After losing five of their past six games and dropping three consecutive home games in the NFC North, the Vikings head to Detroit for their regular-season finale in need of a win against the Lions and help from three other teams to reach the playoffs.
To claim the NFC's final wild-card spot, the Vikings would need to beat Detroit and have the Bears beat the Packers, the Cardinals beat the Seahawks and either the Panthers beat the Buccaneers or the Falcons beat the Saints. The unlikely parlay depends on at least two, and possibly three, victories from last-place teams over clubs with playoff chances. The Vikings, who had a simple path to a division championship as recently as Dec. 24, are now down to their final thread of playoff hope.
If the Vikings lose Sunday, victories by the Bears and Falcons could help them in another way: They're currently 12th in the 2024 NFL draft order, and could move into the top 10 for the first time since 2014 if they couple a loss to the Lions with Chicago and Atlanta wins. Throw in a Raiders win over the Broncos, and the Vikings would move up to ninth overall, with the possibility they could win a tiebreaker with the Jets for the eighth pick if both teams finish 7-10. They are closer to the bottom of the league than the top, with the chance to land a pick that could help them land a quarterback or fill their need for a premium defensive talent.
Taking all that into account, what should Vikings fans hope for in Detroit this weekend?
We should start by saying it's outlandish to assume players and coaches won't care about winning the game. Remote playoff chances are different than no playoff chances, and competitors such as Justin Jefferson and Danielle Hunter seem unlikely to end the season with marginal efforts.
"We still do have, albeit a small chance, we still do have a chance at the postseason," coach Kevin O'Connell said Monday. "But I think more importantly for our team, it's getting that bad taste out of our mouth from a performance we're certainly not proud of [against Green Bay on Sunday]."
That said, they could be cautious with players who could be at risk of injury setbacks that affect their offseasons, such as rookies Jordan Addison and Mehki Blackmon. O'Connell said the Vikings will see what right guard Ed Ingram can do after avoiding a serious shoulder injury on Sunday against Green Bay, but it's possible they'll sit him as well. Even as the Vikings try to win the game, they might opt for caution with enough players to change their lineup.
Given how farfetched the Vikings' playoff hopes seem, fans might root for a scenario where young players such as cornerback Akayleb Evans fare well against a strong Lions offense, while the Vikings improve their draft stock with a loss and wins from several other teams. They could use it as a building block for players who figure to return in 2024, while the outcome provides concrete draft help for a team that's made only five top-100 picks since General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah took over.