Vikings' path to postseason is murky, but goal is still attainable

The Vikings are close to being in the playoff picture, and they'll need more big plays from Justin Jefferson down the stretch against a favorable schedule to make it happen. Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire

MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Vikings’ Week 12 loss at San Francisco carried the intensity of a postseason game between two wildcard hopefuls.

The 49ers’ 34-26 win was their third straight and made them the No. 6 seed in the NFC. The loss dropped the Vikings’ chances of reaching the postseason from 78% (had they won) to 45%, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).

Outside of a 30-17 win in Week 3 over the Seattle Seahawks, every game the Vikings have played in this season has been close. Their 5-6 record feels like an anomaly considering they’re the only team to have held leads of at least seven points in every game. But the Vikings also have blown the most seven-point leads through 11 games since 2010.

In some respects, it feels like the Vikings are in the same spot they were in a year ago with an onslaught of injuries from Dalvin Cook’s shoulder to fielding all backups on the defensive line.

But unlike last year, there’s a sense of optimism internally that’s driving the Vikings for the final six weeks of the regular season.

“I feel a lot different about this team than I did at this time a year ago,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “They’ve shown they have a lot of heart and fight. We’ve basically been in every ballgame, could have won several others. So, we’ll just play it out and see where it goes.”

With Washington beating Seattle on Monday, the Football Team overtook the Vikings as the No. 7 seed in the NFC playoff picture. Losses by New Orleans (5-6), Atlanta (5-6) and Philadelphia (5-7) in Week 12 helped Minnesota keep pace as the eighth-ranked team in the NFC.

Though they’re on the outside looking in, the Vikings’ postseason chances don’t feel all that bleak considering who they play over the course of the next six weeks.

According to FPI projections, Minnesota is favored in four of its remaining six games: at Detroit this Sunday, against the Steelers in Week 14, in their first meeting with Chicago on Dec. 20 and in their season finale against the Bears at home. The Vikings are underdogs in their two toughest games during that stretch, versus the Rams and at Green Bay in back-to-back weeks.

A win against the Lions would further the Vikings’ chances of making the postseason to 54%, a number that could be higher by Sunday depending on the result of Thursday’s Dallas-New Orleans game.

Minnesota will be without Cook for at least the next two games, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, which means the load will likely be split between Alexander Mattison and rookie Kene Nwangwu.

Though Zimmer did not think any of Cook’s ailments from this season – an ankle injury that cost him three games and a reported labrum tear opposite the shoulder he dislocated in San Francisco – have affected the run game, Minnesota has only churned out 86.7 rushing yards per game in its last three outings. Some of that has to do with the uptick of targets for Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, but the Vikings haven’t been as dominant on the ground regardless and hope for a shift with their reserves.

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s run defense was gashed for 208 yards against San Francisco and faces a team whose rushing attack has kept the Lions alive in multiple close losses.

The Vikings should be getting several key pieces back ahead of the Detroit game (1 p.m.ET, CBS). Three-technique tackle Dalvin Tomlinson is eligible to come off the COVID-19/reserve list this week while nose tackle Michael Pierce (elbow) can be activated off injured reserve. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is vaccinated, so his stay on the COVID-19/reserve list might not be very long should he have consecutive negative tests this week. The remaining unknown is Anthony Barr, who sustained a hamstring injury in San Francisco and has been dealing with a knee injury all season.

Getting several missing pieces back on defense is one thing, but the Vikings still need to remedy their issues with two-minute drives if they want to make a run towards the playoffs. No team has allowed more points (66) than the Vikings in the final two minutes of the first half.

“As long as you can make it to the playoffs, that’s all that matters,” safety Xavier Woods said. “Once you make it to the playoffs, it’s a totally new season and we understand that and right now we’re in the thick of it … We still (have) what, six more games, we still hold our own fate.”