Vikings say they have to 'prove we belong' in NFC Playoff picture

Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings reacts after defeating the New Orleans Saints 26-20 in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 05, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. ((Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images))

It’s the elephant in the room in meetings and the locker room at TCO Performance Center as the Minnesota Vikings enter their final four games. Some address it head-on, others say it’s not talked about and lock in on the next opponent.

That elephant? The NFC Playoffs. The Vikings start a final four-game stretch this Sunday at Tampa Bay, and can go above .500 for the first time all season with a win. They can also further cement themselves in the playoff conversation, something that didn’t seem possible after a 1-5 start.

“Honestly we’ve had to fight back so hard from where we started out to get in position to even mention the word playoffs,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday. “I’ve always kind of approached it like you know what, let’s go out and put all our emphasis on this one particular game, let’s count them all up at the end and see how that goes. If we don’t win a lot of these, then it doesn’t matter anyway.”

The Vikings have won five out of their past six since the Week 8 bye to get back to 6-6. They went to bed Sunday night in the No. 7 spot in the NFC, with the Cardinals losing to the Rams. They likely need to win at least three of their last four to feel confident about getting a playoff spot.

Six weeks ago, they were 1-5 and it felt like transition time for 2021.

“I had to have conversations with myself about just stick with it, just keep fighting. It’s tough when things are going rough, but that’s when you find out what kind of man you are, what kind of teammate you are,” said receiver Adam Thielen, who is second in the NFL with 12 touchdown catches despite missing a game.

So what has Thielen most impressed about their recent run? He says there was no finger pointing in meetings, players weren’t calling each other out. Players weren’t frustrated with coaches. They went back to their business.

“You learn a lot about your football team and yourself as an individual when things aren’t going great. Everybody was just business as usual and we kind of knew that we had it in us, we just had to keep grinding and keep fighting,” Thielen said.

What followed after the 1-5 start were three straight wins in the NFC North against the Packers, Lions and Bears. They had a slip-up against the Cowboys, and responded with wins over the Panthers and Jaguars.

This week, they head to Tampa Bay and have a chance to pass the Buccaneers in the NFC Playoff picture. It’s December football, and they’re fighting for their season.

“It’s getting to be that time in the season where you’ve got to kind of separate the playoff teams from the rest. We’ve got to prove through this week and through this month that we belong,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Two teams since 1970 have made the playoffs after a 1-5 start: The 2018 Colts and 2017 Chiefs. The Vikings can become the third, and Sunday marks another chance for a win against a quality team in a pivotal spot.

“Right now I think it’s a perfect opportunity for some of the older guys to let the younger guys know the opportunity that we have in front of us. Let them know just take grasp of the situation and just go play,” said running back Dalvin Cook.

The Vikings play three out of their last four on the road to end the regular season. After Tampa, they host the Bears before a Christmas afternoon game at New Orleans, and close out 2020 on the road in Detroit. The playoff window for the Bears and Lions is all but shut, and the Saints will likely win the NFC South.

Thielen says the Vikings aren’t talking about the playoffs, they’re focused on beating Tampa Bay.

“What’s talked about is how important this game is this week, just like last week’s game, how important that game was. We have to stay focused on what our task is right now. We can’t start looking at playoff picture, we can’t start looking at anything other than what our opponent is,” Thielen said.

They may not talk about the playoffs, but they know where things stand with four games to go. They also control their own destiny, as long as they win.