While the Vikings will close their season with back-to-back games against the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, the three-week run of NFC North matchups they’re about to begin could have as much to say as anything else about where they’ll finish in the division.

And if recent history is a reliable indicator, the Vikings’ two matchups against perhaps their lowest-profile division foe might make the difference on whether they or the Detroit Lions wind up in the playoffs.

In the three years Mike Zimmer and Jim Caldwell have coached their respective teams, the Vikings-Lions games have been the pivot points for each team’s season, while helping to forge a spicy little rivalry between the teams.

It began in 2014, when the Lions sacked Teddy Bridgewater eight times in a 17-3 win and Zimmer fumed about his club’s lack of discipline, saying, “I can handle getting beat; I can’t handle getting our butts whipped,” and promising that “fines are going to the max this week” for players missing appointments.

The next meeting between the teams, at Ford Field in December, turned on a pair of Bridgewater interceptions as Matt Prater hit two second-half field goals for a 16-14 Lions win. The Vikings went 7-9 that year; Detroit wound up playing Green Bay for the NFC North title and made the playoffs as a wild card.

In the 2015 home opener, after Everson Griffen had predicted a victory, the Vikings battered Matthew Stafford at TCF Bank Stadium, sending the quarterback for X-rays on his chest and ribs while Lions wide receiver Golden Tate accused Minnesota of dirty play. Bridgewater had one of his finest afternoons as the Vikings’ starter in the second game that October, going 25-for-35 for 316 yards and two touchdowns. And while the Lions stumbled to 7-9 and wound up firing their offensive coordinator, the Vikings won the division title at Lambeau Field in Week 17.

Last year’s two games might still be stuck in the collective conscience of Vikings fans; they certainly are in the minds of players this week. In early November, a missed extra point and blocked field goal put Blair Walsh one step from unemployment, the Vikings scored too quick at the end of regulation, Prater’s 58-yard field goal tied the score and the Lions won on a Tate touchdown in overtime.

Thanksgiving Day at Ford Field was where the Lions rallied yet again, wresting the NFC North lead from the Vikings on a Prater field goal as time expired. Minnesota finished the year 8-8, while the Lions played — you guessed it — an NFC North title game with the Packers and went to the postseason as a wild card.

“Absolutely [it sticks with you], because we know what we’ve got to defend against: their charge at the end of halves and the end of football games,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “We’ve been trying to prepare for that. It’s about going out there, making sure you’re staying in tune to what you’ve got to do and finish the football game.”

Even as Sunday marks only the quarter pole of the season, there’s already a sizable stake for the Vikings and Lions. Sunday’s winner will be tied with the Packers for the NFC North lead; the loser will be a game back of both teams, in need of a win in the next matchup on Thanksgiving Day to retain any hope of winning a division tiebreaker.

It doesn’t have the history of Bears-Packers, the vitriol of Vikings-Packers (or, for that matter, Vikings-Bears) or the Thanksgiving tradition of Packers-Lions. But the rivalry between the division’s two most geographically separated teams is becoming one of the most compelling — and most important.

“Two years ago, we beat them twice and we went to the playoffs,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Last year, they beat us twice and they went to the playoffs. Obviously, these are two teams that are going to be battling to the end of the year for a playoff spot. It’s a division game, it’s a NFC game — that’s added importance. But this is a team we’re going to be battling for a playoff spot in December.”


Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib. E-mail: ben.goessling@startribune.com