Because it’s that time of year and because Minnesota teams have a habit of never making things easy, here is a look at five things to know and/or remember about the Vikings and this year’s NFL playoff chase:
1) The Vikings still control their own destiny when it comes to winning their division. (This is an overused term in sports, making things sound more dramatic than they really are, but still). If Minnesota wins its next three games, including Week 17 at Lambeau Field, it will be guaranteed of winning the NFC North.
Why? Because even if the Packers also win the next two games to maintain their one-game lead over the Vikings going into Week 17 (Green Bay is 9-4 after beating Dallas, while the Vikings fell to 8-5 with their loss to Arizona), if the Vikings win and tie the Packers at 11-5 in that scenario they win the division because of the second tiebreaker, a better division record.
If the Vikings win their next two home games against the Bears and Giants, they will clinch a playoff spot, assuring themselves of no worse than a wild card berth, and will guarantee that their Week 17 game at Lambeau is for the division title.
Even just winning just one of next two games — both at home against Chicago and the Giants — might be good enough to get the Vikings to a winner-take-all Week 17 game for the division, though the Vikings would then be relying on some help. The Packers are at Oakland next week and then at Arizona the week after that. If Green Bay loses one of those two, certainly possible given that Oakland just beat Denver and given how good Arizona has looked all year, the Vikings would still be in position to win the division in Week 17 simply by going 1-1 in the next two weeks.
2) Green Bay can lose its next two and still win the division just with a Week 17 win over the Vikings. That’s the prime position the Packers have put themselves in. Even if the Vikings win the next two and the Packers lose both, Green Bay would only be one game back heading into Week 17. And just as the Vikings would have the tiebreaker if they won Week 17, Green Bay would have it if they won because of a 2-0 head-to-head edge.
3) The most likely outcomes if the Vikings make the playoffs are as follows:
*Vikings are a wild card, either at 9-7 or 10-6, and are the No. 6 seed. This presumes Seattle finishes at least even with the Vikings (Seattle has very winnable home games against Cleveland and St. Louis before finishing against Arizona). If the Vikings are the No. 6 seed, they would likely have a rematch at Lambeau a week after their regular-season finale, since Green Bay would likely be the No. 3 seed. The only way that would change is if Green Bay leapfrogs Arizona to grab the No. 2 seed. That’s possible since Arizona still has to play the Packers and finishes with a Week 17 game vs. Seattle. If the Packers go 3-0 and Arizona goes 1-2, including a loss to the Packers, Green Bay would be the No. 2 seed, Arizona would be the No. 3 seed, and the Vikings — assuming they are the No. 6 seed — would play at Arizona.
*The Vikings win the NFC North. In this case, they would almost certainly be the No. 3 seed. And there’s a good chance Seattle would be the No. 6 seed since Green Bay is one game ahead of Seattle right now and holds any two-team tiebreaker with the Seahawks because of a head-to-head win. So in that scenario, Seattle would play at Minnesota, while Green Bay would play at the NFC East winner. If Seattle goes 3-0 and Green Bay goes 1-2 down the stretch, Green Bay would be the No. 6 seed and play at Minnesota.
Regardless, it sets up for a pretty tough first-round matchup for the Vikings. That’s where losing these last two while Seattle has gotten hot hurts Minnesota. For a while, it was trending toward the Vikings being the top wild card even if it lost the division race, in which case the Vikings would have had that enticing matchup against an NFC East winner. Now that seems less likely.
4) Tampa Bay losing Sunday was big. That ensures that every team chasing the Vikings for the final wild card spot is at least two games back. There is a scenario where the Vikings could clinch a playoff berth as soon as next weekend by beating the Bears and getting some help. Even if they don’t clinch next week, the Vikings would still be in pretty good shape to get into the playoffs at 9-7.
5) The tiebreakers if the Vikings go 1-2 in their final three games are complicated (at least to me). I spent close to an hour on the white board this morning with fellow strib editor Chris Carr, producing that image you see. Long story short: the Vikings could make it much easier on everyone, including themselves, if they start winning again. But even if they make the playoffs — which Five Thirty Eight puts at a 93 percent chance right now — they’re going to have a tough game right out of the gate.