If the NFL season ended on Sunday night, we’d be experiencing quite an underdog story.
Only three teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger have made the playoffs after starting 1-5. The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals, 2015 Kansas City Chiefs and 2018 Indianapolis Colts pulled it off. The Minnesota Vikings suddenly have a good chance to join that group.
When the Vikings woke up Monday morning, they were a wild-card team. They had moved into the No. 7 seed, ahead of the Arizona Cardinals. That seemed impossible when they went into their bye with a 1-5 record. When the Vikings traded defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens, it seemed they were waving the white flag on the season. It seemed prudent to wonder which veterans would be a part of the fire sale. Most 1-5 teams are thinking about future draft picks, not the playoffs.
The Cardinals’ slump has opened up the NFC playoff race. The Cardinals, who were 5-2 going into their bye, are 6-6. A third straight loss on Sunday knocked them out of the playoffs, for the moment. The Vikings didn’t impress anyone with an overtime win over the 1-11 Jacksonville Jaguars, but it brought their record to 6-6. They were the final wild-card team in the expanded playoffs. A loss by the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night ensured they’d hold onto that spot into Week 14.
There are four weeks left and nobody in the NFL cares much who would be in the playoffs if the season ended after Week 13. But being in this position is an impressive feat for the Vikings, and a rough fall for the Cardinals.
There were many points in which the Vikings’ season seemed over. The last-minute loss to the Seattle Seahawks after failing to make a fourth-down conversion was a tough blow. The next week they lost 40-23 to an Atlanta Falcons team that was 0-5 and had just fired head coach Dan Quinn. A loss to the horrendous Dallas Cowboys at home in Week 11 was another brutal result.
Yet, here they are. The Vikings have made the past two wins against the Carolina Panthers and Jaguars a lot closer than they should have been, but they’re wins. The Cardinals would take an ugly win.
There are a few reasons for the Vikings’ surge up the standings. Dalvin Cook is having an MVP-type season, if anyone but quarterbacks won MVP anymore. Rookie receiver Justin Jefferson has been remarkable. He is having one of the best rookie seasons for a receiver in NFL history. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has his head-scratching moments, but he has played well overall. Over Minnesota’s last six games, Cousins has completed 70.7 percent of his passes for 1,598 yards, 15 touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s a 118.6 passer rating. The Vikings’ young defense has also improved.
The problem for the Vikings might be their remaining schedule. They play at the Buccaneers, then vs. Bears, at Saints and at Lions. They might have to upset the Bucs or Saints to get in.
Then again, maybe 8-8 will be good enough. The Cardinals, 49ers, Bears or anyone else aren’t guaranteed to finish the season on a winning streak. When you expand the playoff field, you let in more mediocre teams. We will probably see that in the NFC this season.
The Vikings won’t be making apologies. At 1-5 they looked like a team that might start trading all their veterans to start a rebuild. Even being mentioned in the playoff picture is remarkable. It will be even crazier if they make it in.
Here are the NFL power rankings after Week 13:
Conspiracies are fun, but I don’t buy that Gregg Williams called an all-out blitz to give up a touchdown on purpose. That got him fired, and Williams doesn’t care that much if the Jets have Trevor Lawrence next year. Williams made an all-time bad defensive call. There’s no conspiracy attached.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-11, LW: 31)
The Jaguars and Jets gave 95 percent of people still alive in a survivor pool heart attacks for most of Sunday. They both lost. If anyone should be angry at Gregg Williams it’s the Jaguars, who will likely have the tiebreaker over the Jets and would have slid into the lead of the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes had the Raiders not scored in the final seconds.
30. Cincinnati Bengals (2-9-1, LW: 30)
Brandon Allen left Sunday’s game with a chest injury. Maybe that means Ryan Finley gets a start next week. It doesn’t matter, the Bengals are unwatchable the rest of the season no matter who plays quarterback.
29. Dallas Cowboys (3-9, LW: 29)
28. Philadelphia Eagles (3-8-1, LW: 27)
I don’t know if the Jalen Hurts draft pick ruined Carson Wentz’s confidence and led to what we’ve seen this season. I do know it was an unnecessary pick that made no sense in the moment and has turned out as poorly as most believed it would. Still, the Eagles have to see what Hurts has, or the pick might be an utter waste.
27. Detroit Lions (5-7, LW: 28)
Romeo Okwara has been a bright spot this season. It was his strip sack deep in Bears territory that was the key play in a comeback win. He has seven sacks this season and the 25-year-old has had a good season.
26. Houston Texans (4-8, LW: 25)
The Texans got to the 2-yard line, trailing 26-20, when Deshaun Watson couldn’t grab a low snap and the Colts recovered. The incredulous reactions of the Texans to losing that way summed up a season that went sideways in a hurry.
25. Los Angeles Chargers (3-9, LW: 19)
If there was any argument for Anthony Lynn returning for another season, it evaporated in Sunday’s 45-0 loss to the Patriots. Part of the reason Lynn needs to go is that every quality candidate will be lining up for the chance to coach Justin Herbert and that talented roster.
24. Atlanta Falcons (4-8, LW: 22)
Matt Ryan was outplayed by Taysom Hill, who was making his third start. Ryan was the one throwing to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Ryan will be 36 years old next season and while he’ll probably be back in 2021 because teams hate uncertainty at quarterback, it’s not like Ryan has a good chance at another top-10 season.
23. Denver Broncos (4-8, LW: 26)
I don’t know any decent argument for punting on fourth-and-3 near midfield, trailing the Chiefs 19-16 with a little more than six minutes left. The Chiefs’ offense moved downfield and kicked a field goal, taking 5:03 off the clock. The only person who couldn’t see that coming is Vic Fangio.
22. Carolina Panthers (4-8, LW: 21)
We’ll see what the COVID-19 situation looks like by Sunday, but getting Christian McCaffrey back in Week 14 would be great. Hopefully he can finish out the season without any other injuries.
21. Chicago Bears (5-7, LW: 20)
Everything about the Bears losing Sunday was a failure. Mitchell Trubisky has to know to get rid of the ball before he got strip-sacked, and Matt Nagy has to be clear about that or call a play that gives Trubisky no choice. The Bears were actually 5-1 at one point this season. Crazy.
20. San Francisco 49ers (5-7, LW: 18)
The 49ers were rallying and getting back in the playoff race was not out of the question with Arizona slipping. But as we saw Monday night, the 49ers have been through too much this season. They were dealt a rough hand and that was even before they had to move operations to Arizona.
19. Washington Football Team (5-7, LW: 24)
As my colleague Eric Edholm pointed out, the Logan Thomas story doesn’t get enough attention. He was fantastic in Monday’s upset of the Steelers. He couldn’t make it at quarterback so he switched to tight end and has become a good player for Washington. He had nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown on Monday, and if they chose an MVP for each game, he’d have won the award. It takes an impressive athlete to make that kind of position change in the NFL and succeed.
18. New York Giants (5-7, LW: 23)
New York’s win on Sunday was the best victory an NFC East team has had this season and it wasn’t really close ... until Monday night. The Giants’ defense shutting down of Russell Wilson might be enough to get New York into the playoffs. Regardless of the poor record, that’s a good result for Joe Judge’s first season as head coach.
17. Arizona Cardinals (6-6, LW: 15)
The Cardinals might have been better off sitting Kyler Murray until he got healthy. Since he hurt his shoulder against Seattle in Week 11 his production has fallen off. He looks hesitant to run and his passing has been less effective. There’s no turning back now. The Cardinals need to find a way to end this losing streak.
16. New England Patriots (6-6, LW: 17)
A defense that was giving up yards in bunches earlier this season shut out the Chargers on Sunday. Justin Herbert had 209 yards on 53 attempts, which is almost impossible when you’re throwing to Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler and Hunter Henry. The Patriots have made a massive leap on defense the past couple weeks. Two words: Bill Belichick.
15. Minnesota Vikings (6-6, LW: 16)
Anquan Boldin had 1,377 yards as a rookie, an NFL record. Justin Jefferson is on pace for 1,335 yards, via the Star-Tribune. Considering that pace counts the first two games in which Jefferson barely played — seriously, it’s still impossible to believe the Vikings staff preferred Olabisi Johnson those first two games — he has a shot at setting a record over the last four games.
14. Las Vegas Raiders (7-5, LW: 14)
I’m not sure how far you have to go until “any win is a good win” isn’t true. To need a last-second miracle touchdown against a horrible defensive call against one of the worst teams in NFL history ... it might be the first time a team burns the game tape after a win. Let’s just move on.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5, LW: 12)
A lot is being made of the Tom Brady-Bruce Arians relationship. There’s probably something to possible friction but the speculation seems dramatic. Arians is critical of his players. He always has been. Brady has dealt with Bill Belichick so he has dealt with a demanding coach. The Arians offense doesn’t necessarily fit with Brady’s skills at 43 years old but that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. It seems like something that will be just fine if the Bucs start winning again.
12. Baltimore Ravens (7-5, LW: 11)
It’s hard to tell if the Ravens turned a corner or just went against an inept defense. But rushing for nearly 300 yards was a callback to the 2019 dominance they had. They’ll have to repeat that against a better defense than Dallas, but it was a good sign.
11. Miami Dolphins (8-4, LW: 13)
Tua Tagovailoa’s final stat line against the Bengals was good. He had 296 yards. But the Dolphins should get more than one touchdown on 10 drives against one of the league’s worst defenses. There’s a danger in being too critical of Tagovailoa because Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert came in and played so well right away.
10. Seattle Seahawks (8-4, LW: 6)
No losses are good, but being shut down at home and losing to a Giants team with Colt McCoy at quarterback is really bad. The Rams now might get the inside track to win the division, though it will probably come down to a Week 16 meeting between Seattle and L.A.
9. Tennessee Titans (8-4, LW: 5)
Let’s look at the past seven games for the Titans ...
Week 7: Fell behind 27-7 to Steelers, lost
Week 8: Lost to Bengals, who are 2-9-1
Week 9: Led Bears 24-3, won
Week 10: Give up last 24 points to Colts, lost
Week 11: Beat Ravens on the road in overtime
Week 12: Lead Colts 38-14, won
Week 13: Trail Browns 38-7 at half, lost
That’s three impressive wins and four absolutely miserable performances. Some weeks they look great, other weeks like one of the worst teams in the league. Good luck figuring out what comes next.
8. Indianapolis Colts (8-4, LW: 9)
You’d like it to be prettier, but the Colts won a divisional road game. They’ll take that. The Titans getting worked by the Browns paired with the Colts’ win changes the outlook in the AFC South, to say the least.
7. Los Angeles Rams (8-4, LW: 10)
It seemed the biggest obstacle the Rams might have in the NFC West was the Seahawks’ remaining schedule, which was very soft. Seattle’s shocking loss to the Giants changes that. If the Rams beat Seattle in Week 16, that should be enough to win them a division title considering they’d clinch the tiebreaker over the Seahawks.
6. Cleveland Browns (9-3, LW: 8)
Does it feel like the Browns are the sixth-best team in the NFL? Maybe not. At some point, they’re 9-3 and coming off a win over a good Titans team that was a lot more of a blowout than the final score would indicate. It’s tough to trust any team this season outside of the top two or three. You need six teams to fill out a top six.
5. Buffalo Bills (9-3, LW: 7)
The Bills looked great on Monday night. That team we saw beat the 49ers can make a playoff run. They’ll get a nice test next week against a Steelers team coming off a loss. If Buffalo beats Pittsburgh, everyone will take notice of the Bills.
4. Green Bay Packers (9-3, LW: 4)
It doesn’t mean a lot to play well on defense against the 2020 Eagles, but it was still a positive day for the Packers’ defense. They allowed a few plays to Jalen Hurts, but had a big lead by that point. The Packers had seven sacks and allowed only 278 yards and one touchdown to the Eagles. Green Bay’s defense isn’t going to be great, but maybe it can be good.
3. New Orleans Saints (10-2, LW: 3)
Taysom Hill has looked good in two of three starts. Maybe that’s because the Falcons aren’t very good. But if New Orleans had the idea of Hill taking over for Drew Brees when Brees retires, they have to feel better about that being a viable plan.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1, LW: 2)
The good news is the Steelers’ loss was to an NFC team. The Chiefs lost to the Raiders, and conference record is the first tiebreaker if two teams don’t play each other. The Steelers still hold the No. 1 seed. That one-game cushion is gone, and the Steelers’ chances of winning a championship shrink if the Chiefs end up with the top seed and the AFC’s lone bye.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-1, LW: 1)
There’s a notion that the 2020 Chiefs are unbeatable. They’re very good but beatable. The Raiders defeated them once and almost did it twice. The Chargers should have beat them earlier this season and the Broncos had a shot Sunday night. There’s a difference between being the best team in the NFL and being unbeatable.
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