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Welcome to “In The Hunt” season. For the third time in the last four years, the Minnesota Vikings find themselves in need of a hot stretch to finish the season and help from the other playoff wannabes in the NFC.

So let’s have a look at the most pressing questions surrounding the Vikings’ push for the postseason…

The updated playoff odds on FiveThirtyEight have the Eagles as the favorite to win the final playoff seed with a 37% chance and the Vikings at 29%, Washington 27%, Saints 19%. Are we missing something when thinking that the Vikings should be the favorite out of these teams?

Matthew Coller: As someone who always uses the numbers as a guide, allow me to put them aside for a second and say this: The Vikings should simply be better than these teams. Philly and Washington’s quarterbacks are banged up and New Orleans is playing a glorified tight end at QB. Philadelphia is a decent team on paper — they have a positive point differential — but Jalen Hurts tried to play injured two weeks ago and the Eagles scored seven points against the Giants. It’s hard to see them cruising down the stretch. Same for Washington and New Orleans. The Taylor Heinicke magic has run out in D.C. and the Saints lost five games in a row before beating the slump-busting Jets last week. It feels like none of these teams can do better than 2-2.

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That would mean the season coming down to the Vikings taking care of business with the lowly Bears twice and then pulling off one upset either against the Rams or Packers. Is that a crazy ask? They have shown throughout the year that they can play with contenders, so I think they can pull off one win there, especially considering they’ve still been able to get Justin Jefferson the ball at will despite the extra attention on him.

I also see the final stretch as a good bar to set. If you can’t win versus a Bears team that has a struggling rookie QB and is about to fire its coach and if you can’t go 1-for-2 against playoff teams, you didn’t belong in the postseason anyway.

Sam Ekstrom: The margins are so thin, at this point you can almost toss the playoff simulations out the window. With five 6-7 teams vying for a spot there is one key question to ask: Who has the best chance to run the table and potentially avoid any tiebreaker shenanigans? Well, you could make the argument it’s Philly with games against Washington (home and road), the New York Giants (home) and Dallas (home) in Week 18. Obviously the Cowboys are the hardest opponent, but there stands a chance they’ll be locked into the 4-seed with no incentive to play starters.

Still, I wouldn’t consider the Eagles heavy favorites by any means, even if Jalen Hurts returns from injury. Unless Philly goes 4-0, the Vikings will win any tiebreakers against them by simply going 3-1. Of course, it’s finding those three wins with the Rams and Packers looming that knocks the Vikings down in percentages. Their talent, however, is still superior to their 6-7 foes.

Should the top teams in the NFC be rooting against the Vikings to make the No. 7 seed?

Matthew: I waffle on this one. On one hand, the last time the Vikings had the final seed in the playoffs, they went down to New Orleans and beat a team that had a Super Bowl-caliber roster. Kirk Cousins played really well in that game and Mike Zimmer schemed the heck out of the defense. If I’m the Bucs/Cardinals/Packers, I’m not a fan of facing a QB and coach who can absolutely bring it under certain circumstances.

However, if I’m Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford or Aaron Rodgers, I’m looking at the Vikings’ defensive ends and cornerbacks and thinking I can throw all over the place on the Vikings. New Orleans actually has a good passing defense, ranking sixth in passer rating allowed. The Eagles are 16th in points allowed and ninth in total yards allowed and Philly runs the ball extremely well. You’d be a little concerned about them running down the clock, unlikely the Vikings who are 24th in average time of possession per drive.

All of these 6-7 teams have enough upsets on their resumes this year to be a little scary and all sorts of reasons to think they can’t go deep.

Sam: Without question, the Vikings present the biggest dark horse threat in a single-game situation of any playoff wannabe. Of the three big dogs at 10-3, the Vikings have beaten one (Green Bay) and come a missed field goal beating another (Arizona). Two of the other 6-7 teams have backup quarterbacks, and Hurts would be making his playoff debut if the Eagles make it. Only Matt Ryan would enter the postseason with any type of playoff pedigree.

The prospect of facing an offense with Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook should scare any 2-seed hoping for a cakewalk opening round game. The Vikings have positioned themselves to win every game this season and haven’t shown any proclivity to fold against better teams. Minnesota has played eight games this year against teams that presently have a record better than .500. Their average margin in those games is -2.3 points.

If the Vikings need to beat the Rams or Packers to make the playoffs, can they upset one of them?

Matthew: My snap reaction is yes. The Rams played a heck of a game against Arizona last week but if we look at their recent stretch of play on the whole, it’s been unimpressive. They got stomped by a 49ers team that the Vikings played close with and lost to a Packers team that the Vikings beat at US Bank Stadium. I’m not so much willing to shout out the US Bank Stadium advantage this year (see: Rush, Cooper) but Zimmer has so much experience going against Matthew Stafford that the door is open for a couple of turnovers or key sacks that swing the tide. And even though Aaron Donald is the best non-QB football player of the last decade, the Rams are only 17th in points allowed.

I think that’s the game they have to win. It isn’t just Lambeau in January, it’s Lambeau in January with a Packers defense that’s getting healthier.

If I had to put odds on the Vikings beating one of the two, I’d go 51%. I’m barely leaning on the side that they can pull off one win. But it’s not a strong take. If you bring up that they nearly blew a 29-point lead to the struggling Steelers one week after losing to the Lions as evidence they can’t win, I don’t have a counterpoint for that. Same goes for this team always being an injury or COVID-list away from being really weak. (Chris Berman Voice: That’s why they play the games).

Sam: There’s almost no universe where finishing 2-2 gets the Vikings in the playoffs, so beating a winning team in Week 16 or 17 seems to be a prerequisite. Can the Vikings pull an upset? Of course, but it’s tough to like either matchup. The pass-happy Rams shouldn’t have any hesitation throwing all over the Vikings porous secondary, and Aaron Donald will be out to take the souls of Vikings centers and guards. Dropping Cousins in a cold weather game at Lambeau doesn’t sound enticing either since Cousins has scarcely had to brave the elements during his time in Minnesota sans a couple chilly nights in Seattle or New England.

Winning a shootout with the Rams seems more likely, and even if there’s only a 40 percent chance, that’s enough to have some hope. Los Angeles has been hit hard with COVID, so they may still be feeling the effects.

Who would be the scariest Wild Card matchup for the Vikings?

Matthew: Facing Tom Brady is the scariest thing in sports. Would you like to match up against Tiger Woods or Serena Williams? No sir. The Bucs are No. 1 in scoring, No. 1 in yards and No. 1 in passing. They are also the third best defense against the run. You don’t want that noise.

Arizona is the choice. Not only is it a friendly environment but DeAndre Hopkins is hurt and if we’re comparing the playoff experience of the possible opposing quarterbacks, well, it’s no competition.

If there is a route to playing the Rams, I might pick that. Los Angeles would be half full of Vikings fans and Stafford would have the entire world talking about how he’s never won in the playoffs. The Vikings would get to be the nothing-to-lose team in that case.

Sam: Matthew asked this question of me on a recent podcast but kept it between Cardinals and Packers. I think the Packers are way scarier between those two due to Rodgers’ greatness, cold Lambeau, potentially needing to beat the Packers a third time, etc. But given the choice between the Packers and Bucs, I might lean Bucs as the harder matchup. While the Packers are still the devil you know, the Bucs have the devil you don’t know as well in Tom Brady, who eats Wild Card opponents for breakfast. The Bucs have the league’s top passing offense that would feast on Minnesota’s secondary and a top five rushing defense to slow Dalvin Cook.

Getting in the way of Brady on the way to his eighth Super Bowl seems like a losing formula.

Who will be the most valuable player if the Vikings reach the playoffs AND win a playoff game?

Matthew: Let me put on my Captain Obvious hat and say Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson.

Aside from those fellas, I’m convinced the only way for the Vikings’ defense to hang around in games is by having their star players make game-changing plays. They aren’t going to be able to survive on a play-to-play basis with the Rams or Packers’ offenses or anybody they play in the playoffs, so they need Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr to get sacks and interceptions. The front four isn’t going to produce a ton of pressure and the cornerbacks can’t shut down top-notch receivers. It’ll come down to stealing a couple of possessions each game and hoping the offense takes advantage.

Sam: It’ll have to be Kirk Cousins, right? Simply to make the playoffs, he’ll likely need to win one or two primetime games, at least one cold weather road game, a game against a winning team and maybe a win-and-in Week 18 game. That would cross off a lot of Cousins Kryptonite Bingo squares. Then in the playoffs he would have to outduel either Rodgers, Brady or Murray.

His career December/January record is 17-19. Cousins doesn’t typically save his best for last, but this year he’ll have to. 

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