Last weekend went about as well as it could for the Vikings’ playoff chances, with one significant exception: Green Bay beating the Bears means it will be very difficult for Minnesota to win the NFC North.
Even if the Vikings win the Monday Night Football matchup coming up in five days with the Packers, putting both teams at 11-4, all Green Bay would need in Week 17 is a win over Detroit to grab the division because even if both teams were 12-4 the Packers would win the tiebreaker based on division record.
On the plus side were three outcomes: the Vikings beating the Chargers (of course), the Rams losing to the Cowboys and the 49ers losing to the Falcons.
The first two of those outcomes felt like coin flip chances, maybe a little better, but to get both was huge. It boosted the Vikings’ playoff chances (per FiveThirtyEight) from 72% heading into the weekend to 97% now. All they need to secure a playoff spot is at least one win or one Rams loss in the final two weeks — and the Vikings could clinch a berth as early as Saturday if the Rams lose at San Francisco, an outcome reasonably likely to happen even as the 49ers have fallen back to earth (3-3 since their 8-0 start).
But speaking of San Francisco, that unexpected home loss to the Falcons (a weird team that is 5-9 but has road wins at New Orleans and now SF) opened the door for a more appealing (and plausible) wild card scenario for the Vikings.
Short of winning twice while Green Bay loses twice, thus giving the Vikings the NFC North title, here’s the Vikings’ best scenario:
*San Francisco wins Saturday. It’s always nice to just get into the playoffs, and that would ensure the Vikings are in as at least the No. 6 seed.
*The Vikings beat the Packers on Monday and then beat the Bears in Week 17 to finish 12-4.
*San Francisco loses to Seattle in Week 17 to finish 12-4.
That would give the Seahawks the division title and push the 49ers into the wild card. And in that scenario, if the Vikings and 49ers tied at 12-4, the Vikings would win the tiebreaker — it would go to the third criteria, common opponents, and the Vikings would be 3-2 in such games while the 49ers were 2-3, an edge created by that 49ers loss to a Falcons team the Vikings beat handily in Week 1.
That would give the Vikings the No. 5 seed as the better of the wild cards, ensuring a matchup with the No. 4 seed — the winner of the weak NFC East, either Dallas or Philadelphia, two teams the Vikings have already defeated this season.
San Francisco would be the No. 6 seed and likely have to play the No. 3 seed, either Green Bay or New Orleans (likely Green Bay since this scenario involves the Packers losing at least once to the Vikings).
That’s a much easier first-round game for the Vikings, though they would be on the road regardless for at least the first two rounds if they kept winning. But it would also give them an outside chance of hosting the NFC title game if the No. 6-seeded 49ers also won twice, a benefit the Vikings wouldn’t have as the No. 6 seed.
The Vikings would lose a tiebreaker with Seattle if both teams finish 12-4 (head-to-head), and they would lose the tiebreaker to the 49ers at 12-4 if San Francisco’s outcomes are flip-flopped (lose to the Rams but beat the Seahawks) because the Vikings would no longer have the common opponent edge. And of course they lose the tiebreaker with the Packers in the division.
But the one narrow tiebreaker edge they have, as spelled out above, could come into play and give them a more favorable path as a wild card.