Even with their 23-20 loss at Arizona on Thursday, the Vikings still have a hold on an NFC wild-card spot in the playoffs with a 1½ game lead over Tampa Bay and Atlanta and a half-game lead over the Seahawks.

The Vikings are a half-game behind Green Bay for the NFC North division title, but the Packers haven't looked like themselves lately and the remaining schedules for the playoff candidates in the NFC give the Vikings a good shot of either winning the division or taking a wild-card spot.

Let's start with Green Bay, which faces Dallas at home Sunday. Assuming the Packers win, the Packers will have a one-game lead over Minnesota with three games left. The Packers head on the road to face Oakland (5-7) and Arizona (11-2) in back-to-back weeks, while the Vikings will face the Giants (5-7) and the Bears (5-7) at home, two games in which they will be favored.

If the Vikings can find a way to go 2-0 and the Packers lose just one of those two games, that will set up a Week 17 battle in Green Bay for the NFC North title. The reason the Vikings likely would have the tiebreaker is because they have a 3-1 record in division games while the Packers are 3-2, so if the Vikings and Packers have the same record at the end of the season, and split their season series, the Vikings would win the tiebreaker.

Meanwhile, the only teams that seem to have a realistic chance of knocking the Vikings out of the playoffs would be Tampa Bay (6-6) and Atlanta (6-6). Tampa Bay faces New Orleans (4-8) at home Sunday, then has a road game at St. Louis (4-8), a home game against Chicago (5-7) and a road game at Carolina (12-0). That Carolina could mean nothing to the Panthers by then unless they are still undefeated and going for a perfect season.

Atlanta has a tougher schedule, with Carolina on the road Sunday, then at Jacksonville (4-8) next week. The Falcons have Carolina again, at home this time, and finish the season with the Saints at home.

The easiest way to look at the Vikings' chance is this: If they win their next two home games, against the Bears and Giants, they'll probably reach the playoffs. Lose one or both of those games and things will get much more interesting for Mike Zimmer's squad.

Salem, Kiffin lead QBs

It'll be a great day for two coaches with Minnesota ties when Alabama and Michigan State meet in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Eve to determine who will go to the national championship game in college football.

Brad Salem, the son of former Gophers head coach Joe Salem and a graduate of Edina High School, is the quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator at Michigan State while Lane Kiffin, the son of former Vikings defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and a Bloomington Jefferson graduate, where he played quarterback, is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama.

Both spent time here in their younger days when Joe Salem was the head coach of the Gophers and Monte Kiffin was on the Vikings staff.

Salem said Michigan State is excited for the challenge of facing Alabama, even though it is a 10-point underdog.

Kiffin and Salem both had the benefit of growing up in football families with fathers who were extremely successful coaches themselves.

Salem said one of the big connections at the start of his coaching career was knowing Pat Morris, who coached with his dad for the Gophers and also worked for the Vikings under Brad Childress from 2006-10.

"Back in 1994 when I finished college I was looking to be a [graduate assistant] and Pat Morris was the O-line coach for my dad at Minnesota and he was the O-line coach for George Perles [at Michigan State], so I came and [was a graduate assistant] here for George Perles and also for Nick Saban the next year in '95," Salem said."

In another interesting twist, Salem worked under Saban, for whom Kiffin now works at Alabama.

Salem's career started at Michigan State in the '80s, and he went on to work at Luther College, South Dakota and Augustana, where he was eventually named head coach. He served in that role from 2005 until going back to Michigan State in 2009.

Kiffin began his coaching career as an assistant at Fresno State, where he played college ball, in 1998. He went on to Colorado State and worked in the NFL under Tom Coughlin with the Jaguars in 2000. Kiffin went to USC to work under Pete Carroll and was eventually named offensive coordinator. Kiffin got his first head coaching job with the Raiders in 2007 and then was the head coach at Tennessee for the 2009 season before becoming USC's head coach from 2010-2013. After his time there he joined Saban's staff at Alabama.

I knew young Salem and Kiffin well when their dads were coaching here. Nobody could have predicted such a meeting when both were growing up as youngsters.


• Mike Zimmer and his staff should be commended for a great coaching job in getting the Vikings ready to play their best game of the season against an excellent Arizona team. Especially with the fact that they had the short week to prepare and were missing so many of the team's best players, and came within one or two plays of winning.

• The word is that everything is going well with the steps that must be taken for the Vikings to purchase the old Northwest Airlines land in Eagan and that closing will be completed in January. ... Vikings center John Sullivan is making good progress after a second back operation, and the word is that the great center, who is being sorely missed, will be available for next season.

• Kevin Garnett's stats as a 20-year-old (his second season): 17.0 points on 49.9 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.1 blocks, 1.4 steals in 38.9 minutes per game. Karl-Anthony Towns' stats as a 20-year-old with the Wolves: 15.2 points per game on 53.2 percent shooting, 9.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 2.2 blocks, 0.7 steals in 28.1 minutes per game.

• The Gophers had nine recruits visit last week and had more this past week. Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said that no more recruits have changed plans to play for the Gophers. ... Seth Green, the East Ridge quarterback who was recruited by Oregon, is interested in Minnesota, and there is a good chance of him winding up here if he can play at quarterback. The Gophers offered Green a scholarship early in the recruiting period. Then he chose Oregon, but apparently that plan has changed.

• The Twins will no doubt take advantage of Tony Oliva's contacts in Cuba and have him do some scouting there now that the United States and Cuba have a better relationship.