bears for the third time in four years.
But for a few years, those Week 17 games were on a predictable rotation (at Detroit in 2010, at home against Chicago in 2011, at home against Green Bay in 2012, at home against Detroit in 2013). The Bears came to Minneapolis in 2014, instead of the Vikings going to Chicago, and the trip to Green Bay followed a predictable rotation in 2015. But since then, it’s been the Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium, while the Packers and Lions have played each season (three at Ford Field, one at Lambeau Field). Why the NFL has gone away from the predictable rotation, I’m not quite sure; if I had to guess, it might have something to do with avoiding games on Soldier Field’s dubious playing surface late in the season. The Bears have only finished the year at home twice since 2007. In any case, when Chicago has visited Minnesota for four straight years in Week 17 at U.S. Bank Stadium, it’s not a bad bet to assume it could happen again.
Q: OK — I think that all makes sense now. But this is all pretty wonky. You must be kind of a nerd to enjoy writing about it.
A: It’s true. I’d like to say it’s an occupational hazard, but those who know me best know otherwise.
Photo credit: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune