Outside of the NFC North, the 5-3-1 Minnesota Vikings had a pretty good bye week.
While the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears came away with easy victories over the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions, many teams that will be battling for wild card spots lost.
Starting on Thursday night, the Carolina Panthers, the current leaders for the first wild card spot, were crushed by the Pittsburgh. On Sunday, Seattle dropped to 4-5 with a loss to Los Angeles, the Falcons (4-5) were stunned by the Browns and Dallas defeated Philadelphia, bringing both clubs to 4-5 records.
Heading into the unofficial second half of the season, the Vikings are ahead in the wild card by 1.5 games over Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Dallas and are one game up on Green Bay. As they get set to match up with the Bears, they trail Chicago by 0.5 games for the division lead.
The Vikings will head on the road for Sunday Night Football this week as winners of four of their last five. They have played spectacular defense over the past five weeks with a grand total of zero quarterbacks eclipsing 300 yards against them and an average of 18.8 points allowed during those games.
That’s the rosy way of looking at it. The more skeptical view could be shaped by this fact: The combined record of teams the Vikings have beaten this year is 14-25 and they do not have a win against a team that currently has a winning record.
In the second half of the season, Minnesota’s opponents have a combined record of 35-29 and five of their seven games come against clubs with a .500 record or better.
Soldier Field will be the first proving ground for the Vikings. While Chicago isn’t far ahead in the standings, they are way up in point differential. The Bears have outscored opponents by 94 points, which ranks fourth in the NFL only behind Kansas City (plus-113), Los Angeles (plus-104) and New Orleans (plus-98).
The Bears’ young quarterback Mitch Trubisky has seen his stock rise under new head coach Matt Nagy. Trubisky has bumped his quarterback rating to an impressive 101.6 after a 23-for-30, 355-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Lions.
Chicago is also fourth in points allowed and fifth in yards allowed on defense.
After their matchup in the Windy City, the Vikings will see Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson over the following three weeks. They have two winnable games against Miami and Detroit before finishing the season at home against the Bears.
Rodgers and the Packers have had a bumpy road this year, but still rank seventh in the NFL in yards per game and 13th in points — one spot ahead of the Vikings.
Seattle gave everything the Rams could handle, coming up short 36-31 on Sunday. The Seahawks are 15th in points scored and have the ninth fewest points allowed, even after giving up a big day to the powerhouse L.A. offense.
New England shockingly lost to Tennessee on Sunday. Still the Patriots are top 10 in points and yards.
A closer look at Chicago and Green Bay’s schedules reveals that the Vikings will not have much room for error, assuming things go the way you might expect. The Bears get Detroit again in two weeks and have games against the struggling Giants and 49ers — though they also have a matchup against Los Angeles, too.
The Packers have to travel to Seattle this week, but will have extremely winnable games against the Cardinals, Jets and Lions down the stretch.
The bye week came at the right time for the Vikings, who will likely get Stefon Diggs back from an injury to his ribs, Xavier Rhodes back to full strength after battling an ankle injury and have Dalvin Cook and Everson Griffen back for the final stanza of the season.
They will need all hands on deck to navigate a difficult track to the postseason.