MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Vikings enter their final three-game stretch of the 2020 season in spot they know well: They have to win to keep their NFC Playoff hopes alive.
They’ve done it largely to themselves, but the inability to win a couple key games in big spots has the Vikings fighting for their playoff lives with three games to play. The final stretch starts this Sunday as the Vikings (6-7) host the Chicago Bears (6-7) at U.S. Bank Stadium. The winner has hopes for at least another week, while the loser probably starts planning for the offseason.
“I feel like every game is an elimination game, so we have to go out there and mentally and physically ready to play every down like it’s our last. I feel like we’re going to prepare that way this week. It’s an elimination game,” rookie defensive back Cameron Dantzler said.
The Vikings’ season looked like a disaster after a 1-5 start. They weren’t competitive in early losses to the Packers and Colts, then put up an inexplicably poor effort in a 40-23 loss to the Falcons before their Week 8 bye.
The Vikings found new life out of their week off, winning three straight NFC North games against the Packers, Lions and Bears. Then in Week 11, with a chance to get back to .500, an inexplicable 31-28 loss to the 2-7 Cowboys. They got past the Panthers 28-27, then needed overtime to beat the 1-10 Jaguars.
It wasn’t pretty, but they put themselves back in the playoff conversation. They could do a lot to help themselves with a win at Tampa Bay, but kicker issues and key defensive lapses led the Vikings to a 26-14 loss. Their playoff chances went down to 17 percent.
Just when it seemed like playoff talk was real, they’re back on the outside looking in. Every time they get a chance to help their own cause, there’s a stumble. It’s not exactly what you want from a team trying to fight for a playoff spot. They're one game behind the Arizona Cardinals for the final playoff spot in the NFC with three games to play.
“I do think that when we have had our backs against the wall, we’ve stepped up and answered the bell. But what we need to do is once we get away from the wall, we’ve got to keep swinging and move out further,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “We find ourselves in a similar position now, and the reality is so does our opponent.”
The Vikings have a Rookie of the Year candidate in Justin Jefferson. They have the best running back in the NFL not named Derrick Henry. They’ve had a myriad of injuries on defense.
Yet at 6-7 and with three games to play, they remain in control of their own postseason destiny. Win your last three games, and you’re in the playoffs. Go 2-1, and you need some help. They’re in this spot because they’ve done it to themselves, but they’re still alive.
Are they ready to embrace it and put the Bears away?
“We fight like crazy every week, so we’ll find out,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
“We know, it’s nothing to overhype about it. We just know what’s at stake and I think these last few weeks, we’ve just been rising to the occasion getting better. Last week’s score doesn’t show how hard we played on the field,” Cook said. “If we come with that same effort or even better this week, I think we’ll walk out of there with the outcome we want.”
The Vikings have no choice but to fight for their lives. That decision was made at the bye week, and after winning five out of six games to get back to 6-6.
But can they finish? That’s an answer we hope takes longer than Sunday to find out. If the Vikings beat the Bears, their season hinges on a Christmas Day date at New Orleans.
“We just want to bring that fight every week. Whether we’re at stake of going to the playoffs or not. Giving all-out effort at practice. Bring that fight on Sunday,” Jefferson said.
If they don’t bring that fight consistently the last three weeks, they’ll be watching the NFC Playoffs from their couches.