From the early moments of the Vikings game against the Bengals, it was clear it was gonna be a blow-out, and the Vikings would secure the NFC North title. And so it was.
But now that the Vikings have won the division title, it’s time to move on and look at what this Vikings team needs to do to achieve it’s ultimate goal: winning Super Bowl LII.
GOAL ONE: SECURE FIRST ROUND BYE
The Vikings need to win one more game to secure a first-round bye. It’s possible if the Eagles lose their remaining two games and the Vikings win theirs, the Vikings earn a bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs as #1 seed. But I wouldn’t count on that. The Eagles have home games against the Raiders and Cowboys remaining. It’s ot out of the question that the Wentz-less Eagles lose their first playoff game however, which would give the #2 seed Vikings home field advantage.
In any case, taking care of business against the Packers on Saturday would be good. It’s unclear if Aaron Rodgers will play on Saturday, but with the Packers having lost today and have no playoff hopes, Rodgers having thrown 3 picks in large part because he wasn’t 100%, and Davonte Adams possibly out as well with a concussion, and the Packers non-committal about his status against the Vikings, I’m guessing he may not play. Either way, getting a win in Green Bay takes any drama out of week 17 in terms of a first-round bye, and leaves the Vikings in position for a #1 seed if the Eagles falter.
In any case, getting a first-round bye is key for two reasons, beyond automatically making it to the divisional round:
- It’s an opportunity for players to rest and recover, which is important this time of year, when everyone is banged up
- It’s an opportunity to do some installs on both sides of the ball, creating new looks and/or plays teams have not seen yet this season, which can make a difference especially if playing a team for the second time this year, which could be the case for the Vikings against either the Saints, Rams, Falcons, Panthers or Lions- the teams most likely to be playing in the NFC wild card games.
GOAL TWO: STAY/GET HEALTHY
I’m a firm believer that the best way to avoid injury is to play hard, but the Vikings also need to manage playing time for starters when there isn’t anything at stake. If the Vikings are up big, take out starters. If the Vikings and Eagles both win next week, and the Vikings can’t lose the #2 seed or gain the #1 seed, there is no reason to play starters much against the Bears, or even play starters with any kind of minor injury. The Bears have nothing to play for except possibly a higher draft pick, so it makes sense to be smart about how much playing time starters get if there is nothing at stake.
Another health issue to figure out is Sam Bradford. He is eligible to come off of IR for the playoffs, so there needs to be an evaluation of what the deal is with his knee and if he is healthy enough to play like he did week one. This isn’t about Bradford as a starter- that’s Keenum’s job Super Bowl or bust- but Bradford as a potential backup to Keenum. It’s unfair to judge Teddy Bridgewater on the few snaps he had today, but Bradford, if his knee is healthy, gives the Vikings a better chance to win this year if Keenum went down. Bridgewater is all about competing for the starting job next season, not playing meaningful snaps this season, if avoidable.
Riley Reiff also needs to be fully healthy for the playoffs, so if there is any question about his ankle this week, give Rashod Hill another start. If Reiff is good to go, I’d still play Hill maybe 50% of the snaps at Green Bay. And if nothing is at stake in the Bears game, giving backup offensive linemen like Isadora, Sirles and Hill more work makes sense. Backup TEs and WRs - and Bridgewater as well.
Bottom line, it makes sense to limit exposure of starters when/where possible to avoid potential injuries. Giving backups some valuable snaps also makes sense when there is nothing to gain by having starters out there.
GOAL THREE: WINNING AGAINST GOOD TEAMS IN THE PLAYOFFS
Once January gets here, the Vikings, assuming they have a first-round bye, need to go 3-0 against very good teams, with one possible road game, to make it to the promised land. That means executing at a high level, making plays, and fighting hard for 60 minutes. The best way to prepare for that now is continuing to prepare well every week- including any bye or semi-bye week- and executing well in the playing time given.
The five-game stretch the Vikings had following their last bye-week showed they can get it done, and even the Carolina game was an important lesson for a young team that has not experienced many playoff games- let alone victories.
Working on execution and making plays these next two weeks is important at every position- offense, defense and special teams. It was nice to see Kendricks and Newman each make nice plays on the ball for picks, and for the offense to generate some big plays too- albeit against a poor Bengals squad packing it in.
But equally important is cleaning up the mistakes- particularly along the offensive line. Penalties there killed a couple drives and put the offense in some deep holes that won’t be so easy to convert against playoff teams.
Since the win at Detroit on Thanksgiving, the NFC crown was more or less in the bag for the Vikings. But keeping the week-to-week focus has been a good way to navigate through this part of the season, and from a player and coordinator perspective, that is where the focus should remain these next two weeks. But coach Zimmer should also begin to manage and prepare his team for the post-season, limiting injury exposure where he can, and preparing his team mentally to improve execution and play-making while limiting mistakes.
On a team where few players or coaches have Super Bowl rings, it’s important that the head coach does. Zimmer’s message to the team last week, following the mistake-filled loss at Carolina: “if this was the playoffs, we’d be doing exit interviews this week” was the right one to prepare his team for playoff football, and the importance of executing well every game.
Equally important is the competitiveness this Vikings team has developed over the course of the season- something we have not seen from the Vikings since 2009. It may be that it flows from the quarterback like it did back then. It may be that simply stacking up wins builds the confidence that shows up on the field, leading players to believe they’re never out of it, and to keep fighting. Even in the Carolina loss the Vikings kept fighting back and with even one less mistake may have tied or won it.
It was also promising that the Vikings won three tough games against good teams coming out of the bye week. That will likely be the task again beginning in January.
Playing at home at least once will be helpful. But playing even better than in November will be essential to playing and winning in February.
Now that the Vikings have officially made the playoffs, how far will they go?
This poll is closed
NFC Championship game
Super Bowl Champions