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Zulgad: All the right moves: After terrible start, Mike Zimmer has the Vikings thinking playoffs

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings
Oct 18, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer reacts during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

A month ago the Vikings’ season looked to be finished.

The team had entered its bye week with an embarrassing loss to the Atlanta Falcons that dropped its record to 1-5. General manager Rick Spielman appeared to wave the white flag when he traded Yannick Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens after acquiring the Pro Bowl defensive end from Jacksonville just before the season. The biggest question was how many more trades would Spielman make and could the Vikings possibly be bad enough to put themselves in a position to have a chance to draft a franchise quarterback such as Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields?

It seemed possible.

On Sunday, the one-month anniversary of the Ngakoue deal, the Vikings will begin a three-game homestand that leaves them a realistic chance to be 7-5 heading into their Dec. 13 game at Tampa Bay. Minnesota will begin this stretch against Dallas (2-7) before facing Carolina (3-7) and Jacksonville (1-8). Do the math and those three teams are a combined 6-22, while the Vikings are on three-game winning streak after beating NFC North rivals Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago since returning from the bye.

Walking out of U.S. Bank Stadium after Minnesota’s pathetic showing against the previous winless Falcons on Oct. 18, it would have been ludicrous to suggest the Vikings could have reached .500, much less get themselves in the playoff picture. But the former now has a good possibility of happening — the Vikings (4-5) are 7-point favorites against the Cowboys — and the latter also is within reach.

The Vikings are ninth in the NFC playoff race, a game-and-a-half behind Arizona (6-4) for the seventh and final playoff seed. This is the first season each conference will have seven playoff teams, instead of six, and that number could increase to eight if any late-season games are missed because of the pandemic. The Vikings are only a half-game behind the Bears for the eighth seed and Chicago, which is on its bye, has lost four in a row and is abysmal offensively.

The man who deserves much of the credit for this turnaround is the same guy who took much of the heat for the Vikings’ terrible start. There was discussion during the bye week about whether Mike Zimmer’s job might be in jeopardy. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had thrown 10 interceptions, four more than he had all of last season, and, most importantly, Zimmer’s beloved defense was failing him on a weekly basis.

But as December nears, the Vikings coach has gone from being on the hot seat to potentially being a candidate to get coach of the year votes. It’s not a stretch to say that this might be the best coaching job Zimmer has done since taking over the Vikings in 2014. While the expanded playoff format changes things, the Vikings are trying to become only the fourth team to make the postseason after a 1-5 start, joining the 2018 Indianapolis Colts, the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs and the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals. All three of those teams lost in the divisional round.

The Vikings have made 30 playoff appearances in their history. The 1999 team, under Dennis Green, started 2-4, but rebounded to finish 10-6 and second in the NFC Central. That team lost to the Rams in the divisional round. The 2008 Vikings, under Brad Childress, started 1-3, but won the NFC North with a 10-6 record and lost to Philadelphia in the first round.

The Vikings have seven games remaining and only two of them come against teams with a record better than .500 — Tampa Bay (7-3) and New Orleans (7-2) on Christmas Day. Coordinator Gary Kubiak’s offense is now built around running back Dalvin Cook, taking much of the pressure off of Cousins, and the defense is improving, especially the young cornerbacks, while Zimmer has been pulling all of the right strings.

If that continues, a 9-7 finish and potential playoff berth (especially if there is an eighth team added), doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Remarkable stuff for a team that not that long ago appeared to be destined to be in on Tanking for Trevor or Failing for Fields.