The Minnesota Vikings have already exceeded all but the most optimistic expectations this year, starting off 6-4 with six games to go.
The Vikings haven't pulled off the prettiest of victories, with some dud performances foreshadowing poor showings in later losses.
That said, a powerful Vikings defense and one of the best running games in the NFL will give the team a chance to compete in its remaining games. The recent revitalization of Christian Ponder's passing game—made all the more impressive given Percy Harvin's absence—may give the Vikings more hope, but a strong slate of games still make the playoffs look like a far off possibility.
It's difficult to project playoff odds from six weeks out, but that hasn't prevented oddsmakers and advanced football statisticians from trying. The Vikings look to have anywhere between a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs to a one-in-four shot, with most of the statisticians preferring a set of odds closer to 25 percent than 10.
The best chance for the Vikings to make the playoffs is as a wild card contender, but various betting markets and metrics haven't ruled them out of a divisional win—Minnesota has a four to 11 percent chance of entering the playoffs as the NFC North champion.
In order to do that, the Vikings have a long row to hoe. While each of the games has playoff implications, Minnesota will naturally want to step up in the divisional games.
While Cutler has been cleared to practice, none of the three have been cleared to play. More than that, the Bears' blocking woes have been magnified with the departure of starting left guard Chilo Rachal and injuries to their best blocking tight end Matt Spaeth. Still, Minnesota fans shouldn't count this as big of an advantage as it might seem to be because the Chicago Bears have never had an explosive offense, anyway.
Before the spate of injuries, they were one of the five least-efficient offenses in the league, with the second-worst run success rate and yards per attempt, ending with the fourth-worst total yards per offensive play.
While these absences all but guarantee that the Vikings will be up against the worst offense in the league, the real question is whether or not the Chicago Bears defense can perform to the level they had achieved before their ill-fated match against San Francisco.
The Bears have yet to beat an opponent with a winning record outside of the Luck-led Colts, so there is a good chance the Vikings can play to the level of their winning contemporaries rather than the weaker teams the Bears have beat up on, but even knowing the Bears have dominated as a result of a weak schedule, the Vikings need to be wary.
Chicago's defense has been performing spectacularly regardless of its opponents, stifling offenses to a level they hadn't been exposed to before, with the Bears performing better than any defense, even after adjusting for offensive strength of schedule.
Fans would do well not to chase the most recent game when determining the full strength of their opponents and should respect the Chicago defense for what it is—stifling and opportunistic.
The Vikings need to find ways to limit turnovers from dangerous cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, something that will be difficult given the potentially worrisome injuries to Percy Harvin and Charlie Johnson.
The oddsmakers have given the Bears the best chance of winning, almost entirely due to home-field advantage, and it’s hard to disagree. The Vikings have some quality wins, but also some terrible losses to haunt their schedule. Even with a high-profile loss and some big injuries, the Bears have their most important playmakers on the field.
It’s almost guaranteed that the Vikings will do more to feature Adrian Peterson even more than they have in other games, but there’s still a good chance that the Bears pull it out.
With the game near toss-up if played on a neutral field, a good estimation for the game gives the Vikings a bit less than a 45 percent chance to win at Soldier Field.
The reemergence of James Jones and the return of Jordy Nelson has kickstarted another efficient season from Aaron Rodgers, who is hoping to return to form after one of the best regular season performances in quarterback history.
James Starks has also appeared to be a strong runner and can move a pile and is a more than adequate replacement for the injured Cedric Benson.
While the Vikings match up well on the line, there’s a good chance that inexperienced cornerbacks Josh Robinson and A.J. Jefferson will fall victim to decisive play from Aaron Rodgers.
Injuries to a shallow offensive line have seen the return of Evan Dietrich-Smith, a poor replacement for T.J. Lang (who himself is replacing Bryan Bulaga; not a great fit), and the Packers haven’t been able to contain the Vikings pass rush for some time now, which may be the key—Rodgers doesn’t get rid of the ball significantly faster than his peers at the top and tends to stay in the pocket as long as any other quarterback. He has certainly had issues with holding on to the ball for too long.
Despite all that, Rodgers still ranks fifth in adjusted yards per attempt and powers a potent offense.
What is perhaps most surprising is that the Packers' offense and defense have performed similarly according to efficiency scores, and that makes some sense—their defense ranks ninth in the NFL in adjusted yards allowed per pass attempt, and both Davon House and Casey Hayward represent smart pickups by the Packers in the past two years.
The defense will allow some yards, but they are once again proficient at generating turnovers and limiting big gains, which puts them 10th in total points allowed. The absence of Walden, Matthews, Perry and Woodson are significant liabilities that will give the Vikings a better chance, however.
There’s a good chance that Rodgers’ last seven games are more indicative of his future performance than his first three. He finished those games with a completion rate of 67 percent, 7.0 yards per attempt average, four interceptions and 23 touchdowns—intimidating for any defense–and the Vikings will need to open up their game when they have the ball in order to keep up.
Given the Packers’ success at Lambeau, it’s fair to say the Vikings might find themselves with a harder game than at Soldier Field and could find themselves facing 40-60 odds as they enter that historic stadium.
The Vikings have the opportunity to meet their foes from two weeks earlier, but in a much more favorable venue. Unfortunately, it will likely accompany the return of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall.
With the playoff picture crystallizing, the Vikings will be more aware of what needs to be done in order to secure a playoff spot. Their biggest competitors for a wild card spot are Chicago, Tampa Bay and Seattle, with Seattle having the easiest schedule of the NFC hopefuls.
Seattle will likely be up a game against the Vikings, which wouldn't be too daunting if it were not for the fact that Chicago is in a good spot for the first wild card spot, and both Tampa Bay and Seattle hold the tiebreakers.
Because of that, the Vikings' games against Chicago carry more significance than any other pair of games left on the schedule; these games allow Minnesota the ability to push Chicago below them in the standings and can create breathing room in order to compete for a playoff spot.
If Minnesota wins both games, they are either 8-5 or 9-4, while Chicago is either 7-6 or 8-5. Minnesota would also hold the tiebreaker against Chicago. While it is unlikely that a team with eight wins makes it to the wild-card round in the NFC, and even more unlikely that the Vikings beat the Bears both times, the Vikings can control the odds of their playoff berth here more than anywhere else.
What does give the Vikings a particular leg up is that home-field advantage is significantly stronger in the final quarter of the season, magnifying an advantage that normally provides a 57 percent chance of winning—or a 60 percent chance of winning when teams are evenly matched.
Given that home-field advantage decreases over the course of the game, the Vikings may want to play a little looser than their original gameplan suggests early on, despite the fact that Chicago has the best turnover rate in the country.
Still, the Vikings will need to be careful and would do well to grind out the clock later on and reduce turnovers by once again relying on their juggernaut, Adrian Peterson.
The exposure of the Bears' recent weaknesses and the strength of the home field should give the Vikings a slightly better chance of winning than losing in the Metrodome, but they will have to play with caution.
The biggest relief on the Vikings' schedule comes in the form of a slightly resurgent, but wholly inconsistent Rams team. Unfortunately, the Rams aren't as weak as their record or reputation shows, and they outperform the Vikings in a number of predictive metrics, including efficiency ratings and key stat compilations.
The folks at Football Outsiders have rated the Vikings above the Rams, but the real takeaway is not that one team has been definitively better, but that they've been close. This statistical dead-heat doesn't bode well once the Rams' home field is taken into account.
The Rams are two different teams with Danny Amendola on or off the field. Despite having only played seven games (and only meaningful snaps in six of them), he has more catches than anyone else on the team, grabbing 50 while the rest of the team combined has 85 receptions—all while playing more than twice as many games.
With Amendola in the offense, the Vikings should be warier. While the statistical difference hasn't been extraordinary, it's clear from watching the Rams play that they are a much more threatening team with their best receiver on the field.
Still, the Vikings may find themselves matching up well in the passing game, while being able to stifle a running game that changes identities with its running backs. They'll find themselves matched up against an average offensive line but might be more likely to win the game with their back seven.
On the other side of the ball, Chris Long presents the biggest threat, but the Vikings' upgrades on the offensive line might be able to lock them down. They might see quite a bit of the Rams' nickel package on defense, however, and it's very effective. Cortland Finnegan lines up in the slot while Bradley Fletcher lines up outside to replace Rocky McIntosh. The package provides a good answer to three receiver sets—the Vikings' favorite formation.
James Laurinaitis has been having an uncharacteristically poor year, and while he has done an adequate job stopping the run when he gets to the ball-carrier, he finds himself blocked out of plays much more than usual. The Vikings will want to test this by running it up the gut while letting the Rams take more control of the passing game.
While many of the best predictive markets might indicate a Rams success at home, the Vikings have a team built to take close games and close them out—a huge change from last year. The Vikings should approach the Edward Jones Dome with even odds and overcome the natural advantage of the Rams' stadium.
Moving on from St. Louis, the Vikings will have to take on the class of the AFC, a team without a glaring weakness.
While the Texans have thrived on beating up on weaker opponents, there's no doubt that there's talent on the roster, on both sides of the ball.
Despite some high-profile miscues, Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson remain one of the best cornerback tandems in the country, and J.J. Watt is absolutely dominant as a 3-4 defensive end. Overall, the defense boasts the best success rate in the league, preventing offenses from making significant gains on over 60 percent of plays, and ranking in the top 10 in net yards per passing attempt allowed and yards per carry.
On the offensive side of the ball, they are just as intimidating, with 7.1 net yards per passing attempt—good for third in the league—and a zone running scheme more potent than the one the Vikings were able to corral in Washington. While Arian Foster may have dropped off in production from last year, he remains one of the league's most explosive running backs and could find ways to scorch the Vikings.
Given the completeness of the team, the Vikings will be hard pressed to produce points while also limiting big gains from their opponent, and the added pressure of playing in Reliant Stadium could put the game away.
Many fans are hoping that the Texans will be resting their starters for this game. They in fact have the easiest route to a top seed, so may have home-field advantage sewn up for the playoffs by the time this game rolls around. Regardless, it is much more likely that Texas either chooses to play its starters to keep them well-practiced or that they'll need to win this game in order to secure seeding than neither of those things occurring.
That said, the Vikings are facing the longest odds down in Houston and may only have a one in four chance of winning the game.
The final game of the season could be decisive, and the Vikings are likely to have picked up two wins at this point, even if they aren't the favorites in any of their previous games. An 8-8 record probably make it impossible to make the playoffs, so there's a very good chance that this game is a must-win for the Vikings, who are lucky enough to host this divisional rivalry at home.
Using the odds calculated in this piece so far, the Vikings have a 38 percent chance of having two wins and a 28 percent chance of having three—giving them greater than even odds that they will be in the hunt, but with the postseason on the line.
Against the Packers, fans once again hope that the Packers rest their starters—something they've done in the past and may consider again with their shaky injury history. But considering that there's a very good chance that the Packers will be fighting for seeding or even to make it into the playoffs, it's unlikely that the Vikings will be against a depleted squad.
In fact, nearly every probability calculator on the market predicts that the Green Bay Packers have more than a one-in-three chance of either making it as a wild card or missing the playoffs entirely, something that makes it very, very likely that the Packers will fight hard in their last game to improve their playoff chances. There is almost no question that Green Bay has a tangible reason to fight for a win, so the Vikings can't rely on rest in order to increase their odds of winning.
Once again, a late-season home advantage might prove to be decisive, but the Packers' offensive firepower matches up better against a Vikings defense that hasn't really come out on top when tested against the better offenses in the league. The Vikings' offense might not be able to make the difference against the ball-hawking Packers secondary, which should see the return of Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews.
The Vikings are at less than even odds at home against the Packers and may only find themselves with a 45 percent chance of winning. Still, that doesn't mean all is lost—that's a close game by any account.
The Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the best spots to take the wild cards, and the NFC East has Dallas and Washington outside looking in. Outside of that, tumbles by the Packers or the 49ers could create more competition at the fifth and sixth seeds, although that would accompany a rise from their divisional rivals, which cancels out the probability that a sudden fall by the divisional leaders affects the Vikings.
At the end, a rough estimation gives the Vikings a 30 percent chance of winning only two games, an 18 percent chance of winning only one of their next six and a four percent chance of losing out. All of those scenarios virtually guarantee the Vikings can't make the playoffs, so they stand an outside chance of even being competitive by the time the season is out.
In the other scenarios, the Vikings stand about a four percent chance of winning five or six of those games. A more likely scenario is that the Vikings will win half of their games (a 27 percent proposition) and need their wild card rivals to fall to 8-8, something that isn't likely to happen to both Tampa Bay and Seattle.
There are still a number of good scenarios for the Vikings to grab four wins and that would likely secure them a playoff spot. Unfortunately, these rough odds give the Vikings only a 16 percent chance of doing so.
All told, that gives Minnesota a less than 30 percent chance of seeing the postseason, which is certainly an improvement over what many predicted at the beginning of the season.
The Vikings have a daunting task ahead of them, but not everything is lost—they are still in some control over their destiny. If they win every divisional game and win against either the Rams and Texans (something that looks to occur three out of 100 times), they'll capture the division. With all of the different scenarios for the Packers or Bears to falter, the Vikings, in total, have a greater than 10 percent chance of winning the division.
It's a long way of saying it, but the division is still wide open. The Vikings have an outside shot, but still a good chance of making it into the postseason, and the NFL has seen much crazier scenarios these past few years. It should be a fun ride.