Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Vikings Need Push After Bye

At 3-2 the Minnesota Vikings enter their 2006 bye week two wins better off then they were at the same point last season. And while the Vikings' offensive dysfunction has been a concern, the play of the defense and the team's ability to stay in games against every team that they have played this season gives reason for optimism for the rest of the season--assuming Vikings' head coach Brad Childress is able to reintroduce offense into the Vikings' game plans for the remainder of the season.

What's Left

With five games in the books, the Vikings stand a better than even chance of making the post-season this year. But to qualify for the playoffs, the Vikings probably will need to do better than their current eighteen-points-per-game average. Of the Vikings' ten remaining opponents (two games are against Green Bay), all but two have put up thirty points at least once this season. And all but one appears yet or again capable of doing so, even against a much improved Minnesota defense.

While the 3-2 record suggests that Minnesota is finding its way, how one views that record--and the Vikings' chances from here foreward--depends on what one cares to emphasize. On the positive side of the ledger, the Vikings' two losses were both close and came against teams with a combined 7-3 record. Missed opportunities littered both of the Vikings' losses.

On the negative side of the ledger, the Vikings lost to a 2-3 Buffalo team that was manhandled by the Bears last week. And the Vikings' loss to the Bears at home--combined with the Bears' very soft remaining schedule--makes winning the division very difficult for Minnesota. Add to that the fact that Minnesota's three wins came against teams with a combined record of 5-10 and there is still a concern about how Minnesota will fair against division leaders in consecutive weeks after the break and later in the season.

What's Left to Do

To make the playoffs in 2006, the Vikings probably will need to win ten games. Chicago merely has to play at its current level to win the division outright and the wild card is going to be tough to get with only nine wins--perhaps even requiring a tie-breaker to get in with ten victories.

That means that the Vikings need to be sharp when they return from their bye week as they open with a potentially crucial game at Seattle. Last season, the NFC wild-card entrants went 10-6 and 11-5. With parity reigning supreme in the NFC again this year, it probably will take at least ten wins to earn a wild-card berth from the NFC this year and conference games might determine which ten-game winner advances.

From where will those wins come for the Vikings? Even with the team's offensive struggles, there are several games remaining that should be considered near-certainties for the Vikings. Those games are home game against the Green Bay Packers (1-4), at Miami (1-4), against Arizona (1-4), and at Detroit (0-5). Those four wins against teams with a combined 3-17 record would put the Vikings within reach of the wild card, likely needing only three wins from their remaining seven games to advance to the playoffs.

The next tier of games are those games that the Vikings ought to win given the circumstances. Those games include games at Seattle (3-1), against New England (4-1), at San Francisco (2-3), against the Jets (2-3), and against St. Louis (4-1). Seattle either will be without running back Shaun Alexander or with a recently returned Alexander. Either way, unless Alexander's rushing difficulties this season have been attributable to his injury rather than the loss of two stellar linemen, the Vikings should be able to force Seattle into a passing game--something the Vikings have shown they can handle. And with a somewhat shoddy defense this season, Seattle should be vulnerable in week seven.

New England, New York, and St. Louis have all played reasonably well this year and should be good competition for Minnesota. But the Vikings get each of these opponents at home and, in what now appear to be three games destined to be close, that should make the difference between Minnesota winning and losing. San Francisco, meanwhile, is still a rung below mediocre by most measures and, though they are improving and get Minnesota at home, are a team that any credible playoff team must beat.

Victories over three of these five teams should suffice to propel the Vikings into the playoffs. And if that doesnt' do it, the Vikings simply will need to find a way to either beat a tough Chicago team at Soldier Field or what what could be a much improved Green Bay team at Lambeau Field in December.

A betting person would be best served not bettting. But if one must bet on something as fickle as an NFL season, betting on Minnesota to make the playoffs as a wild-card entrant would be a pretty solid bet. And betting on them having to do so without counting on wins at Soldier Field and Lambeau Field would be nearly as solid. In addition to playing the bulk of the tough part of their remaining schedule at home, the Vikings will face some severely flawed competition in the last eleven weeks. Even with games remaining against division leaders Chicago, St. Louis, and New England, the Vikings' remaining opponents have a meager combined record of 24-30. It might be early, but that's still dreadful and begging for at least seven more Minnesota victories.

Up Next: Where the Grass Isn't Greener.

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