Vikings' focus stays myopic

Steve Hutchinson (Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

The Vikings know the playoff scenarios, but they are letting last year's missed opportunity serve as a lesson for the final two games this year. Several players talked about the lesson learned and applying it to this playoff drive.

The holiday spirit that has been pervasive with Vikings fans in recent weeks is no coincidence. Having won eight of their last 10 games, the Vikings find themselves at an interesting crossroads in the 2008 season. Thanks to their own success and the circumstances throughout the NFC, although the Vikings have yet to clinch a playoff spot, there is a chance – a pretty decent chance – that if they win their final two games, not only will they get their first NFC North title, but they could be the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and have a bye week before playing again.

For fans of Internet sites and talk radio, it has been fodder that has been gaining steam. Essentially, the layout goes like this – the Vikings win Sunday to improve to 10-5 and the fun begins. The Giants and Panthers – tied atop the NFC at 11-3 – play each other Sunday night. The winner locks down homefield advantage as long as they're playing and the loser drops to 11-4. If the Giants lose, their game with the Vikings in Week 17 will be to decide who plays in the wild card round and who gets to sit for a week. If the Panthers lose, the Vikings may face a New York team willing to rest many of its key starters so as not to risk them to injury in a game that for them will have no repercussions to their playoff seeding. If that is the case, the Vikings would be facing a lesser version of the Giants, while the Panthers have to go into New Orleans.

The second scenario may seem like the less attractive option, but not if you're a fan of trends and recent history. For those who haven't followed the NFC South closely, the four teams in the division have a combined record at home of 26-2. The only home losses were by Atlanta (vs. Denver) and the Saints (vs. the Vikings). Every divisional game played this season has been won by the home team, making a Carolina win in New Orleans far from assured. Of Carolina's three losses, two have come on the road against division rivals Atlanta and Tampa Bay and the other was to the Vikings – which would give the Vikings the tie-breaker advantage if they were to both finish at 11-5.

It seems hard to imagine after a 1-3 start that the Vikings could be in such a position of possibilities and potential. A player who missed that brutal start – tackle Bryant McKinnie, who had to sit out a four-game suspension – said that the attitude at Winter Park has been growing with confidence each week. They're not looking at scenarios, but realize that if they continue winning, the future looks bright.

"When you're winning, everybody feels pretty good about themselves coming to work," McKinnie said. "We just have to keep it up. If we keep doing our business right, good things can happen. If we could get a bye week, that would be great. It would give all of us a chance to heal up and know we'll be playing at home our next game. But we have a long way to go to get to that point."

But, on the flip side of the coin, the Vikings have yet to assure themselves of a playoff spot. After a similarly slow start and resurgence in November and December, the Vikings found themselves in a similar spot last year. They were 8-6, playing at home in prime time on national TV against Washington with a chance to make a statement. That statement came in the form of a big egg that propelled the Redskins into the playoffs and the Vikings to the outside looking in.

Many of the players remember that feeling from last year and refuse to let any looking ahead and potential scenarios for Week 17 to creep into their thinking.

"You kind of have to take all that with a grain of salt," Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson said. "If you look back at how we were sitting at this time last year, we were in right about the same position. We kind of fell apart the last two games of the regular season. We want to make sure that doesn't happen this year. We've done pretty much all that the coaches have asked us to do the last number of weeks. You can always do better, but record-wise, we have put ourselves in a position to do what we want to do. We're finishing up the season with two teams that are just as hungry, especially Atlanta. This is a one-game season for us this Sunday."

Hutchinson said the close to the 2007 season was a bitter pill to swallow. While the stakes have changed – a division title vs. winning a wild card spot – the reality hasn't. Until they have wrapped up the division championship, nothing has been assured. Everything will have to go wrong for them to miss the playoffs, but it remains a possibility. For that reason, recalling ugly memories from a year ago can serve as a cautionary tale for this season.

"We fell apart at the end last year," Hutchinson said. "We lost to Washington and it spilled over into the Denver game. Everyone is talking about what can be – the future here. We need to focus on that we're playing a one-game season against a team whose back is against the wall – with last year's Redskins game as a reminder."

To some players, seedings are irrelevant. The goal coming into the season wasn't to be the No. 2 seed in the NFC. It was a much simpler goal – be the best team in the division. Despite their poor start, the Vikings were never out of contention to win the North division title. While they now have all the control in their own hands, loftier goals aren't factoring into the equation.

"Coming into this season, our goal was to win the NFC North," cornerback Cedric Griffin said. "We're within two games of accomplishing that. Our focus right now is to win the Atlanta Falcons game. To be honest, the No. 2 or 3 seed isn't a concern of ours. We want to make the playoffs, win the NFC North and win the Super Bowl."

The mantra of the Vikings since the bye week has been to look at each game as a one-game season. Don't look ahead to see when the rematch with the Packers or Bears will be – maintain all the attention on the opponent at hand. The wins have piled up since, and the Vikings are one of the hottest teams in the league as the playoffs draw near. It is a philosophy that has worked and the Vikings intend to keep that same process in mind as they close in on the preseason goal of winning the NFC North crown for the first time since 2000.

"We've done a good job coming back since the bye week and playing a one-week season," Hutchinson said. "We've got to continue to do that. Did we win every game after the bye? No. But, as a team, we have done a good job on focusing on the next Sunday and not looking past it."

With a win Sunday, barring a Giants-Panthers tie, the prospect of locking down the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye will become a distinct possibility. It potentially could come down to simply winning at home again the following week to get that done. But, for now, the Vikings will let the fans blog about it. They've got a good thing going and there's no reason in their minds to change it now.

"We're not letting ourselves think about that," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "That's something for the fans to talk about. We've been in this situation before. We just have to continue to play football, keep our head down on the grinder and play well. It's going to be a playoff atmosphere this week and next week, which will be great for us."

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