Sammy Watkins recovered the onside kick Sunday, giving the Rams a bounce-back win, the Saints a third loss and the Vikings effectively a two-game lead over another team, New Orleans, contending for a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.

The Vikings (9-2) beat both the Saints (8-3) and the Rams (8-3) earlier this season, giving them the one-game lead and tiebreakers.

The Vikings made the most progress toward the playoffs during Thursday’s 30-23 win against the Lions (6-5). Defeating Detroit for the first time in two years gave Minnesota a three-game lead in the division. To win the NFC North and host a playoff game, the Vikings simply need to beat the Packers and Bears in Weeks 16 and 17. Of course, they can put the bow on a division title before then.

More ground can be gained for the Vikings in the next two weeks with pivotal NFC games across the NFL schedule. Minnesota can take care of its own path with big opportunities in Atlanta on Dec. 3 and Charlotte on Dec. 10.

Both games, against current NFC wild-card teams, will be further measuring sticks for a Vikings team thinking Super Bowl. Before the Panthers host the Vikings, they’ll play in New Orleans next weekend for the NFC South lead. And then the Falcons face the Saints in two weeks.

NFC Playoff Picture

1. Eagles (10-1)
2. Vikings (9-2)
3. Rams (8-3)
4. Saints (8-3)
5. Panthers (8-3)
6. Falcons (7-4)

Outside looking in: Seahawks (7-4), Lions (6-5), Packers (5-6), Cowboys (5-6), Redskins (5-6), Cardinals (5-6)

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