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Vikings Could be First Team to Clinch Their Division- What Does That Mean for the Postseason?

There are advantages...

NFL: New England Patriots at Minnesota Vikings Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings could be the first team to clinch their division title this weekend, if they beat the Jets and the Lions lose to the Jaguars. In any case, it’s a matter of time before the Vikings win the NFC North crown, and they seem likely to be one of the first teams to secure at least a top four seed in the playoffs. Their magic number is two- any combination of Vikings’ wins and Detroit losses.

Should the Vikings clinch this weekend, they would be one of only a handful of teams in the Super Bowl era to do so with still five weeks left in the season:

  • 1973 Vikings (lost Super Bowl)
  • 1985 Bears (won Super Bowl)
  • 1997 49ers (lost NFCC)
  • 2004 Eagles (lost Super Bowl)
  • 2007 Patriots (lost Super Bowl)
  • 2009 Colts (lost Super Bowl)

While the ‘85 Bears were the only Super Bowl winner of the bunch, all but the ‘97 49ers made it to the Super Bowl, so that suggests winning the division early translates into at least a deep postseason run. There are logical reasons for that, and the Vikings could take advantage of them this season as well.

The Advantages of Securing the Division Crown Early

The first reason securing the division crown this early is an advantage, is because if you’re able to clinch this early, it probably means you have a really good win-loss record. And while that could be lost over the last five weeks, chances are that leads to securing a top seed in the playoffs and potentially a first-round bye as well. It also means you likely have home field advantage in the playoffs as well.

For the Vikings this year, they have a pretty solid hold on the 2nd seed right now, with a 2 game + tie-breaker advantage over the 49ers right now. The 49ers also have a tougher remaining schedule than the Vikings. The Vikings also have a chance of gaining the first seed, should the Eagles lose two more games than the Vikings but still win their division. The Eagles play the Titans this weekend, which should be a tougher matchup for them, and at Dallas and the Giants twice. There could be at least couple losses there.

In any case, keeping the second seed would give the Vikings a home game against the last seed in the wildcard round and at least one more home game if they advance further. Home field advantage is just that- an advantage. Additionally, should the Vikings not be in position to gain the first seed late in the season, they would be able to rest their starters in their week 18 matchup against the Bears, assuming a loss would not impact their 2nd seed status.

And so with either the first or second seed, the Vikings could secure a week of rest for their starters, and at least two home games in the playoffs if they advance. Those are both important advantages entering the playoffs.

Demolition Derby

Having a week off, whether resting starters week 18 or getting a first-round bye in the playoffs, not only means a week of rest and recovery your opponent won’t have, it also means one less game for injuries to happen. Nobody likes to talk about the impact that injuries have on wins and losses in the NFL- including the playoffs- but it is certainly significant. We like to talk about great plays made by great players, but many times those plays are made against 2nd and 3rd string players playing due to injured starters.

The other thing about securing the division title and playoff spot early is that it allows the coaching staff to be more cautious in terms of playing slightly injured starters and begin to consider load management for key players as well. All those things can factor into a team being healthier for the postseason.

On the other hand, for teams in tight division races and on the cusp of making the playoffs, the rest of the season is all hands on deck, often times with key players playing through injuries that can take a toll by the time the postseason rolls around. These factors can have an impact on “injury luck.”

Mail It In and Key Division Games

The last part of the season is also when you begin to see some ‘mail it in’ games from teams with little or nothing to play for. It’s also a time where some tough and key division games are frequently played.

For a team like the Vikings, having essentially wrapped up the division, they’re less likely to face tough division games with a lot on the line and more likely to see some opponents mail it in. Sometimes a team with nothing to play for can relish a ‘spoiler’ role, but more often the willingness to play at a high level and risk injury just isn’t there for teams without much or any postseason hope. Particularly among guys that will be free agents at season’s end. It’s also a situation where players that have some level of injury tend to be more cautious when it comes to playing. Why risk making it worse without any playoff reward?

It remains to be seen, but the last two games of the season at Green Bay and Chicago could be mail in games by the Vikings’ division opponents, both of whom could be starting backup quarterbacks for those games. And depending on how the next two games go for the Colts, who have a bye week prior to the Vikings game, they could potentially mail it in too. A loss to the Jaguars could also take away some motivation for the Lions when they face the Vikings in two weeks as well.

By contrast, all the rest of the NFC playoff teams this year will be in tight division or wildcard races. For all the teams in the NFC East- all of which could make the playoffs- they have some tough, physical division games ahead of them. The Eagles play the Giants twice, Dallas once, and the Titans. Those are all likely to be tough, physically demanding games. The Cowboys play the Eagles, Titans and Commanders yet this season. The Giants play the Eagles and Commanders twice yet this season, along with the Vikings.

The 49ers will also see their schedule ramp up over the next month as they face the Dolphins, Bucs, Seahawks and Commanders before closing out against the Raiders and Cardinals.

Who knows how the rest of the NFC playoff teams will fare in the demolition derby that is an NFL season as they grind through several tough battles en route to the postseason. That’s not to say the Vikings won’t suffer any injuries the rest of the season- anything is possible- but all of the above factors make it less likely than for teams with more at stake, and playing teams with more at stake, into the home stretch.

Vikings Have the Easiest Remaining Schedule Among NFC Playoff Teams

In addition to all the advantages of being an early division winner, the Vikings also have the easiest remaining schedule among likely NFC playoff teams. Here are the current playoff teams and the current 8th seed Seahawks along with their current record and remaining strength of schedule (SOS):

  1. Philadelphia Eagles | 10-1 | (.529)
  2. Minnesota Vikings | 9-2 | (.434)
  3. San Francisco 49ers | 7-4 | (.500)
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 5-6 | (.443)
  5. Dallas Cowboys | 8-3 | (.507)
  6. New York Giants | 7-4 | (.699)
  7. Washington Commanders | 7-5 | (.600)
  8. Seattle Seahawks | 6-5 | (.493)

As you can see, the Vikings remaining schedule is easiest by SOS, but also by DVOA and by likelihood of opponents making the playoffs. The Vikings face only two potential playoff teams (in all likelihood) the rest of the season: the Jets and Giants. And given the Giants with far and away the toughest schedule, they may not make it either. The Seahawks have an easier schedule than both the Giants and Commanders, but still face the 49ers, Chiefs and Jets.

In any case, the Vikings are favored by at least 3 points in each of their remaining regular season games according to 538, and it’s not out of the question for them to run the table- strange as that sounds in reference to the Vikings. As a reminder, their remaining schedule is the Jets at home, at Detroit, Colts and Giants at home, at Green Bay and Chicago. Their toughest opponents are at home, and the last two away games will be against teams with nothing to play for and probably starting backup quarterbacks.

Postseason Preparation Is Key

Regardless of the strength of the Vikings’ remaining schedule and the advantages of wrapping up the division and playoff spot early, the Vikings still need to improve and prepare for the postseason. Their defense in particular could use some adjustments and new wrinkles as they gear up for the playoffs.

Ultimately the Vikings will likely need to beat one or both of the teams they lost to so far this season in the Eagles and Cowboys- and neither of those games were close. They may also need to beat a team like the Seahawks, Commanders or Giants if they don’t get a first-round bye. And the 49ers remain a possible playoff opponent at some point too. The Vikings are more prepared to play the Eagles tough compared to week two, when their man coverage caught Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings’ offense unprepared, and I’m sure the Vikings will also be in a better place should they face the Cowboys in the playoffs than they were two weeks ago. But on paper those are better teams on both sides of the ball than the Vikings, so the Vikings need to improve from where they are now into the playoffs if they want to beat their top NFC rivals for a spot in Super Bowl LVII in February.

Kevin O’Connell’s experience last season in the Rams’ championship run should serve him well this season. His team got beaten by 17 and 21 points by the Cardinals and 49ers early in the season, only to come back and beat them later on.

Statistically, the Vikings defense could be helped by facing five offenses in the bottom third of the league in their remaining six games, but there should be no false confidence drawn from that. There is still a need for improvement as eventually they’ll be facing top offenses in the playoffs and will need to hold their own against them.

Offensively the Vikings will have tougher challenges the rest of the regular season but have been successful in building out and building upon what they’ve done so far this season- which has been pretty impressive for the most part. But it’s the offense that they’ll depend upon more in the postseason if they are to advance, so having a solution to whatever a defense may present will be key. They’re getting there.


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