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Why the Packers-49ers matchup is critical to Minnesota's chances in the NFC North

With the Packers' easy schedule, this could decide whether the Vikings can catch up for a NFC North title.

The Minnesota Vikings head into their bye week in great position in the NFC playoff race. While they hold a 1.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Rams for the sixth and final playoff spot, their eyes are likely focused on the Green Bay Packers, who have a 1/2-game lead over the Vikings for the top spot in the NFC North.

While everything should be laid out in front of the Vikings including three divisional games at home and a Dec. 23 showdown with the Packers, this week might be the most important week if the Vikings want to take home their third division title in the past six seasons.

That's because the Packers are in the national spotlight as they travel to San Francisco to take on the 9-1 49ers. With the top record in the NFC up for grabs, this should easily the game of the week across the league. However, this also should particularly interest Vikings fans as it may be one of their last chances to catch the Packers in the NFC North.

A lot of this has to do with the Packers' schedule down the stretch. The Packers will have a tall task in taking down the 49ers on Sunday, but their schedule eases up considerably in the final five weeks. After visiting San Francisco, they travel to New York to face the 2-8 Giants, host the 1-9 Washington Redskins and 4-6 Chicago Bears, then travel to the 3-6-1 Detroit Lions.

Outside of Sunday night, the Packers should be favored to win four of their final five games. While the Vikings should also have an advantage in the Monday Night Football matchup in Minneapolis, it might not matter as much as it appears.

Thanks to the Vikings laying eggs in Green Bay and Chicago in the first four weeks of the season, the Packers essentially have a two-game lead over the Vikings thanks to their 3-0 record against the NFC North. 

The Vikings will have a chance to improve on their current 1-2 record in the black and blue division, but it's unlikely that the Packers will fall to a Bears team facing a quarterback crisis and a Lions team that is currently without Matthew Stafford. That means that even if the Vikings defend their turf and beat Detroit and Chicago, they could still fall in a tiebreaker if the Packers finish at 5-1 in the division.

That makes Sunday's game with the 49ers even more critical for the Vikings. 

If San Francisco can take care of business, the border rivals will be sitting with even records entering the final five games. Winning the NFC North carries plenty of benefits including avoiding whoever may be the top seed until the NFC Championship Game and a home playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are the only team in the NFC to own an undefeated record at home.

While the Vikings do have to take a trip to face the 8-2 Seattle Seahawks next week, standing on even ground would be huge and could put everything on the line when the two teams meet up in Week 16.

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