Oh, to be in the NFC East or to rule the NFC South. Put the Vikings in the East and they would have clinched the division by now. Swap them for New Orleans in the South, and they’re running away with it.
But that’s not how this works. The 9-4 Vikings are in the NFC North, and their path to a division title — and really, even a playoff spot short of winning out — is about as clear as your windshield was on the way into the office today.
Here, though, is my best attempt to explain what is at stake over the next three weeks — how the Vikings could get anything from a first-round bye to a set of warm-weather vacations in early January after missing the playoffs completely, and how the most likely thing is a playoff meeting with Green Bay.
If the Vikings go 3-0 down the stretch …
*They will make the playoffs. They can guarantee at least that much by winning at the Chargers (5-8) next week, then finishing with wins over Green Bay (10-3) and Chicago (7-6).
None of those games will be easy. Playing on the West Coast is a challenge, and here’s an extra fun fact: The Chargers have half as many wins as the Packers, but they have virtually identical point differentials (plus-38 and plus-39, respectively). They’ve lost a ton of close games and won some blowouts — including one over Green Bay. Take that game lightly at your own peril. Green Bay is the NFC North leader. And Chicago has won three in a row to sneak back into striking distance in the playoff race (more on that in a minute).
But win all three, and the Vikings are at least assured of being a wild card — quite possibly as the No. 6 seed, particularly if Seattle (tiebreaker head-to-head edge and one-game lead at 10-3) ends up being the other wild card).
*In that scenario, the Vikings could also win the division if Green Bay loses one other game — at home to either the Bears (next week) or Lions (Week 17). That Bears-Packers game next week has HUGE implications. A Packers win puts their division odds at 84%, even with a loss to the Vikings in Week 16, because it would ensure they win the tiebreaker as long as they beat Detroit. A Packers loss throws the race wide open, even if the Vikings lose to the Chargers.
*If the Vikings did win the division at 12-4, they’d still have an outside chance at a top-2 seed and a bye. They would get it if: New Orleans finishes 11-5 or if it loses in Week 17 at Carolina (Vikings would have the conference tiebreaker) … or if the Vikings manage to finish ahead of the NFC West leader (San Francisco or Seattle), though the latter scenario is tougher because San Francisco is two games ahead of the Vikings and Seattle owns the head-to-head tiebreaker.
More likely, though, they would be the No. 3 seed.
If the Vikings go 2-1 down the stretch …
*They could still win the division IF their loss is to the Chargers (while beating the Packers and Bears) AND the Packers lose one of their other two games to the Bears or Lions (or, much more remotely, if the Vikings beat the Chargers and Packers but lose to the Bears, while Green Bay goes 0-3 down the stretch). The more plausible first scenario would put both the Vikings and Packers at 11-5, and it would come down to the fourth tiebreaker (conference record) which would go to the Vikings. Minnesota would almost certainly be the No. 3 seed in this scenario.
*If the Vikings go 11-5 but Green Bay wins the division, the Vikings might need a little help to make the playoffs as a wild card. That’s because the Rams (8-5) have been on a roll and would win a tiebreaker if both teams finish 11-5 — which probably would be the final playoff spot since the division loser of 49ers/Seattle could have at least 12 wins and/or a tiebreaker edge and get the No. 5 seed.
The Rams’ win over Seattle on Sunday night put a significant dent in the Vikings’ playoff cushion. As of Monday morning, their probability of making the playoffs is just 72%, per FiveThirtyEight.com; it was sitting in the mid-80s before that game. (Football Outsiders is more optimistic at 81%).
The Rams, though, have games at Dallas and at San Francisco the next two weeks and could easily drop one of those before finishing up with an easier one at home against Arizona. The Rams going 3-0 would be the only wild card threat if the Vikings go 2-1 in their next three.
If the Vikings go 1-2 down the stretch …
*Here’s where things get particularly dicey and hard to sort. The Vikings could still win the division, but they would need their win to be over Green Bay and for the Packers to go 0-3 — possible, but unlikely given the favorable Week 17 matchup vs. Detroit.
In that scenario, the Bears could actually sneak in and win the division with a three-way tie at 10-6 because they would have the division record tiebreaker edge. That would require the Bears to also defeat the Chiefs in addition to the Vikings and Packers.
*As a wild card hopeful, the Vikings would need help. Finishing tied with the Rams would be bad because L.A. would likely either have the conference tiebreaker or common opponent tiebreaker. And a week 17 loss to the Bears would give Chicago that head-to-head tiebreaker if the Bears win out. So the Vikings would be banking on the Rams going no better than 1-2 (possible given their next two games) and the Bears going no better than 2-1 (again, possible).
Just for example: If the Vikings lose the next two weeks, their playoff probability plummets to 22%, per FiveThirtyEight.com.
If the Vikings go 0-3 down the stretch …
*They would need the Rams to lose out and probably the Bears to go no better than 1-2.
But chances are the Vikings would miss the playoffs entirely, and questions about the futures of Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman and even Kirk Cousins would heat up.
The most likely scenarios …
It’s still more likely than not that the Vikings make the playoffs, and their most likely outcomes are either as the No. 3 or No. 6 seed. If that happens, it’s also within reason that the Packers will either be the No. 3 or No. 6 seed, depending on which of the two wins the division — and if so there would be a playoff meeting between the teams in early January at Lambeau Field (more likely) or U.S. Bank Stadium.