*** With playoff ticket punched, Vikings now look to clinch first-round bye ***
“Kings of the North!” a voice cried out as Tramaine Brock angled his phone up high for a group selfie while a cluster of reporters scrambled to capture the moment.
That was the extent of the celebration after the Vikings' 34-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Minnesota clinched the division for the second time in three seasons, after winning just two titles in its first 13 seasons in the NFC North.
“That was goal No. 1,” Harrison Smith said. “We are where we want to be. We still have things to accomplish.”
The Vikings can certainly appreciate how they got here -- overcoming last season’s calamity and a road paved this year with obstacles in the form of season-ending injuries to Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook that tested but didn’t break the will of this group -- but there’s still a long way to go.
For a team that has aspirations of being the first franchise to play in a Super Bowl the year they host it, this was just one of many goals to check off the list.
The Vikings rose above and won the NFC North for the second time in three seasons.
“There are ‘hats’ games,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “This is an awesome hat, but you don’t get any jewelry with this hat. There are bigger hats to come, and we want the hats you get jewelry with. We’re glad to be NFC North champs but we still have things to work for.”
Minnesota secured its spot in the postseason on Sunday and is locked in to a top-four seed after winning the NFC North. Next up is figuring out where it will be seeded in January.
The Vikings can clinch a first-round bye next week with a win at Green Bay and a Carolina loss or tie. The Packers lost to the Panthers in Aaron Rodgers’ first game back since fracturing his right collarbone in Week 6 and dropped to 7-7. If Atlanta beats Tampa Bay on Monday night, Green Bay will be eliminated from playoff contention.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy was noncommittal about Rodgers returning if the Packers have no shot at the playoffs when they face the Vikings next Saturday. Rodgers told reporters he’s expecting to play unless told otherwise, but it would be wise to think that if the season is all but lost, Green Bay wouldn’t risk its franchise quarterback reinjuring his clavicle.
Currently, the Eagles are the NFC’s No. 1 seed while the Vikings are slotted at No. 2. Minnesota still has a shot at the conference’s top seed, but it would need to win its final two games against Green Bay and Chicago and rely on Philadelphia slipping down the stretch with losses against Oakland and Dallas. If the Eagles beat the Raiders next week, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is theirs.
A more reasonable goal hinges on the Vikings controlling their own destiny down the stretch. If Minnesota beats Green Bay and Chicago, it locks up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. If the Vikings lose one of their last two games, they'd need to avoid finishing in a tie with the Panthers, who hold the tiebreaker between the two teams.
Because Minnesota won the division, the lowest it could be seeded in the playoffs is the No. 4 seed, which would mean a first-round playoff game against one of the wild-card teams. If the Vikings want to begin their playoff run in the divisional round, they’ll need to hold off the Panthers, Saints and Rams in these final two games.
One week after a humbling loss at Carolina, Minnesota is back in the driver's seat and on its way to achieving a first-round bye. The lessons learned against the Panthers last week might have been exactly what the Vikings needed to put a strong finish in motion.
“I think it was good losing, honestly,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “It got us all back on track and focused up and more locked in to try to make this final push. You never want to lose, but I think it was a blessing in disguise.”