Updated NFC Playoff Picture: The Vikings Have a Real Path to a Wild Card Spot

Will Ragatz

Having won three straight games over divisional opponents, the Vikings have resurrected what looked like a lost season and put themselves in position for an unlikely run to the playoffs.

Just a few weeks ago, Minnesota was 1-5 and appeared to be careening towards a top-five pick in next year's draft. Their playoff odds had sunk below five percent, and a turnaround seemed highly unlikely given how poorly they had played in a demoralizing home loss to the previously winless Falcons.

But something clicked after the bye week. The offense has been productive, with Dalvin Cook leading the Vikings to wins over the Packers and Lions and Kirk Cousins getting the job done through the air in a sloppy win over the Bears on Monday night.

With each successive victory, those playoff odds have been rising. Football Outsiders gives the Vikings a 20 percent chance to reach the postseason, but FiveThirtyEight is much more bullish, at 40 percent. ESPN's Football Power Index is also on the optimistic side at 38 percent. Regardless of which model you trust, the outlook is a lot rosier than it was when November began.

When discussing the Vikings' playoff chances, one thing stands true above everything else: the team simply needs to continue winning. Having the second-easiest remaining strength of schedule (per ESPN) helps with that, but nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. The Vikings' next three games are all at home, against three teams (the Cowboys, Panthers, and Jaguars) who have lost a combined 17 straight games. Still, they know there are no easy victories in this league. Those three teams recently lost by five points or fewer to the Steelers, Chiefs, and Packers, respectively.

"[The playoffs aren't] something we talk about," Adam Thielen said on Wednesday. "We're so focused right now on just handling our business week in and week out. We know how difficult it is to win in this league no matter who you're playing, no matter what the record is, no matter what time of the season it is. Whatever the playoff implications are, it doesn't matter. You get 16 opportunities to win in this league and you really have to be prepared and ready for every single week. Because we know what can happen if you're not prepared, if you're not locked in."

If the Vikings can take care of business in each of those three games – which, again, is far from a sure thing – they would be 7-5 heading into a final quarter of the season that features road games against the Buccaneers and Saints and rematches with the Bears and Lions. The Vikings might need to go 3-1 over that stretch and finish 10-6 for a second straight year to sneak into the playoffs.

Here's what the playoff picture currently looks like in the NFC.

Screen Shot 2020-11-20 at 3.23.55 PM

The two teams to focus on are the Cardinals and Rams, who have top-five difficult schedules the rest of the way and lack the elite peripheral numbers of teams like the Buccaneers and Saints. The Vikings are unlikely to catch the Seahawks for two reasons: they lost the head-to-head matchup earlier this year, giving Seattle a direct tiebreaker, and the Seahawks' schedule is comparable to that of the Vikings, ranking as the third-easiest.

It probably comes down to the NFC West. The Seahawks beating the Cardinals on Thursday night was big for the Vikings, who can pull to within a game of Arizona with a win over Dallas on Sunday. Another key thing is that the Cardinals and Rams still have to play each other twice. The best-case scenario for Minnesota is that one of those teams sweeps that series and the Vikings are able to catch the other one. The Rams play the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football this week (Vikings fans should probably root for Tampa Bay) and also have a rematch with the Seahawks later this season.

It's also possible for the Vikings to catch one of the NFC South teams, especially because they have the chance to earn a head-to-head tiebreaker against both the Saints and Bucs. The Saints losing Drew Brees for several weeks could be a big blow.

The Vikings also may need to win their rematches with the Bears and Lions to ensure neither sneaks into the playoffs, although it's hard to see either team finishing above 8-8 given their recent struggles.

TLDR: The Vikings need to keep winning, hope either the Rams or Cardinals sweep the season series against each other, and also root for losses from the Saints, Buccaneers, Bears, and Lions.

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