After beating the Chicago Bears last week, the Minnesota Vikings are almost assuredly headed to the postseason, holding a two-game lead in the wild card race with two games remaining. They can guarantee a coveted playoff spot by beating the New York Giants at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday Night Football.
The Vikings also could have a trip to the postseason clinched before they step on the field Sunday night, if the Atlanta Falcons lose or the Seattle Seahawks win in the afternoon. Even though they are on the doorstep of their first playoff berth since 2012, however, the Vikings have greater aspirations for this season — their first division crown in six years.
At 9-5, they are still within striking distance of first place in the NFC North standings, and a Vikings win (or a loss by the Green Bay Packers) would then set up a de facto divisional title game in Week 17 at Lambeau Field. A victory in the season finale would make Minnesota the division champ, plus give them the No. 3 seed and a home playoff game on the second weekend of January.
The Giants saw their faint postseason hopes extinguished Saturday night when Washington beat the Philadelphia Eagles to win the NFC East title. This will be their fourth straight playoff-less campaign, their longest drought since the current playoff format was established in 1990. They are also the only NFL team in that span to win a Super Bowl and then miss in the postseason in the next four years.
The Giants certainly had their chances to avoid this disappointing outcome. They're masters of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, thanks to some questionable late game play-calling and a dreadful defense that's been unable to get stops in the two-minute drill. They've been this close to owning the two biggest wins of any team this season: they lost on walk-off field goals to the two best teams in the NFL — the Patriots and Panthers.
But the reality is that the Giants are 6-8 and staring at their fourth straight sub-.500 campaign if they don't win out. That would be the team's longest such streak since the dark days of the mid-to-late 1970s. Getting there would require the Giants to beat a team with a winning record (Vikings) for the first time this season, and also beat an Eagles team that has won four of their five matchups at MetLife Stadium (where they play in Week 17).
For much of the season, the Vikings' winning formula has been simple: Give the ball to Adrian Peterson and let him run. Rinse, repeat. Minnesota is third in percentage of called rushing plays, and is 9-0 when it runs the ball at least 25 times. While that strategy is often good enough to beat mediocre teams, it's not a solid game plan against the league's best. The Vikings are 1-4 against teams with a current winning record and 8-1 against everyone else.
The key to the Vikings' success down the stretch — and whether they can make some noise in the playoffs — is a more diversified offense that is rounding into form. While Peterson is still the team's most important offensive weapon, Bridgewater also needs to be able to make plays with his arm in order to keep opposing defenses honest.
Over the last two weeks, Teddy Bridgewater has shown that he can be more than just a passenger in the Vikings offense. Against Arizona and Chicago, Bridgewater completed 75 percent of his passes for 566 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. If he can continue this career-best stretch of football, the Vikings will be a tough out in January.
The story of the Giants season has been their inability to finish games. No club has suffered more heart-breaking defeats than the G-men, and they've done it in historic fashion. The Giants are the first team since 1970 with five losses where the game-winning score came in the last 10 seconds or in overtime. Their six losses by four points or fewer are the most in the NFL this season.
While the blame has to spread among the team's three units, their late-game defensive issues are particularly glaring. In the fourth quarter when the score is within eight points, the Giants have given up the most touchdowns and the second-most first downs in the league, and rank 29th in yards per play allowed.
Who to watch
After Rashad Jennings' best performance of the season last week, it appears that the Giants have ditched their ineffective running back by committee approach. He rushed for 107 yards on 16 carries, and became the first Giant to eclipse the century mark on the ground this season. Odell Beckham Jr.'s suspension leaves the Giants' passing attack short-handed, making it more likely that they'll lean heavily on Jennings to move the ball.
For Minnesota, the emergence of rookie Stefon Diggs has been crucial to the success of the Vikings passing game. Even though he's missed three games, Diggs leads the team in targets and receiving yards. He's also averaging a whopping 14.7 yards per reception and good things happen when he reaches the end zone: the Vikings are 3-0 in games when Diggs scores a touchdown.
How to watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Online: NBC Sports
The Vikings are 7-point favorites and the over/under is 46, according to OddsShark.com.
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SB Nation presents: Odell Beckham Jr. deserved a suspension for his actions last week