6 Ways the Vikings Can Earn a Playoff Berth

Arif HasanContributor IIINovember 27, 2012

6 Ways the Vikings Can Earn a Playoff Berth

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    The Minnesota Vikings are a long shot to make the playoffs, and didn't help themselves by any means with their abysmal performance against the Bears on Sunday. Still, the NFL has a long history of giving a playoff berth to teams with long odds and the Vikings are in a position to take advantage of the anything-can-happen nature of the NFL.

    Before last Sunday, I had estimated that the Vikings had a shade lower than a thirty percent chance of making the playoffs.

    While those odds have undoubtedly changed, the Vikings still have a shot at making the playoffs.

    Once again, looking at what oddsmakers and statisticians have to say will reveal a clearer picture on what chances the Vikings have of making it to the postseason, but losses for Seattle and Tampa Bay have helped the Vikings more than people might realize, and with a tough schedule for the Buccaneers and suspensions looming for the Seahawks, the Vikings are still in it.

    Overall, the odds of the Vikings making the playoffs have been cut, but not by as much as many think. A difficult schedule ahead may have fans thinking otherwise, and the threat of the Redskins and Cowboys climbing in the ranks as the Vikings look over their shoulders shouldn't be discounted either.

    The Vikings still have the best chance of winning two games (upwards of a third of all scenarios), and in a quarter of scenarios, they'll win three games. Given all that, their odds of making the playoffs stands at a little less than one-in-five.

    For this slideshow, all odds are derived from efficiency scores at Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats, and the computer models and market aggregates at TeamRankings.

1: Win the Division and Every Game on the Schedule

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    The longest odds the Vikings have to enter the playoffs is to win the division. The best scenario for this to occur would have the Vikings run the table (something that has a slightly greater than one percent chance of happening) while the Bears lose at least two games—including to the Vikings—in the next five.

    This will itself be difficult, as the Bears only have one opponent who should give them pause, and that will be the Green Bay Packers. While the Packers were able to embarrass the Bears on national television early in the season, the Bears look to be in better shape to win this next game, played at Soldier Field.

    Injuries have ravaged both teams, but the Bears will not only have Jay Cutler available again, but could have Alshon Jeffery back, too. Injuries to the rest of the squad suffered in their brutal match against the Vikings look to be relatively short term.

    The Packers, on the other hand, have lost a slew of players.

    Not only do the Packers have the challenge of playing on the road, they'll be playing without pass-rushing specialist Nick Perry, ball-hawk Charles Woodson or right tackle Bryan Bulaga. The injury bug has been particularly cruel to the small-market darlings, and it could be the difference in their outing against the current NFC North leaders.

    Still, if the Seahawks can leverage their powerful pass rush while missing both starting corners, they could punish the Bears long enough to grab a surprise win. The Packers have proven that their offense can keep them in games, and a surprise from either of them could give the Vikings the laughable chance they need in order to secure a home game in January.

    In all, the odds of the Bears losing at least two games on their schedule stand at 85 percent, but the odds of them losing to the Vikings as well as another opponent is just under half. That happening at the same time as a Viking run on the table occurs less than one percent of the time.

2: Run the Table

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    While the ball has to bounce in their favor even if they win out, the Vikings would still advance to the playoffs if they won the rest of their games. In the scenario where they run the table but do not win the division, Chicago would have beaten the Packers. That gives the Packers three losses and puts them out of the race for the wild card, finishing at 9-7.

    The Buccaneers (6-5), the Seahawks (6-5), the Cowboys (5-6) and the Redskins (5-6) are all in the race, but only the Buccaneers and Seahawks could challenge the Vikings if Minnesota were turn things around quickly enough to win five of five.

    It is impossible to construct a scenario where the Vikings win the rest of their games, don't win the division and the Seahawks also win the rest of their games, because the Seahawks will play Chicago this coming Sunday.

    Remember, if Seattle wins that game, that gives Chicago two losses in this scenario (one in Seattle and one in Minnesota) and Minnesota the divisional crown.

    That makes it impossible for the Vikings to be pushed out of the postseason if they were to win the rest of their games. In order to be pushed out as an 11-5 wild card, two other teams holding tiebreakers must also go 11-5, and there are currently only four teams in the NFC that can go 11-5.

    Two of them (Chicago and Green Bay) play against the Vikings, and therefore do not go 11-5 if the Vikings also go 11-5, and one of them (Seattle) guarantees a divisional win for the Vikings if both win the rest of their games.

    The Buccaneers, who have tough games against Atlanta, Denver and New Orleans, could conceivably go on a hot streak and finish 11-5, would only move the Vikings down one seed if both were to concurrently pull in a five win streak.

3: Win Four and the Division

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    It would be an impressive feat for the Norsemen to win four games, but it occurs less than ten percent of the time. The good news is that it sets up a near-virtual lock for the playoffs, but it is by no means certain.

    In the first such setup, the Vikings would win the division under a specific set of circumstances that are a little hard to follow.

    If Chicago lost three of their next five games, the Vikings would win the division by winning four games if they won both games against Green Bay (a less than 20 percent chance by itself).

    If Chicago lost three of their next five games, and Green Bay lost to one other opponent besides the Vikings, Minnesota would be division champions with an 80 percent win rate, regardless of where their loss came from.

    In either of the above scenarios, Chicago would have to lose three games and Green Bay would have to lose two. That would guarantee a divisional loss for each of them—Green Bay has two games against the Vikings, so in order for the Vikings to win four, Green Bay has to take a loss. Chicago has three divisional games in their next five, so must also take a divisional loss to lose three.

    What's interesting is that there is no set of circumstances where they each only take one divisional loss because they have to play each other as well. That means one team would have two divisional losses and the other only one in their best case scenarios. In that case, the Vikings finish 4-2 within their division just like one of their rivals, but would win because they have the best win percentage in common games.

    That's because in order to lose three games and still maintain a 4-2 record in the division, the Bears would have to take losses to the Cardinals and the Seahawks. Minnesota's win against the 49ers becomes the crucial difference, because the Packers can't gain ground in common games—their upcoming schedule only has teams the Vikings already beat.

    Those losses to the Seahawks and Colts become critical losses to the Packers because those should have been games they could have used to take advantage of the Vikings. The only place the Vikings could lose ground on common games outside of divisional games is if they lose to Houston.

    But remember, the Vikings are only taking one loss in this scenario, which means they would have beaten Chicago and therefore advance against Green Bay with a better head-to-head score.

    Playoff math sure is complicated.

4: Win Four but Not the Division

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    Of the two macro scenarios where the Vikings win four games, the one that seems more likely is the one where they do not capture the division.

    The Vikings could conceivably win four while both the Bears and the Packers finish out the season with 11 wins, giving the Vikings the sixth seed, and a likely rematch against a divisional rival at their stadium.

    In fact, it seems simple for one of the teams to get to 11 wins, because the Bears only need three of their next five—and matchups against Detroit, Arizona, a suspension-hurt Seattle and Minnesota are ripe for that sort of record—in order to clinch the division, even if they lost to Green Bay.

    The Packers need four to get to 11 wins, and that would be tough knowing that the simulation calls for one Minnesota loss, but aside from their matchup in Chicago, they clearly outclass the rest of their schedule.

    Minnesota could also split games with Green Bay while Chicago loses its two games outside the division (and one to Minnesota), for everyone to finish 10-6. In that case, Green Bay would win the division because it would have beaten Chicago twice and Minnesota once (3-1), while Minnesota would be 2-2 in their four games against both teams.

    There is little chance Seattle or Tampa Bay could push Minnesota out if they won four games, because the Seahawks would have to take one away from Chicago or San Francisco without the help of their starting corners while at the same time, Tampa Bay wins two out of the three most difficult games they have—against New Orleans, Denver and Atlanta.

    Still, it's possible. The Vikings are not in control of their destiny if they win an astonishing four of their next five games because of their losses to the Buccaneers and the Seahawks. In order for the Vikings to advance with four wins, they would need either Seattle or Tampa Bay to lose two games. Green Bay would not have a shot at spoiling it because of their losses to San Francisco and Seattle.

    That is, if four teams go 10-6 and at least two of them are in the same division, the divisional tiebreaker is used to eliminate one team. In this case, it would be Green Bay, because of their common games. Then, the Vikings would go up against Tampa Bay and Seattle in the tiebreakers and lose there.

    There is an outside shot that Dallas or Washington spoils the party by winning out. If they do that, the New York Giants would push everyone down because of their conference record—if the Giants go 10-6 (they are 7-4 now), they would likely take the tiebreakers because two of their losses were to AFC teams and their most likely next losses would be to at least one AFC team as well.

    Seattle's losses have all been to NFC teams, which is also true for Tampa Bay. Minnesota will max out at two AFC losses because they've only lost one and have one more on the schedule.

    Don't mistake the number of scenarios for increased likelihood, however. All because there are more ways for the Vikings to leave the playoffs with a 10-6 record doesn't mean those ways are more likely. If the Vikings went 10-6, they would more likely than not make it to the playoffs because of the unlikelihood of two teams running the table (Washington or Dallas) or winning four (Seattle or Tampa Bay).

    The chances of winning four games stand at just below ten percent, and they make the playoffs in nearly every case—about 95 percent of the time.

5: Win Three and Hope

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    In an odd quirk of probability, the Vikings are more likely to win three games (slightly more a quarter of the time) than they are to win only one game (slightly less than a quarter of the time), even though they are not favored in any of their five remaining games.

    Cumulative probabilities add up.

    In this scenario, Minnesota goes 9-7 and would need some lucky bounces to enter the playoffs. The best and most likely set of circumstances would have either the Buccaneers or the Seahawks lose three games while Dallas and Washington each lose at least two.

    Were Dallas and Minnesota to finish 9-7, then Dallas would win the tiebreaker if it had beaten Washington, based on common games (they share Seattle, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Washington). Minnesota has lost every common game they've had with Dallas and Dallas has beaten Tampa Bay.

    If one of Minnesota's three wins comes against Chicago, then Dallas' game against Washington would determine the outcome. If Dallas wins, they advance. If they lose, then the Vikings can benefit from the fourth tiebreaker on the list, strength of victory. Wins against Chicago and San Francisco do Minnesota well, particularly given that the Cowboys have not beaten a team with eight wins yet.

    Washington holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Minnesota, so they would be able to push Minnesota out in the case that either Seattle or Tampa Bay wins three games as well.

    At the same time, were Washington able to win four of their next five games, they might not push Minnesota out because they could win the division, so long as the Giants and Cowboys lay flat for them.

    Functionally, a three-win scenario would have Minnesota need three of the following four events to occur at once:

    1. Seattle loses three games.
    2. Tampa Bay loses three games.
    3. Dallas loses two games or one to the Redskins.
    4. Washington loses two games.

    Using win likelihoods derived from betting markets and efficiency scores, the chances of three of those events having occurred by the end of the season is actually quite high. While each specific permutation of the three events does not exceed 20 percent (all four would occur a bit over 25 percent of the time), any combination of the three or all four would occur a little bit less than three quarters of the time.

    That means that the total likelihood of the Vikings making the playoffs with three wins would be around 15 percent overall.

6: Win Two and Pray

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    The most likely outcome for the Vikings over these next five games would be two wins, which would occur in just fewer than two-fifths of the scenarios.

    If both were over the Packers, it opens up the realm of possibility, but not much. The Vikings would still need to have either Tampa Bay or Seattle lose four games or for the Packers to also lose four games while Tampa Bay and Seattle lose three.

    Remember, if two teams in the same division are eligible for the same wild card spot (fifth or sixth seed), divisional tiebreakers will eliminate one of those teams from contention for that spot. They would be eligible for the other spot, unless tiebreakers eliminate them from that as well. So in this case, the Packers would be eliminated from contending with the Vikings regardless of the wild card tiebreakers because the Packers would lose the divisional tiebreakers (in this case, head-to-head).

    While that is happening, the Vikings would either need the Cowboys to lose three games or lose two, with one to the Redskins because of the common games tiebreaker.

    In that case, the Redskins could either have a better record or be even with the Vikings and would take the higher seed from the Vikings based on conference record or head-to-head, depending on whether or not other teams are eligible, like Seattle, Tampa Bay or New Orleans. The more teams that are eligible, the more likely it is that the later tiebreakers, like conference record, are used.

    The head-to-head tiebreaker requires that all eligible teams (there will never be more than four because divisional tiebreakers will eliminate the others) have faced each other, and the common games tiebreaker requires that all teams have at least four common opponents. With more teams, the fewer common games all of the teams have.

    Therefore, conference record would be the tiebreaker, and the Vikings would have fewer losses to NFC opponents than Dallas, New Orleans, Washington, Tampa Bay and Seattle.

    The cumulative odds of all the chips falling the Vikings' way when they only have two wins, however, are slim. All of these scenarios together add up to a smaller than ten percent chance even with the given that the Vikings win two. In total, these odds stack up to less than five percent of all possible outcomes.