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Vikings Playoff Preparation and Preview

It’s the last week of the regular season and playoff teams like the Vikings will need to manage their priorities and prepare for the postseason beginning next week. A big consideration for several teams will be whether to rest their starters this weekend or not.

Let’s take a look at how things stand right now.

First Seed: Philadelphia Eagles

PFF Team Grade: 92.7 (1st)

DVOA: 26.1% (2nd)

The Eagles need a win to clinch the first seed and a loss could send them all the way down to the fifth seed. They are expecting to get Jalen Hurts back for their week 18 home matchup against the Giants. They’ll need to play their starters to secure the first seed.

The Giants, however, have nothing to play for week 18. They will be the sixth seed regardless of the outcome of their game against the Eagles. Giants head coach Brian Daboll said he hadn’t thought of resting starters at his postgame press conference on Sunday, but clearly doing so would make a lot of sense.

Injuries to Starters

  • QB Jalen Hurts suffered a shoulder sprain to his throwing shoulder week 15 against the Bears and hasn’t played since. He is expected to play week 18 against the Giants.
  • Slot CB Avonte Maddox is ‘out indefinitely’ although he hasn’t been placed on IR at this point. He suffered what has been described as a ‘significant toe injury’ and is unlikely to play until at least the NFC Championship game at the earliest.
  • RT Lane Johnson suffered an abdominal injury and won’t play the rest of the regular season (he’s missed a couple games already) but is expected to start in the playoffs.
  • S CJ Gardner-Johnson has been on IR for several weeks now with a lacerated kidney. He was eligible to have his 21-day return from IR window opened this past week, but the Eagles did not do so, suggesting he may miss some or all of the playoffs.
  • DE Josh Sweat suffered a scary neck injury on Sunday and was carted off to the hospital on a stretcher. He was released later on and fortunately avoided serious injury. He texted that he will play this season after he was released, but how soon is to be determined. It’s doubtful he’ll play next weekend and perhaps not in some playoff games as well.

Second Seed: San Francisco 49ers

PFF Team Grade: 92.4 (2nd)

DVOA: 25.9% (3rd)

The 49ers have a chance at the first seed should the Eagles lose to the Giants and could fall back to the third seed should they lose and the Vikings win week 18. So, the 49ers will likely play their starters against the Cardinals- which they host in their regular season finale.

The Cardinals have been eliminated from the playoffs and will be starting David Blough at quarterback. They’re unlikely to put up a big fight against the 49ers, but the Raiders weren’t expected to either. Should the 49ers maintain the second seed, they’ll host the seventh seed in the playoffs, which could be either the Packers, Lions, or Seahawks.

Injuries to Starters

  • QBs Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo are on IR and will miss the postseason.
  • CBs Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley are also on IR and will miss the postseason.
  • DT Hassan Ridgeway suffered a chest injury in early December and was placed on IR and will likely miss most or all of the postseason with a 6-8 week return window.
  • WR Deebo Samuel suffered an ankle injury a few weeks ago and hasn’t played since but is expected to return for the playoffs.
  • DT Maurice Hurst Jr. is also on IR and has missed the whole season with a torn bicep.
  • LG Aaron Banks left the game on Sunday with a knee injury and didn’t return. He is thought to have torn his MCL, which depending on the severity could keep him out 1-4 weeks, or longer if a type 3.
  • LB Dre Greenlaw also left the game on Sunday with a back injury, the extent of which is unclear. He’s unlikely to play next weekend, but likely will return for the playoffs.
  • RB Christian McCaffrey has been dealing with knee/ankle injuries and didn’t practice Wednesday. He hasn’t missed any time because of them, but given his injury history and offensive production, something to keep an eye on.

Third Seed: Minnesota Vikings

PFF Team Grade: 91.3 (4th)

DVOA: -14.2% (28th)

The Vikings can do no worse than their current third seed but could gain the second seed with a win at Chicago week 18 and a 49ers loss to the Cardinals. That scenario is not likely as the 49ers are 14-point favorites and the Cardinals have been eliminated from the playoffs.

Kevin O’Connell said on Monday that he may play starters in the Chicago game but also couched his response by mentioning the need to look at the big picture. It may be that O’Connell approaches the Bears game like a preseason game, with starters playing limited reps. It should be noted that the Vikings’ game on Sunday is a noon game, and all the other NFC playoff teams with seeding in flux play in the 3:30pm time slot, so the Vikings won’t be able to decide to play starters or not based on the outcome of other games that would affect their seeding status. The Bears are starting backup Nathan Peterman at QB

Should they be the third seed, they would host the Giants in the wild card round. The Vikings beat the Giants week 16 narrowly- 27-24- on a walk-off 61-yard field goal.

Injuries to Starters

  • C Garrett Bradbury has missed the past few weeks with a back injury. He’s unlikely to play week 18 but seems likely to return for the postseason.
  • RT Brian O’Neill suffered a partially torn Achilles tendon and has been moved to IR. He will miss the postseason.

Fourth Seed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

PFF Team Grade: 78.3 (22nd)

DVOA: 0.2% (17th)

The Buccaneers have clinched the NFC South and will be the fourth seed regardless of the outcome of their week 18 game. As a result, they’re likely to rest their starters next weekend at Atlanta, although Tom Brady said he wants to play.

The Bucs will most likely host the Cowboys in the wild card round.

Injuries to Starters

  • ED Shaq Barrett is on IR and will miss the postseason
  • LT Ryan Jenson is on IR and will miss the postseason
  • CB Carlton Davis missed Sunday’s game against the Panthers and is week to week with a shoulder injury. He’ll most likely miss next weekend but be available for the playoffs.
  • ED Carl Nassib also missed Sunday’s game against the Panthers but will likely be available for the postseason

Fifth Seed: Dallas Cowboys

PFF Team Grade: 86.0

DVOA: 22.1% (4th)

The Cowboys have been the likely fifth seed for at least a month, and nothing has changed. Barring an Eagles loss to the Giants, and a Cowboys win at Washington, the Cowboys will remain the fifth seed. As a result, the Cowboys could decide to rest their starters week 18, or play them in hope the Eagles falter against the Giants (who have nothing to play for and may rest their starters).

The Cowboys will most likely travel to Tampa Bay for the wild card round.

Injuries to Starters

  • RT Terence Steele suffered an ACL tear in early December and is on IR- out for the postseason
  • CB Anthony Brown suffered a season-ending Achilles injury and is on IR.
  • DT Jonathon Hankins suffered a season-ending pectoral injury and is on IR.
  • Leighton Vander Esch suffered a pinched nerve in his neck a couple weeks ago and has not played since. He’s unlikely to play next weekend but may be back for the postseason.

Sixth Seed: New York Giants

PFF Team Grade: 70.6 (29th)

DVOA: -5.6% (21st)

The Giants clinched the sixth seed with their win over the Colts on Sunday, and will remain the sixth seed regardless of the outcome of their week 18 game at Philadelphia. As a result, it wouldn’t be surprising if they rested their starters.

Whether or not the Giants rest their starters has implications for what the rest of the NFC playoff teams do. If the Giants rest their starters, other teams like the Cowboys may rest their starters too. If not, the Cowboys may play their starters in the hope that the Eagles lose to the Giants and the Cowboys win at Washington, which would give them the NFC East division crown and potentially the first or second seed. Of course the Giants may be coy about their plans for week 18, and the Cowboys may decide to play their starters anyway, given they still have a chance at improving their seeding.

Injuries to Starters

  • WRs Sterling Shepard and Wan’Dale Robinson suffered season-ending injuries and will remain on IR for the postseason.
  • DT Nick Williams is on IR and doubtful to return for the postseason
  • CB Aaron Robinson is also on IR and doubtful to return for the postseason
  • S Xavier McKinney has been out the past several games but is likely to return for the playoffs
  • CB Adoree Jackson has also missed several weeks with a sprained knee but is likely to return for the playoffs.

Seventh Seed: Green Bay Packers/Seattle Seahawks/Detroit Lions

The last team to make the NFC playoff tournament is the only one in doubt. The Packers host the Lions, and if the Packers win, they’re the 7th seed. If the Lions win and the Seahawks win (they host the Rams), the Seahawks will be the 7th seed. And if the Lions win and the Seahawks lose, the Lions will be the 7th seed.

The NFL flexed the Packers-Lions game to Sunday night, so the Lions will know if they’ve been eliminated or not prior to the game, as the Seahawks play in the late afternoon time slot. The situation favors Green Bay, as they’re 4.5-point favorites against the Lions, playing on a sloppy home field, and possibly against a team that was just eliminated from the playoffs. That’s not to say the Lions couldn’t knock out the Packers at home, but the Lions are now at +900 to make the playoffs, and the Seahawks are +280, so the betting community is not counting on it. Green Bay is the clear favorite to win the 7th seed.

The Packers winning the seventh seed is likely to be a win-win for Vikings fans. It’s a win because the Packers have a better chance of beating the 49ers than either the Seahawks or Lions, which would give the Vikings another home game if they beat the Giants in the wild card round. And if the Packers lose, well, Vikings fans are always happy to see the Packers season end in disappointment.

What This All Means For the Vikings

First, let’s talk about what the Vikings can accomplish in the Bears game. It seems that Kevin O’Connell will play his starters for at least some portion of the game, likely limiting their snaps. But the game will be important preparation in a few respects, even with the Bears starting Nathan Peterman instead of Justin Fields.

First, it will give backup center Chris Reed and now starting right tackle Oli Udoh some more game snaps. Reed clearly needs more reps at center and giving him more will be helpful if Garrett Bradbury is not able to go in the postseason or misses any time. Secondly, while Oli Udoh played well in relief of Brian O’Neill against the Packers, giving him more reps will only help his confidence.

It will also be good to give backups like Alexander Mattison and perhaps Kene Nwangwu or Ty Chandler, more reps. The same goes for Jalen Nailor. Maybe even Jalen Reagor. It may also be nice to give some other backup offensive linemen some reps, just in case. G Kyle Hinton and C Greg Mancz in particular, but also T Vederian Lowe.

Secondly, giving special teams an opportunity to make some corrections and get back on track in terms of coverage and making field goals in weather conditions would be good preparation too. Especially if the Vikings play again in Philadelphia.

Third, giving both Duke Shelley and Cam Dantzler more reps to improve their confidence and preparation for the postseason will be a good thing too. The same for Brian Asamoah and Josh Mettellus too. Experimenting with different pressure packages and coverages will also be helpful for the unit overall.

Hopefully all this can be accomplished without any significant injuries, and with significantly limited reps for starters- similar to a pre-season game where starters might play half the game.

Wild Card Round

If the Vikings keep the third seed as expected, they will host the worst team in the NFC tournament in terms of both PFF team grade and DVOA (apart from the Vikings). In other words, they’ll have the easiest wild card round matchup. The Vikings-Giants game was a close one just a couple weeks ago, but hopefully the Vikings will learn from that matchup and be better prepared as they host the Giants in the playoffs.

It also looks like the 49ers will not be resting their starters against the Cardinals, although if it turns into a blowout they may not play the whole game either. But having the 49ers not rest their starters week 18 takes away a potential rest advantage for them should the Vikings meet them in the divisional round. That would be the case if both the Vikings and 49ers won their wild card round games.

The 49ers may also wind up with the tougher matchup in the wildcard round should they keep the second seed as expected. Tampa Bay will likely host the Cowboys, which will be a tough matchup for them, but the 49ers would’ve hoped to have an easier matchup than (most likely) the Packers as the second seed. Should the Packers make the playoffs and beat the 49ers, that would mean they would face (most likely) the Eagles in the divisional round while the Vikings would host the winner of the Cowboys-Bucs game.

Stranger things have happened.

We can look ahead to future rounds after the wild card round results are known. But at least initially, the Vikings look likely to have the easiest opponent in the wild card round they could draw, and also enter the playoffs relatively healthy compared to other playoff teams, even with the loss of Brian O’Neill.


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