From a season that began with the Vikings talking about the Super Bowl to a point early this season when I wondered if this could be one of the worst Vikings teams in history, we have arrived at the season midpoint somewhere in the middle.
At 3-5, and winners of their last two games, the Vikings have somewhat changed the narrative away from their early struggles and pushed themselves at least to the fringes of a discussion about the playoffs.
With a favorable second-half schedule, it’s easy to imagine the Vikings finishing close to or at .500 — not a success if that happens, but at least a reason to consider keeping a good chunk of the team (and leadership) intact for 2021.
Barring some sort of catastrophic injury, it’s much harder to imagine the Vikings finishing with, say, four wins — territory that would give Minnesota some intriguing draft capital, though almost certainly not enough to land someone like Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields — and quite possibly trigger bigger changes.
But here’s the question: If we no longer think the Vikings will be worse than mediocre, how do we feel about them being better than mediocre — defined here by going at least 9-7 and giving themselves real shot at a playoff spot.
As we discussed in great detail on this week’s Access Vikings podcast, that possibility really seems to hinge on what happens Monday night in Chicago.
If you look at FiveThirtyEight’s breakdown of the Vikings’ remaining games, this one is the biggest “toss-up” left. The site gives the Bears a 1.5-point edge, which translates into a 56% chance to win. But that’s pretty close to a coin flip.
After this one? The Vikings have three straight against the Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars in which they are given at least a touchdown edge in each. It’s dangerous to put any games in the win column before they happen — particularly with this Vikings team, which has shown a propensity for inconsistency and an ability to lose big to bad teams like Atlanta — but you can see the possibilities.
Win a road game Monday against a competitive team and the path to being 7-5 after 12 games comes into focus. From there, wins at home against the Bears and at Detroit would be enough for nine wins regardless of what happens in their two toughest games of the second half.
But a loss would leave the Vikings at 3-6 and again with plenty of questions. Looming games against Tampa Bay and New Orleans later in the year would have the potential to sink the Vikings to .500 even if they ran the table against the rest of their competition.
A win over Chicago, too, would probably reveal something about the Vikings’ offense. Dalvin Cook has carried the Vikings to wins over the Packers and Lions, teams that rank No. 20 and No. 25, respectively in Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA.
The Bears are No. 7 in run defense and No. 4 overall in that same metric. This is a game that will likely require more big-time throws from Kirk Cousins while he continues to stay away from turnovers. If the Vikings can achieve that balance and continue to get improved play from their offensive line, it bodes well for future games this season. If they can’t, it will fuel even more questions about Cousins’ future.
Beyond that, there is a historical component to the significance of Monday’s game.
The Vikings have struggled mightily in Chicago in recent seasons. But one thing has remained true: If they manage to win in the Windy City, it bodes well for their chances of making the playoffs.
They’ve won in Chicago 11 times since 1990, and in 10 of those years they made the playoffs. The only time they didn’t was 2007, when Adrian Peterson carried them to a 34-31 win with a huge rushing day and a big kick return in what ended up being an 8-8 season.
More recently, wins in Chicago in 2015 and 2017 proved to be huge markers — extending or starting long winning streaks that led to playoff berths. Losses in 2016 and 2018 exposed offensive flaws and likely kept the Vikings out of the playoffs.
If the Vikings have about a 20% chance of making the playoffs right now according to multiple sites and oddsmakers, I’d venture to say that number would go down to about 10% with a loss and jump up to 30-35% with a win Monday.
That we are talking at all about a playoff possibility for the first time since very early in the season is a testament to what we have seen the last two weeks.
Whether this is the last time we talk about it realistically for the rest of the season will probably be determined by what happens Monday.