A year ago at this time, the Vikings were making plans for the postseason. Mired at 2-10, the only talk around the Vikings locker room was the desire not to go down in history as the team with the worst record in the 51 years of the Vikings franchise.
A year later, the Vikings are still in the playoff chase, but, coming off back-to-back road losses to division rivals Chicago and Green Bay, their hopes of winning a division title are dim at best and their wild card chances are flickering.
The glass-half-full types are quick to point out that the last two Super Bowl champions – Green Bay and the New York Giants – were both 7-7 through 14 games of their championship seasons and were able to make the playoffs at 9-7, get hot at the right time and make a Super Bowl run from the No. 6 seed in the postseason tournament.
The Vikings have no such luxury. With both Chicago and Green Bay at 8-4, if both of them split their final four games and finish 10-6, they will be in the playoffs – one as the division champion and the other as a wild card. That would leave only one possible playoff spot remaining. At 6-6, the Vikings trail Seattle (7-5) by a game for the potential final playoff spot and already have a loss head-to-head against the Seahawks. In order to move past Seattle in the playoff picture, the Vikings will have to finish a game ahead of the Seahawks, who play three of their final four games at home – all against NFC West opponents – with their lone road game at Buffalo (5-7). If Seattle can win just two of their remaining four games and finish 9-7, the only way the Vikings can overtake them in the playoff chase if to go 4-0 in their remaining four games.
The same is true with two of the three teams they're tied with at 6-6 (Tampa Bay, Dallas and Washington). The Vikings have already lost to both the Buccaneers and Redskins and would lose any potential tie-breakers with them. If either Tampa Bay or Washington can win three of their final four games, like Seattle, the Vikings would have to run the table in order to make the playoffs.
While the odds are stacked against the Vikings after falling backwards the last couple of weeks, there isn't a panic button being hit. But at the same time, there is the realization that it will likely take four wins to make the playoffs.
"It's not desperation, it's a sense or urgency," defensive end Jared Allen
said. "We know what the deal is. We talked every week about, ‘it's not a must-win.' These are must-win games now. We let a couple (games) slip through our hands and you can't do that. You never know what game is going to come back and bite you at the end of the year. Now we've got to run off four straight. There are a lot of teams that are in our position. All we can worry about is taking care of our responsibilities, try to get a win this week and then move on from there. We put ourselves in a situation that we still have an opportunity, but that window is narrowing."
In a sport where players are drilled into the mindset of not looking past the opponent directly in front of them, it doesn't take a mathematician to calculate their playoff odds. Still, if they are to go on the needed four-game winning streak, it starts with Sunday's game against Chicago. Lose to the Bears and the remaining three games won't have as much significance other than potentially impacting where teams like Houston or Green Bay are seeded in the playoffs. While it's easy for fans to look ahead and do the math, the players are remaining focused strictly on what is directly in front of them – the Bears on Sunday.
"We've just got to worry about this game," defensive end Everson Griffen
said. "People always want to be concerned about the playoffs. The playoffs aren't here yet. We just have to out and beat Chicago. That's the next game on our board. If we win these four games, there's a playoff possibility, but right now we're only concerned about one game and that's the Chicago Bears
The frustrating part for the Vikings is that, while few outside the locker room believed the Vikings would be in the playoff chase when the season started, the losses to the Buccaneers and Seahawks are the ones that sting the most because their outlook could be completely different had they won either of those two games.
"You never try to look back on wins or losses because at the end of the day there isn't anything you can do to change what has already happened," offensive tackle Phil Loadholt
. "But when you look at how we got to the position we're in now, you can't help but wonder how different thing might be had we beaten Tampa or Green Bay or Seattle. Those things happen and that's why we're in the spot we're in right now – pretty much having to win out to get to the playoffs."
Do the Vikings have what it takes to make a four-game run to the postseason? They're convinced they do. They may not have a slew of believers outside the organization, but Griffen believes that the NFL is all about getting momentum at the right time and playing as a cohesive unit on both sides of the ball.
"Any team in the NFL is playoff-caliber," Griffen said. "It's just 11 guys coming together on offense and defense and taking it amongst themselves to have that championship season. That's all we've got to do. We've just got to take our starting 11 and whoever else is out there and, when you're out there, you have to play at your best ability and be accountable for the plays you're in."
The Vikings aren't looking at the 2012 season with 20/20 hindsight, but there is the belief that they're better than 6-6 but haven't taken the needed steps to prove to everyone else that they have what is needed to be a Super Bowl contender.
"It definitely makes it frustrating – knowing that the opportunity was there and we let it slip away," wide receiver Devin Aromashodu
said. "Hopefully, we can get things turned around this week."
If the Vikings are to make a late-season run, it will have to start with the Bears on Sunday. Although the remaining three games after that are looming on the horizon, the bottom line is that without the first win, taking down four straight can't happen.
"It's pretty much a must-win the rest of the way through," safety Harrison Smith
said. "We know that, but we can't lose our focus on what we have to do. We need four wins, but you can't win four games in one week. All we can do at this point is put all of our focus on Chicago and get that win in the books. We can't worry about what other teams are doing. All we can do is take care of our own business and, when the regular season is done, hope that it's enough to keep us playing."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.