MINNEAPOLIS — As his players formed a circle around him on Sunday afternoon, clad in NFC North championship gear after a 34-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals cemented the Vikings’ division title, coach Mike Zimmer started to nudge their focus toward what’s next.
“Congratulations on winning the NFC North,” Zimmer said in the video clip of his postgame speech posted on the team’s website. “That stuff’s hard to do, now. OK? It’s hard to do. But that’s only the first goal as we start getting going. Now we won the division. Now we know we’re in the playoffs. Now, we start playing for seeding.”
The Vikings, at 11-3, currently hold the NFC’s second-best record, and are a game behind the Philadelphia Eagles. They can only claim the top spot in the conference if they win their final two games while Philadelphia loses its last two, but a win on Saturday night in Green Bay would put the Vikings on the doorstep of a first-round bye for the first time since 2009.
Minnesota can assure itself of a weekend off in the playoffs with another victory and a Carolina Panthers loss. The Vikings would also win three-way tiebreakers with the Los Angeles Rams and either of the teams competing for the NFC South title (the Panthers and New Orleans Saints).
In addition to a weekend off to rest players, a bye would mean the Vikings need just two wins to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in 41 years. And after a handful of teams made championship runs from the wild-card round from 2007-12, the past four seasons have seen the top seeds in both conferences capitalizing on their prime playoff positioning.
Home teams in the division round of the playoffs — the two teams in each conference that receive a bye — are 13-3 since 2013. No team from either conference has reached the Super Bowl without a first-round bye since 2012, when the Baltimore Ravens won a home game and two road games on their way to a championship, and seven of the last eight conference championships have been claimed by No. 1 overall seeds in either the NFC or AFC.
“Our guys are pretty smart, focused guys, and I think they understand what’s at stake,” Zimmer said. “If possible, we would like to play every game at U.S. Bank Stadium. I mean, I know we’re going to get one, but we’re kind of greedy.”
Should the Vikings not wind up with a first-round bye, though, they’ve got a player on their roster who can tell them what it’s like to make a run from the wild-card round to the Super Bowl.
Nose tackle Linval Joseph was in his first year as a starter for the New York Giants in 2011, when the team won the NFC East at 9-7 and claimed playoff victories in Green Bay and San Francisco after beating Atlanta at home in the first round of the playoffs. The Giants beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, winning their second title in five years after coming out of the first round.
“I mean, it was fun because we had a chance every week to just work together,” Joseph said. “Once you get past the regular season, it’s all about team ball. That’s what I’m trying to tell the guys now: We’re having fun now, but once we get into the tournament, it’s all about team. There’s no more individual stats. Everybody is starting to buy into that, because that’s the only way we’re going to win — playing together.”
In Zimmer’s first two years in the NFL (1994 and 1995) he coached for Dallas Cowboys teams that had first-round byes. He hasn’t been part of a team that’s had one since, and he made it clear Monday that a bye will only come as the byproduct of continued focus against two division opponents (the Packers and Bears) who’ll have little on the line.
“It’s been a long time for that, since it’s happened,” Zimmer said. “If we don’t win this game, and the next game, it really doesn’t matter about all that stuff.”
One victory could — and two victories certainly would — mean the Vikings trade a hard-fought wild-card game for a week of rest. They’re hoping to end their season in the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium. The more games they play in their one-year-old stadium — where noise levels are approaching the Metrodome’s din — the better chance they’ll likely have.
“My tight end coach Clancy [Barone] had a great line this week: ‘You know, there are hat games — going to play for a hat,’?” tight end Kyle Rudolph said on Sunday. “This [NFC North championship hat] is an awesome hat, but you don’t get any jewelry with this hat. There’s bigger hats to come and we want the hats you get jewelry with. So, it’s awesome, we’re glad to be NFC North champs but we still have things to work for.”