With three weeks remaining, the NFC playoff picture is just as muddled as ever. Sam Ekstrom answers your likeliest questions as the football calendar turns to Week 15.
WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE NFC NORTH RACE?
With the Vikings and Packers both hosting three-win teams on Sunday, there was little likelihood the divisional picture would shift much. As expected, both hosts took care of business, albeit in ugly games, to keep the one-game differential intact in the NFC North. Green Bay leads the way by a game and still maintains the tiebreaker thanks to their head-to-head win over the Vikings, and after that, a better divisional record.
Because of their Week 14 loss at Seattle, the Vikings fell a game behind the Packers and are now running out of time to gain that game back. The Packers will need to lose, not only at Minnesota in Week 16, but also versus Chicago in Week 15 or at Detroit in Week 17. Green Bay’s game on Sunday against the 7-6 Bears could be the Vikings’ best chance to catch the Packers.
Of course, Minnesota is essentially required to win out if they want to win the NFC North. But even that won’t be enough if the Packers win their other two games. That would relegate the Vikings to a Wild Card despite having 12 wins.
IS GETTING A BYE EVEN POSSIBLE?
Sure, but the biggest hurdle remains passing the Packers. Let’s assume that happens, for the sake of the exercise.
If the Vikings end up tied with the New Orleans Saints at 12-4, it means the Saints dropped one of their final three games. The tiebreaker then hinges on which game the Saints lose. If they lose to Indianapolis or Tennessee, that doesn’t affect their conference record. Therefore, the Vikings and Saints would end with identical conference marks and the tiebreaker would go to common games, which the Saints would win primarily because of wins over the Seahawks and Bears.
It’s hard to imagine the Vikings beating out the NFC West champ for a bye, considering there are a pair of teams that have already banked 10-plus wins. The Seahawks have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings, and the 49ers currently have the edge in conference record (8-1 vs 7-3) and common games (2-1 vs 1-2 with two remaining). Even if the Vikings pulled into a tie in those two categories, their .330 strength of victory is the second-worst amongst NFC contenders (above only Dallas).
In essence, the tiebreakers aren’t in their favor. The most realistic scenario for a bye — and it’s not that realistic — would be that the Vikings beat the Packers in the division and the Saints lose two of their final three games against the Colts, Titans and Panthers.
HOW MUCH SHOULD VIKINGS FANS WORRY ABOUT THE RAMS?
While it’s fun for Vikings fans to contemplate how their team could get a bye, the reality is that the Vikings could miss the playoffs entirely. Sean McVay has the Los Angeles Rams playing well and a game behind the Vikings in the chase for a Wild Card. Don’t forget, this team made the Super Bowl last year.
The Rams have two tough road games coming up: at Dallas and at San Francisco. They conclude with a home game versus Arizona. If they run the table and wind up tied with the Vikings at 11-5, they would win the tiebreaker. The Rams would, at worst, be tied with the Vikings at 9-3 in conference, and they’d have a 4-1 record in common games (against Minnesota’s 2-3).
It’s entirely possible the Vikings — like last year — will have to beat the Bears in Week 17 to make the playoffs. That could be a scary deja vu situation.
IF THEY MAKE IT, WHERE MIGHT THE VIKINGS TRAVEL IN THE PLAYOFFS?
If things play out based on the odds, the Vikings will be going on the road in the first round of the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. So where will they go?
If the playoffs started today, Minnesota would head to New Orleans for a rematch of the Minneapolis Miracle game, but that could change. If the Vikings beat Green Bay, as they’ll likely need to, that win could bump Green Bay down to the No. 3 seed and elevate New Orleans to No. 2, setting up a January game at Lambeau Field.
The dream is to draw the NFC East champion, who may finish the season a meager 8-8, but for that to happen the Vikings would need to beat out San Francisco or Seattle for the 5-seed. As we’ve laid out, those tiebreakers aren’t in the Vikings’ favor.