How Are the Vikings Suddenly In Position To Take Control Of A Playoff Spot?

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

After the past two weeks, there has been plenty of optimism surrounding TCO Performance Center in Eagan. The new “get Justin Jefferson the ball” version of Mike Zimmer has brought the Vikings back to .500 and set them up for a pivotal matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.

Mathematically, the Vikings can afford to drop this game and still make the playoffs. But even if they stay in the pillow fight for the final spots in the NFC, Sunday’s game has more than just a win on the line. It could be the game that determines how the 2021 season will turn out.

A true optimist will point to the last two weeks and say that the Vikings are trending in the right direction. In wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and Green Bay Packers, Minnesota defeated two legitimate playoff contenders.

Those wins shouldn’t be taken for granted. The Vikings have had trouble beating winning teams throughout Mike Zimmer’s tenure. Since arriving in 2014, Minnesota has had a 19-40 record against teams that finish the season over .500, and Los Angeles and Green Bay are both winning teams. But our focus should be on how the Vikings have improved since the beginning of the season.

The Vikings were their own most significant obstacle in the first several weeks. Dalvin Cook‘s fumble allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to pick up a win in Week 1. A missed field goal sent the Vikings to 0-2 in Glendale. Kevin Stefanski used Minnesota’s playbook to beat Minnesota.

This doesn’t include some of Minnesota’s close calls earlier in the season. A pair of late drives by Kirk Cousins saved the Vikings from disaster against the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers. If either of those games goes in the opposite direction, we could be looking at a 4-6 or 3-7 team with an interim coach.

Instead, those wins provided a margin for error that has kept the Vikings afloat. After losing to Cooper Rush and Lamar Jackson, the Vikings needed to make some changes, beginning with their win over the Chargers.

Now at 5-5, the Vikings have a golden opportunity in front of them. A win over the 49ers would put them over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2019 season. It’s an opportunity to rise above the mediocre masses fighting for a final seed.

If the Vikings were to pull it out, their reward would be a date with the winless Lions. The Thursday night matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers looks difficult. But if the Vikings continue their aggressive ways, it’s a game they should be able to win.

The runway continues with a trip to the Windy City. But even if the Soldier Field curse is a thing, they should be facing a Chicago Bears team operating under an interim coach. If the Vikings can earn a rare win in Chicago, they could be looking at a 9-5 record heading into the final three games.

This would make a Dec. 26 showdown with the Los Angeles Rams a key matchup when it comes to playoff seeding. But stringing together a couple of wins should ease the pressure of playing for their playoff lives. The Rams have looked vulnerable over the past couple of weeks, meaning that there is a path to see the Vikings make a stunning push for a division title ahead of a Jan. 2 trip to Green Bay.

How big that game ends up being depends on what you think of the Packers. If you believe David Bakhtiari’s knee surgery and Aaron Rodgers’ toe arent a big deal, this could be a game where the Vikings try to clinch a playoff berth. If you’re a Packers fan, this could be a game where the NFC North is on the line.

Even if the Vikings stumble at some point, a Week 18 matchup with the Bears should lead to 11 or 12 wins, which should mean a home playoff game. But all of that could come crashing down with a loss to the 49ers.

By losing in San Francisco, the Vikings would fall back with the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, and every other team hovering around .500. With the 49ers holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, the Vikings would need to defeat some of the more formidable teams on their schedule and hope that a team ahead of them falters.

This is especially concerning considering Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Green Bay could all be coin-flip games. Heck, the way this season has gone, they could all be coin-flip games that could come down to what Cousins calls “a razor’s edge.”

It seems extreme to pin the season’s hopes on a game in November, but there always seems to be one game to hold this team back. In 2016, the Vikings laid an egg against the Indianapolis Colts in a game they needed to have. The same thing happened in 2018 when a loss to the Buffalo Bills created a must-win scenario against the Bears in the final week. Just like in 2016, the Vikings turned into a walking dumpster fire.

With a loss, it’s easy to see the Vikings looking back and saying, “What if we won that game in San Francisco?” but that question could be asked from the unemployment line.

The fate of Zimmer, Cousins, and the front office hinges on how this season turns out. If the Vikings can’t get it done on Sunday, it could be determined long before the season is over.

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