All percentages come from FiveThirtyEight.
Disappointment with this Vikings team is warranted. They were not supposed to be clawing for a playoff spot, they were supposed to stand atop the hill. Still, there is reason for optimism with regard to the postseason. For all the lackluster performances, they still sit in wild card position, in control of their own playoff destiny.
That said, few years have featured a playoff race as wide open as 2018’s NFC. Nothing is even close to decided with four weeks to go.
Entering week 14, only one NFC team, the Rams, has clinched a playoff spot. It is probably also a safe bet to throw the Saints into that mix, even though they are not there mathematically yet (FiveThirtyEight gives them greater than a 99 percent chance to win their division and 92 percent for a first round bye). Outside of them, a cacophony of teams are vying for divisions and wild cards in the NFC. The Bears, Seahawks and Cowboys are all over 80 percent to make the playoffs, with the Vikings next, though a ways back at 60 percent.
And then we get to all the teams “In the Hunt.” Philadelphia at 28 percent. Washington at 26. Carolina at 18. Tampa Bay at two. Green bay and Atlanta both at one. That is 12 teams in some semblance of the playoff picture. If we bounce the last three, that leaves us still with nine. Those nine are the teams we will be working with.
What those percentages show is how much a single game will swing these races. Look at the Vikings at 60 percent; they are 6-5-1. All those teams hanging in the 20 to 30 percent range are 6-6. And Seattle and Dallas, way up in the 80s, are a mere 7-5. The point is that all nine teams could realistically say they are in charge of their own destiny.
So remaining schedule is going to matter a lot. Let us start with the Vikings. They have a tough road game in Seattle, an easier road game in Detroit, an easier home game with Miami and a tougher home game with Chicago. 2-2 is probably not going to cut it; at least, not with all those potential 9-7 teams lurking. But also, 3-1 would almost certainly be enough for the same reason.
Where things get very interesting is if the Vikings win out. Then they would have a legitimate shot at stealing the division from the Bears, currently at 8-4. They, like Minnesota, have both “easy” and tough games before meeting Minnesota for week 17. It is a distinct possibility that game ends up being for the NFC North.
But chances are the Vikings will only have a shot at the division if they win out. Should the Bears split and the Vikings go 3-1, the Bears would still take the crown. Given that this seems the most likely outcome (Bears are at 79 percent to win the division, the Vikings at 20), we will focus more on the wild card picture.
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Besides the Bears and Vikings, there are five teams that are both in the wild card hunt and control their own destiny. Three of them are in the same division and vying for that title; Cowboys currently lead the East by a game over both Washington and Philadelphia. One of those will take the division. The other two could remain in the hunt for the duration. The Eagles are possibly in worst position schedule-wise, given they have games against the Rams and Texans, in addition to games against the other two NFC East competitors.
Dallas has it considerably easier with games against Tampa and the Giants awaiting them. They also have to travel to Indianapolis, which this season has been a surprising challenge. Which brings us to Washington. Their remaining schedule is not too daunting; vs. Giants, at Jacksonville, at Tennessee, vs. Philadelphia. But they are down to Mark Sanchez as their season-savior. It does not look good for them, and they lost badly in Philadelphia a week ago. Chances are good only two NFC East teams will remain in the hunt down the stretch.
Outside that division is Carolina and Seattle. Seattle currently holds the top wild card at 7-5, but that is precarious, especially with Minnesota nipping at their heels and on their week 14 schedule. If Seattle can beat the Vikings, they are probably home free. It would give them eight wins with the 49ers and Cardinals still left to play. It is a pretty safe bet the Seahawks will still be there when it is all said and done.
Carolina is a different story. Once thought to be among the better teams in the conference, they have cratered at exactly the wrong time. They are up to four straight losses and a tough remaining schedule, including two against the Saints, one against Atlanta and a road game in Cleveland, which is no longer a cupcake. Carolina, somehow, may have played themselves out of the race with the losing streak.
So to recap: Rams and Saints are set, Bears are also looking good as at least a playoff team. Cowboys and Seahawks look to be in best position to clinch the fourth and fifth spots respectively, though the Eagles and Vikings can upset that apple cart as early as this week. After that, Washington is going to need a career renaissance from Mark Sanchez and Carolina is going to have to rediscover what made them 6-2 to start the season. Otherwise, this wide open wild card race could end up dropping to three or four teams by week 17.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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