Two things we know for sure, though: If the Vikings win their last two games, they’ll make the playoffs. And if they are going to make the playoffs, the only way they can make it is as a wild card team.
The latter designation might carry a certain stigma and make you think differently about this season. Even if the Vikings beat Detroit and Chicago — or split the games and get some help to sneak in — will an 8- or 9-win season and a wild card berth really mean much heading into the playoffs?
Well, in the course of trying to answer that question Tuesday afternoon I stumbled onto an interesting fact:
In their all-time playoff history, the Vikings have a 20-29 record. That’s, um, not great.
Breaking it down further, though, shows that they’ve actually fared relatively better in the playoffs as a wild card team than as a division winner.
The wild card was first implemented in the NFL in 1970 and has undergone various iterations. The Vikings first made the postseason as a wild card in the strike year of 1982, when they finished 5-4.
Counting that season, the Vikings have made the playoffs as a wild card nine different times. And in six of those season, they won at least one playoff game: single games in 1982, 1988, 1997, 1999 and 2004, and two games in 1987. Their overall record as a wild card is 7-9 — again, not great, but at a .438 winning percentage that’s actually better than their winning percentage (.394) in the playoffs as a division winner, when they’ve gone a combined 13-20.
Now, before we declare the Vikings to be AT AN ADVANTAGE this year if they make it as a wild card, we need to examine a few of the possible reasons for the all-time playoff discrepancy.
*One item of note is that top-quality division winners tend to get first-round byes and therefore don’t get to play more mediocre competition in the opening round, whereas wild card teams can feast on less-than-stellar teams.
The 2017, 2009, 2000 and 1998 Vikings all had byes in the first round but would have been heavy favorites in any first-round matchup. All those teams went 1-1 in the postseason, winning in the division round (at home) before losing the NFC title game (three on the road, one at home).
And the 1999 wild card Vikings, who went 10-6, are a good example of a wild card team with an easy draw. They trounced the 8-8 Cowboys 27-10 in their playoff opener.
*The 1987 Vikings, meanwhile, were just 8-7 in the regular season but in reality were an 8-4 team since they went 0-3 with replacement players during that season of labor strife. While their road wins at New Orleans and San Francisco were still surprising, the Vikings were a higher-quality wild card than their record indicated.
*Still, that doesn’t explain everything. There might be a psychological edge in some cases while playing as a wild card since there are fewer expectations. That seemed to be the case in 2004, when the Vikings (8-8) won at Lambeau Field in the playoffs after twice losing to the division-winning Packers during the regular season.
Winning as a wild card can give a team the feeling of playing with house money. The Super Bowl odds are much longer as a wild card since a team has to win three games — guaranteed to all be on the road, unless both wild cards advance to a conference title game and the No. 5 seed hosts the No. 6 seed — but it’s not impossible. In NFL history since wild cards were added in 1970, a wild card has reached the Super Bowl 10 times and won it six times.
The Vikings have never done it in their nine tries as a wild card … but they’ve also failed to reach the Super Bowl in their last 12 tries as a division winner.
Last year felt like a team of destiny that fell short. Maybe if this year’s Vikings get into the playoffs, they’ll be a less-regarded team that pulls some surprises?