When it comes to what will happen six weeks from now, Mike Zimmer said, he and his Vikings “don’t really talk about playoff things or anything like that.”
That’s probably a good idea since it’s December, and the Vikings have five wins, six losses and a 13% chance of making the playoffs, if you believe in internet playoff machines and the like.
“We’re just trying to get better every week,” says the coach who started 1-5 and has since gone 4-1.
The “P-word” will be harder to avoid Sunday evening if the Vikings finally reach .500 with a home win over a Jaguars team that’s lost 10 straight games. If that happens, you’ll see the Vikings being compared to a fairly long list of recent teams that have made the playoffs after posting a losing record through 11 games.
Fourteen teams have done that in the past 16 seasons, including 12 that were 5-6. One team has done it every year but two since 2004.
Ten of them went on to win a wild-card playoff game. Two of them — the 2009 Jets and 2016 Packers — also won a divisional playoff game before losing one step short of the Super Bowl.
NFC East teams have done it seven times since 2004, including four that qualified as division champions. Washington has done it four of those times while the Eagles have done it three times, including the past two seasons, when they turned 5-6 starts into 9-7 finishes.
The NFC East is almost certain to do it again this season since the current race looks like this:
1. Giants 4-7
2. Washington 4-7
3. Eagles 3-7-1
4. Cowboys 3-8
The winner of that worst division likely will join the 2010 Seahawks (7-9) and 2014 Panthers (7-8-1) as the only losing teams to make the playoffs in a non-strike year. The Browns (4-5) and Lions (4-5) made the playoffs during the nine-game strike year of 1982.
Outside the NFC East, four teams are 5-6: the Vikings, Bears, 49ers and Patriots. Each supposedly has a 13% chance of making the playoffs in Year 1 of the 14-team format.
At least that’s what the computers say. Let’s use our eyes and human brains instead to come up with the 5-6 team that appears most likely to make the playoffs.
Elimination No. 1
Sorry, Chicago. You’re out. Of the four 5-6 teams, you have the easiest remaining schedule with only one team with a winning record. But you’ve lost five straight and your quarterback and offense are hopelessly lost. Try again next year. With a new quarterback.
Elimination No. 2
New England. The Patriots obviously have the coaching advantage. And you can never rule out Bill Belichick. But there are two things working against the Patriots after Sunday’s game against the woefully coached Chargers: a three-game stretch at the Rams, at Miami and home vs. Buffalo; and they’re one of the four 5-6 teams in the AFC. In the NFC, 5-6 puts you a game behind Arizona for the seventh seed. In the AFC, 5-6 puts you two games behind two 7-4 teams with two 6-5 teams in between. Sorry, Bill. It was a nice run without TB12.
Elimination No. 3
San Francisco. This is a tough one. The 49ers have been very well coached through a season that’s seen their roster decimated by injuries. They’re also coming off a season sweep of the Rams. But they’re 1-3 in their past four games. And they face three teams with winning records, including 8-3 Buffalo on Sunday and 8-3 Seattle in Week 17.
They have the most momentum and should win their last two home games — against the Jaguars (1-10) and Bears (5-6) — and a Week 17 trip to Detroit (4-7). That’s eight wins with trips to Tampa (7-5) and New Orleans (9-2).
Can the Vikings split those two difficult road games to reach the nine wins they’ll probably need? Who knows?
The Bucs are hardly dominant. And if there’s one team that knows not to underestimate an underdog Vikings team, it’s the Saints.
“The mentality of this football team since I’ve been here has always been smart and tough and physical,” Zimmer said. “And so I continue to try to preach that message. We dug ourselves a hole and the only way we can get out of it is by fighting.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: email@example.com