The Minnesota Vikings defeated the Chicago Bears in a rather ugly affair on Monday Night Football, coming away with a 19-13 victory. The win marks the third in a row for Minnesota, bringing them to 4-5. It's hard to believe they've ended up here after a 1-5 start that suggested the Kirk Cousins extension was a massive error and the notable Mike Zimmer defense is finally collapsing.
We were all a bit too early to circle the wagons on Minnesota, it would seem. Dalvin Cook has found his stride and become the engine that drives the entire offense, averaging 155 yards on the ground per game over the Vikings' last three weeks. Cousins has reverted back to the slightly-above average QB the Vikings believed him to be when they offered him the aforementioned extension. He's thrown six touchdowns and only one pick over the course of the winning streak after starting the year throwing six picks in three games. To tie it all together, the defense has awoken, keeping each of their last three opponents to 22 points or fewer. That is admittedly not impressive when it's the Bears or the Lions, but they did so to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Week 8, which is worth noting.
Minnesota has found a winning formula. Rely on Cook and the play-action pass to produce on offense while counting on the defense to keep the score close and capitalize on any mistakes made by the opponent. As long as Cook stays healthy (a rather big if, considering his lengthy injury history), there's little reason to believe they can't keep this level of play up. Could they somehow, some way, keep it up to the point where they're a playoff team?
It will be rather tough. They split their two games with Green Bay this season, but the Packers are 7-2 and unlikely to lose three of their last seven games when only two of those are coming against teams with a winning record. That means the Vikings will be competing for a wild card spot with the division title likely out of reach.
Those three NFC wild card spots will be hotly contested, though. The Saints just lost Drew Brees for a few weeks, but he will presumably return this season. Therefore, we can count on one of the Saints or Bucs to claim one wild card spot. The NFC West is the best division in football with three teams currently sitting at 6-3. Someone has to win that division, so the Vikings will be battling with the other two NFC West teams for the final two wild card spots. Unfortunately for Minnesota, they lost to Seattle already this year, so they'll lose a tiebreaker if the Seahawks' downward slide continues and they miss out on the NFC West title.
Assuming the Vikings win out and go 11-5, they need at least one of the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Rams to lose two of their last seven games. Alternatively, the Vikings will be in the hunt if the Saints lose three games down the stretch or the Bucs lose two. They would then need to win the tiebreaker in any of these scenarios.
It remains a possibility that one of the above-mentioned teams loses the majority of their games over the remainder of the season and the Vikings can get into the wild card round with no tiebreaker needed. Anything can happen. But the most likely path remains going undefeated for the rest of the year and crossing their fingers that the final spot will come down to a tiebreaker between themselves and another 11-5 team.
As it stands right now, the Vikings' playoff hopes are out of their control. They need to take care of their business and win out, which isn't a gargantuan task. They have two tough games remaining on the schedule against the Bucs and Saints, which could be huge in tiebreaker scenarios. Otherwise, Minnesota plays Dallas, Jacksonville, Carolina, Chicago, and Detroit, which are all very winnable games. If they can do that, all they need is a few stumbles from an NFC West or South team. Improbable? Perhaps. Impossible? Not at all. The Vikings, despite a horrid start, are still very much in the playoff race.