EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings have arrived at the final month of the season in control of a prime place in the playoffs, even putting themselves in position to pounce on the top spot in the NFC if the high-flying Philadelphia Eagles slip at all from their perch.
The analysis of seeding scenarios and scrutiny of competitor schedules, though, will be largely conducted outside of the team’s locker room.
Anyone at Vikings headquarters who’s been asked lately by reporters about the long-range forecast has quickly dismissed the speculation as an irrelevant distraction.
Even with a three-game lead over Detroit in the NFC North with just five games to go, the Vikings (9-2) have not acknowledged any internal emphasis on the bigger picture of the conference standings or the pursuit of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs including, for this postseason only, the Super Bowl.
The message to the players from coach Mike Zimmer has not changed from two months ago.
“Figure out how to beat this team this week, go about our business the same way, make sure we stay who we are, understand who we are as a football team, and then go out and execute on Sundays,” Zimmer said after the Vikings stretched their winning streak to seven straight games by beating the Lions.
“We’re not looking down the road or anything like that. The more wins we can stack up right now will help us in the end.”
The Vikings have almost made it sound as if they believe they’re participating in some kind of silent auction for a spot in the playoffs, with none of the final records revealed until the very end.
“Honestly, that’s probably the hardest thing for young guys to realize,” said defensive end Brian Robison, the longest-tenured player on the team.
“You can sit here and talk about all the stuff that’s happening now, but it really doesn’t matter until the regular season’s over.”
The Vikings are one game behind the Eagles (10-1), who must take consecutive cross-country road trips to play the Seattle Seahawks (7-4) and Los Angeles Rams (8-3) over the next two weekends.
The Vikings, of course, are on the verge of back-to-back road games themselves against NFC contenders, with a visit to Atlanta on Sunday followed by a game at Carolina the week after.
The Panthers (8-3) are tied with the New Orleans Saints for first place in the NFC West, with the defending NFC champion Falcons (7-4) one game behind them.
That’s seven teams at 7-4 or better, compared to just four in the AFC, so there’s little room for a lapse. That’s one reason why the Vikings have been so determined to avoid acknowledgement of their place in the NFC pecking order.
“It’s only special after the season when you win a Super Bowl,” cornerback Terence Newman said. “Right now we’ve still got to work. That’s the mentality that everyone has.”
That’s coming from Zimmer and trickling down throughout the roster.
“He does a great job of keeping us focused and always reiterating, ‘Just keep that chip on your shoulder,'” running back Jerick McKinnon said. “I think that’s the main reason we’re sitting at 9-2 right now.”