Who Is the Best Matchup for the Vikings in the First Round of the Playoffs?
The Minnesota Vikings have clinched a playoff berth, and depending on the results in Week 17, Minnesota has the opportunity to play three different teams in the NFC Wild Card Round.
With a victory over the Green Bay Packers, the Vikings will win the NFC North and set up a first-round matchup with the Seattle Seahawks. If Green Bay wins, Minnesota's opponent will depend on the result of the Seahawks-Arizona Cardinals matchup.
With wins from the Packers and Cardinals, the Vikings would travel to Washington as the No. 5 seed to play the Redskins. If the Packers and Seahawks win, Minnesota would go back on the road to play Green Bay at Lambeau Field for the second consecutive week.
In the following slides, we'll examine which of the three scenarios is best suited for the Vikings, taking into account strength of opponent, past matchups and necessary results from Week 17.
Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings
It will be easy to look back on Seattle's 38-7 win over the Vikings Dec. 6 and rule out the Seahawks as a team Minnesota wants to play in the first round.
Russell Wilson produced four total touchdowns and rookie running back Thomas Rawls rushed for more than 100 yards, while Adrian Peterson was held to a season-low eight carries for 18 yards, and the Vikings' passing game managed just 94 net passing yards. The Seahawks outgained Minnesota by 308 yards during what can only be called a thorough blowout.
If the two teams met again in the NFC Wild Card Round, things might be different.
The Seahawks lost Rawls for the season, while the Vikings are finally healthy on defense—with nose tackle Linval Joseph, linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith back in the fold. All three either missed the game or left early with injuries in the first meeting.
Then again, Seattle is still the two-time defending NFC champion. Wilson is healthy and playing well to end the year, and the Seahawks defense is capable of throttling any offense in a postseason environment.
The Vikings want to beat the Packers and win the division on Sunday. That's a goal every team sets out to accomplish to start a season. But is the playoff reward really worth it?
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
We should learn a lot about the current state of these two teams on Sunday night at Lambeau Field. The Packers did go into TCF Bank Stadium and run over the hosting Vikings back in late November, beating Minnesota 30-13. But it's hard to put much stock in that result after watching each team evolve since the first meeting.
The Vikings have won back-to-back games after nearly upsetting the Arizona Cardinals, beating the Chicago Bears and New York Giants by a combined score of 87-34. Neither the Bears nor Giants are playoff teams, but each result was a step in the right direction for a team getting hot and healthy at the right time.
The same cannot be said for the Packers.
Green Bay snapped its three-game winning streak in embarrassing fashion last Sunday, losing to the Cardinals by 30 points in Arizona. The Packers had four turnovers and averaged just 2.8 yards per play, while Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times before head coach Mike McCarthy pulled his starting quarterback in the fourth quarter.
Green Bay is once again a team in crisis. The struggles on offense are very real, and a visit from head coach Mike Zimmer's healthy defense in Week 17 might compound the already existing problems.
However, playing the Packers two straight weeks will first require a loss in Week 17 in a game the Vikings are doing everything in their power to win. That's a tricky scenario to navigate around. Then again, beating a team three times in one season—which would be necessary for the Packers in this setup—is equally difficult.
Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins
The Redskins are the only uncommon opponent of the three choices—meaning Minnesota hasn't played Washington yet this season. The two teams did face off last season, which ended in a 29-26 win for the Vikings, but a result from 2014 means very little for a potential postseason matchup in 2015.
Washington is the NFC East champion, having won four of its last five games—including last Sunday's 14-point win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The Redskins have an opportunity to improve to 9-7 with a win over the 4-11 Dallas Cowboys in Week 17.
The Redskins aren't exactly impressive in any one area. The offense is ranked 14th in points scored (23.6), while the defense is 17th in points allowed (23.7). However, quarterback Kirk Cousins has thrown 16 touchdowns against just two interceptions over the last seven games, with a blistering passer rating of 122.1. The Redskins scored 35 or more points in three of those contests.
Yet Washington hasn't beaten a team with a winning record this season. Against the three clubs in or still fighting for the playoffs (New York Jets, New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers), the Redskins were outscored 105-46.
This answer needs two important distinctions.
If we're asking who is the best matchup for the Vikings in the first round, the Redskins are undoubtedly the choice. Washington is the least talented of the three, and if you have to face either Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Kirk Cousins in the postseason, almost everyone is picking Cousins.
That said, the best path for the Vikings is still winning Sunday and hosting the Seahawks.
Matchups in the postseason are important, but so is hosting a playoff game—especially after dispatching a long-time rival at their own place the week prior. A Vikings' win at Lambeau Field would do wonders for a franchise that hasn't won a division title or hosted a postseason game since 2009.
Win on Sunday and worry about the Seahawks later.