The Minnesota Vikings have every opportunity to win a division title—and one last, very slim, chance to save their season.
That’s right: With four games left to play, tied with the hated Green Bay Packers atop the NFC North, a game ahead of the would-be six seed, the Minnesota Vikings’ backs are against the wall. Tonight they’re going to wander out into the desert, play the 10-2 Arizona Cardinals (outscoring opponents by a league-best 12.5 points per game)—on national, primetime TV—and they absolutely must win.
How’s that? How can a team that’s won twice as many games as they’ve lost be in desperation mode?
The word “contender” is one of the most elastic in sports. Borrowed from boxing, it originally meant someone who had a chance to fight for the championship. When applied to the NFL, it can be used to mean a team that could fight for a Super Bowl championship, the chance to get to a Super Bowl, a conference championship, a division title, even merely the chance to make the playoffs. All you need to do is throw a qualifying noun in front of “contender,” and you can slap that label on 2/3rd of the NFL.
The Vikings opened the season as contenders of the “playoff” variety—as in, they’ll have a chance to fight to make the playoffs. Maybe they’d push the Packers for the division, maybe they wouldn’t—but if they did, it seemed it would be because Teddy Bridgewater took another step forward, Adrian Peterson came roaring out of the gate, and young players like Xavier Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson, Sharrif Floyd and Anthony Barr would take the next step.
The Vikings’ bag has been decidedly mixed, but enough of the above has been true enough, often enough to be considered contenders this season. They’ve got the 4th-best scoring defense in the NFL, good enough that their 28th-ranked offense is outscoring opponents by an average of 0.5 points per game.
It’s worth repeating: The Vikings are outscoring their opponents by an average of less than a point per game, yet they’re 8-4 (they’d be expected to have 6.2 wins and 5.8 losses, per Pro Football Reference). They’ve been just barely beating a lot of bad teams—or good teams having bad days—and getting blown out by every good team they face.
That’s when that word “contender” started to stretch. Instead of being playoff contenders, the Vikings became division-title contenders, even conference-championship contenders! Why, if they could hold their lead over the Packers, they’d get to host a playoff game against some miserable team hovering around .500 and then, well, who knows?
Expectations were high when they faced the Packers while riding a five-game win streak; though the Packers were on a misterable three-game skid, they handled the Vikings, 30-13. That stretchy word “contender” started quivering ominously.
The key loss led veteran defensive back Captain Munnerlyn—imported this spring from the Panthers—to vividly describe the Vikings’ tendency to fall apart in the face of big challenges:
Two weeks later, the Seattle Seahawks came to town and showed the Vikings what a real contender looks like. The 38-7 hurting Russell Wilson and company put on the Vikes was an emphatic, all-phases decimation; it proved that no matter what the records said, one of these teams is going to matter in January—and the other isn’t. That word “contender” snapped back so fast, the pop echoed around Twitter and game reports for hours afterward.
Bridgewater struggled mightily to find open targets, Peterson was held to just 18 yards on eight carries. Wilson imposed his will on Barr, Rhodes, Everson Griffen and company, going 21-of-27 for 274 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. Thomas Rawls rolled for 101 yards and a score on just 19 carries. The Vikings were helpless to stop the Seahawks.
Now, things look hopeless.
The Cardinals are as hot as any team in the NFL; their league-best scoring offense is averaging 6.4 more points per game than the Seahawks this season, and their defense is tied with the Vikings for fourth-fewest points allowed. If the Vikings can’t rise up and pull off a primetime upset, they’ll face a rematch with the Chicago Bears, host the New York Giants and then go on the road for another dose of Aaron Rodgers.
If they don’t handle at least the Bears and Giants, they could miss the playoffs entirely. But if they do, that will probably be good enough to sneak in (unless the Tampa Bay Buccaneers run the table—and they play the undefeated Carolina Panthers in Week 17, so no).
But will that Vikings team have any chance to do anything worthwhile? A team that lost every meaningful game they played? A team that cowered before every actual contender they faced? A team that peed down their leg every single time eyes were on them and the lights were bright? Even if they defeat Big Blue in Week 16, can that Minnesota Vikings team go to New Jersey and beat Eli Manning in the playoffs? Or Green Bay and Rodgers again? No way.
If these Vikings aren’t those Vikings—if the 2015 edition of head coach Mike Zimmer’s team has any hope of being a true contender—they have to prove it tonight.