Minnesota Can Still Rise From the Ashes Of Mediocrity In the NFC

Photo Credit: Quinn Harris (USA TODAY Sports)

Those who hunkered down to watch the Minnesota Vikings face off against the Chicago Bears got exactly what they should have expected: an ugly football game. At times it was hard even to believe that it was a professional contest — one showcased on national television, nonetheless. It wasn’t an entertaining watch, but the game did mark Minnesota’s official ascendence back into the playoff conversation.

It was a nice change of pace to see the Purple and Gold show some life for a team that has been as dysfunctional on defense as the Vikings have been. Couple that with an offense that arguably has a top-5 wide receiver and running back, and Minnesota’s potential to finish off the final three-game stretch with a playoff berth is more than possible.

But that won’t be nearly enough to quench Vikings fans’ thirst for something more. Minnesota holds the seventh-best winning percentage in NFL history (.545). But the postseason is a different story. The Vikings have the fifth-worst playoff winning percentage (.412).

Should Minnesota limp into the playoffs, they’ll still be climbing from the ground up. But if you ignore for a second how frustrating the Vikings have been to watch this season, the path looks a lot less intimidating than ever before for a would-be seventh seed.

Sizing up the NFC from the top-down means starting with the Packers, who currently own a bye with the No. 1 seed. If Minnesota wins the wild card game, it almost guarantees a third matchup with Green Bay. We’ve yet to see the second matchup between the two NFC North rivals, but Minnesota took the first one in a far from perfect performance.

Yes, Kirk Cousins shined, throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns, but the defense was atrocious, nearly giving away the game thanks to blown coverage leading to a Marquez Valdes-Scantling 75-yard score. The optimistic perspective is that if the Vikings can beat the Packers with a poor defense, they’re not a team to be afraid of going forward.

Aaron Rodgers is marching towards a fourth MVP trophy, but the defense is extremely banged up, and the Packers have become kings of the unimpressive win. There’s something to be said about winning a football game, but even looking back to last week Green Bay almost lost to Tyler Huntley in his second-career start.

Next on the pecking order is the Dallas Cowboys, who the Vikings have also played this year — albeit in a forgettable matchup. Dallas drove down the field with backup QB Cooper Rush to ice the game despite gifting Minnesota extended drives thanks to personal fouls. It was one of many instances of late-game defense letting Minnesota down, and it like the unit may have improved a bit since then.

Like Green Bay, the Cowboys are another team that doesn’t have any commanding wins on the year. Besides beating up on the NFC East, the Cowboys have struggled in playoff-caliber matchups, namely a nine-point performance against the Kansas City Chiefs. Since he’s come back from injury, Dak Prescott is sporting a 9:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Dallas doesn’t pose a massive threat until he shows he’s capable of playing at an elite level.

The reigning Super Bowl champs currently slot into the 3-spot, with Tom Brady tied with Aaron Rodgers for the best MVP odds. Until last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had arguably been the most consistent team in the NFC. The New Orleans Saints held Tampa Bay scoreless in a 9-0 win, and Brady went 26-48 with 214 yards and one interception.

Similarly, the Arizona Cardinals, who round out the divisional leaders, suffered a similar fate. The Detroit Lions held Arizona to just 12 points in an embarrassing loss. The losses for both teams brought the respective teams back to earth. To add insult to injury, both have had star receivers go down for the season in the last week. Chris Godwin is out in Tampa, and Arizona lost DeAndre Hopkins.

The Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers round out the playoff picture, and the Vikings have a matchup with the former coming up this week. Los Angeles looked nearly unbeatable for most of the year, but a stretch of three consecutive losses in November says otherwise.

Currently, the NFC is a crapshoot for anyone predicting who will be representing the conference in the Super Bowl. For my money, I think the Rams and Buccaneers have the most complete teams, but that doesn’t mean they’re dominant.

While the championship game is historically filled with the top two seeds in each conference, this feels like the year for complete and utter chaos. In a season that has been topsy-turvy from the get-go for Minnesota, that should be music to Mike Zimmer’s ears.

I’m not going to pretend like I expect Minnesota to go on some miraculous run, but it also cannot be taken out of the question. It’s been a wildly frustrating year to follow the Vikings, but as any Minnesota sports fan knows, expect the unexpected out of the Purple and Gold.

Hope is a powerful thing and often can cause pain when it comes to the Vikings. But if there’s any season for Minnesota to rise from the rubble of upsets around the conference, this might be the one.

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