Oh, to be in the NFC East or to rule the NFC South. Instead, the 9-4 Vikings are in the NFC North, and their path to a division title — and really, even a playoff spot short of winning out — is about as clear as your windshield was on the way into the office Monday.
The Vikings could get anything from a first-round bye to an early vacation after missing the playoffs completely — though the most likely thing is a playoff meeting with Green Bay where one is the No. 3 seed and the other is No. 6.
If the Vikings go 3-0 down the stretch …
They will make the playoffs. They can guarantee at least that much by winning at the Chargers (5-8) on Sunday, then finishing with wins over Green Bay (10-3) and Chicago (7-6). None of those games will be easy, but win all three and the Vikings are at least assured of being a wild card — quite possibly as the No. 6 seed, particularly if Seattle (tiebreaker head-to-head edge and one-game lead at 10-3) ends up being the other wild card.
In that scenario, the Vikings could also win the division if Green Bay loses one other game — at home to either the Bears next week) or the Lions in Week 17.
That Bears-Packers game next week has huge implications. A Packers win puts their division odds at 84% per FiveThirtyEight.com even with a loss to the Vikings in Week 16, because it would ensure they win the tiebreaker as long as they beat Detroit. A Packers loss to Chicago throws the race wide open.
If the Vikings did win the division at 12-4, they'd still have an outside chance at a top-two seed and a bye if New Orleans, Seattle or San Francisco falters badly. More likely, though, they would be the No. 3 seed.
If the Vikings go 2-1 down the stretch …
They could still win the division if their loss is to the Chargers (while beating the Packers and Bears) and the Packers lose one of their other two games to the Bears or Lions. That would leave both the Vikings and Packers at 11-5, and it would come down to the fourth tiebreaker (conference record) which would go to the Vikings. Minnesota almost certainly would be the No. 3 seed in this scenario.
If the Vikings go 11-5 but Green Bay wins the division, the Vikings might need help to make the playoffs as a wild card. That's because the Rams (8-5) have been on a roll, including a Sunday night win over Seattle, and would win a tiebreaker if both teams finish 11-5 — which probably would be the final playoff spot since the division loser of 49ers/Seattle could have at least 12 wins and/or a tiebreaker edge and get the No. 5 seed.
The Rams, though, have games at Dallas and at San Francisco the next two weeks and could easily drop one of those before finishing up with an easier one at home against Arizona. The Rams going 3-0 would be the only wild card threat if the Vikings go 2-1 in their next three.
If the Vikings go 1-2 down the stretch …
The Vikings could still win the division, but they would need their win to be over Green Bay and for the Packers to go 0-3 — possible, but unlikely given the favorable Week 17 matchup vs. Detroit. In that scenario, the Bears could actually sneak in and win the division with a three-way tie at 10-6 because they would have the division record tiebreaker edge.
As a wild card hopeful, the Vikings would be banking on the Rams going no better than 1-2 (possible given their schedule) and the Bears going no better than 2-1 (again, possible).
If the Vikings go 0-3 down the stretch …
They would need the Rams to lose out and probably the Bears to go no better than 1-2. But chances are the Vikings would miss the playoffs entirely, and questions about the futures of Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman and even Kirk Cousins would heat up.