With their (admittedly awesome) last-minute loss to the Baltimore Ravens last week, the Vikings have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. However, they needn't simply play out the string. Here are five things the Vikings can still accomplish as they wrap up a disappointing 2013:
1. Continue Being Competent
After a truly awful start, the Vikings have settled into something resembling competence, taking the Cowboys and Ravens to the wire and outright beating the Redskins and Bears (let's just pretend the tie with the Packers never happened).
Over that stretch, the Vikings have been at least entertaining, if not overwhelmingly excellent. At the very least, they are no longer embarrassing to watch, as they were against the Giants in New York and against the Packers in Minneapolis. A continuation of that trend would be agreeable, even with the season already lost.
2. Avoid Catastrophic Injuries
I was in Italy when the Vikings played the Redskins back 2011. While I sipped champagne, I checked my email and discovered a note from a friend back in the States: "Don't check the Vikings score." At that moment, I knew that the Vikings had either been blown out, or that Adrian Peterson had suffered a catastrophic injury. Regrettably, it was the latter, and it sucked.
It was that injury that was obviously on everyone's mind when AP went down hard against the Ravens. Thankfully, it doesn't look like there will be any painful rehab this time around. But the Vikings would be wise to be judicious with the snaps their best players take over the next few days. It would be awful if, say, Cordarrelle Patterson went down with a terrible knee injury after such a promising rookie season.
3. Figure Out Draft Needs
In the meantime, now is as good a time as any to find a diamond in the rough or two on the roster. Audie Coleman, as we all know, has been great at middle linebacker. But it would also be good to continue getting a strong feel for the potential of guys like Andrew Sendejo, who was forced into action in relief of Jamarca Sanford and Harrison Smith, and came away with his first interception.
With so many holes to fill in the draft, now is as good a time as any to assess the talent that is on the roster right now while saving the current starters for next year. And hey, if Toby Gerhart distinguishes himself enough to warrant a draft pick, then so much better. The Colts sure seem to enjoy spending picks on power backs.
EDIT: A friendly commenter reminded me that Toby is in the last year of his contract, so there's likely no trade in his future. But it would still be nice to get a feel for whether he deserves a new contract.
4. Give Josh Freeman a Shot
Seriously, why are the Vikings continuing to start Matt Cassel? I get that he's been relatively solid, but surely no one believes that he's anything more than a stopgap? Starting Cassel reeks of Leslie Frazier trying to eke out a few more wins and save his job which... I completely understand. In his position, I would want to save my job too. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating to see the Vikings trot Cassel and Ponder out week after week.
All I can think is that Freeman must still be really awful in practice. Either he hasn't learned the playbook, or he's just not making the right throws. Maybe he still has PTSD after the Greg Schiano Experience. Regardless, while he's almost certainly not the Quarterback of the Future, it would still be nice to see what the Vikings really have in Freeman, even if the answer is ultimately "nothing."
5. Knock the Lions out of the Playoffs
The Lions are almost painful to watch. They're arguably the most talented team in the NFC North, and the division title has been practically handed to them on the platter. Knowing that they're so close to actually winning the division, it's actually agonizing to watch them fall short like this. At this rate, the door will soon be open for the Packers to sneak back into the playoffs, which would be just about the worst thing.
All that said though, I would still take a measuare of satisfication in denying the Lions a playoff berth. For all their wrenching history they're still a division rival, and there's nothing quite so satisfying as denying a rival a spot in the playoffs (see: Chicago Bears, 2012). And while I'm not a big believer in momentum carrying over into next season, it would at least make me feel a little better about the current one.
I know Vikings fans will probably be thinking, "Screw that, I want the Vikings to have a high pick." To an extent, I agree. But even if the Vikings losing to the Lions in Week 17, there's no guarantee that they will draft a great quarterback next spring. Beating the Lions is tangible, the future is not. For one day at least, I'm willing to say, "Screw draft picks." Let's finish this season out in style.