Starting on Sunday at Washington, the Vikings begin what will likely be the most crucial stretch of games this season, and will go a long way in determining the post-season seeding, and NFC North race. Winning three of the next five games, four of which are on the road, most against teams with winning records and legitimate playoff aspirations, would most likely deliver the Vikings a top post-season seed, and the NFC North crown. Winning two or less puts everything in some doubt.
The last three games of the season, against the Bengals, Packers and Bears, look relatively easier, and the Vikings need to win all three of those games regardless, if they hope to make the playoffs in good position.
THE NFC NORTH RACE IS FAR FROM OVER
The first thing to keep in mind is that while the Vikings have a two-game lead over the Lions and Packers, the division race is far from over. At this point the Vikings main rival is the Lions, and the Thanksgiving game in Detroit may well determine who wins the division this year.
How can that be with a 2-game lead?
Look at Detroit’s remaining schedule. The only team they play with a winning record the rest of the season is the Vikings. Other than our favorite team, they play the Browns, Bears twice, the Packers, Bucs, Bengals, and Ravens. Not exactly a daunting schedule, and I doubt there is a game left on their schedule that they aren’t currently favored to win.
By contrast, the Vikings have 4 games against teams with winning records, 3 of them on the road, along with the 4-4 Redskins on the road this week.
Given all that, it’s difficult to see how the Vikings win the division if they lose to Detroit on Thanksgiving, especially as they would have the head-to-head matchup tie-breaker.
THE VIKINGS NEED TO WIN ON THE ROAD TO KEEP PACE
One of the most impressive things about the New England Patriots over the past year is their ability to win on the road. They’re 11-0 on the road since the beginning of last season. The Vikings are basically 1-1 on the road this year, with a win at a neutral site in London as well. They’ll need to copy the Patriots recipe for success on the road, facing the Redskins, Lions, Falcons and Panthers on the road over the next five weeks.
They may have some help this week from the injury bug as the Redskins’ offensive line is pretty beat up, and they have several other guys injured as well. But I expect at least one or more injured guys last week will be ready to go on Sunday. Whether the Redskins’ left tackle Trent Williams can go or not will be huge. His backup is TJ Clemmings. The Redskins have been a tough match-up for the Vikings in recent years, so the Vikings will need to be at their best and take advantage of any Redskins injuries to get the win on Sunday.
The next road game in this crucial stretch is against Detroit on Thanksgiving, and as mentioned, that game may be the most crucial one of all. The Lions could have their starting left tackle Taylor Decker back by then, which helps their cause. But more important, the Vikings can’t afford to lose the turnover battle with the Lions and expect to win that game.
The next two games on the road against the NFC South may be better matchups for the Vikings. The Falcons can have a potent offense (can, not do), but the Vikings matchup well against Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and company, with Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and company. Still not an easy game of the road with a team needing to win to make the playoffs, but managing a decent performance offensively against an overall average Falcon defense may be the key to a win there.
The last road game at Carolina may be the easiest match-up of the bunch. The Vikings have beaten the Panthers on the road the last two meetings, and the one last year wasn’t really that close. This matchup favors the Vikings, as their defense is well equipped to handle Cam Newton and Carolina’s offense, and the Matt Kalil / Everson Griffen match-up will be fun to watch. As will the match-up between Adam Thielen and Captain Munnerlyn on the other side of the ball. I think those matchups clearly favor the Vikings, as Matt Kalil is still Matt Kalil, and Munnerlyn is having a down year.
But one of the toughest games the Vikings have in this 5-game stretch is next week at home against the Rams. The Rams have the top scoring offense in the league right now, and have scored at least 20 points in all but one game this season (Seattle). The Rams defense led by Aaron Donald up front is tough as well, so the Vikings will have their work cut out for them. Hopefully Case Keenum will show a little more against his old team at home to get the job done.
We’re about to see how good this Vikings team really is over the next month. They really need to have 3 wins over this 5 game stretch, including a win over the Lions, to get where they want to be entering the post-season.
It can be done.
But each and every game is a big one, and every one will be a challenge. After all, it’s the NFL.
How many games will the Vikings win over the next five?
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