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As the Vikings kicked off their first game two weeks ago, with a 0-0 record, they had the same chance as every team to make the playoffs- 43.75%- based on the 7 team playoff format that began last year. And they had the same 3% chance as every team, theoretically given there are 32 teams in the league, to win the Super Bowl, all things being equal. Of course in reality the Chiefs or Bucs have a much better chance to win the Super Bowl, or make the playoffs, than the Lions or the Texans, given what we know about those teams.
For the Vikings, now with an 0-2 record, their chance of making the playoffs based on historical precedent going back to 1995 sits around 15%, maybe a little less. Below is a 538 chart showing the chance a team with a given record has to make the playoffs, using the old 6 team format, and a 16 game season, so with the 7 team format the odds improve slightly. According to the chart below, an 0-2 team has a 10% chance to make the playoffs. Updating it to the 7 team playoff format increases the chances a bit- maybe to 15% or so.
But just as in reality the Chiefs and Bucs have much better postseason odds than the Lions or Texans at the beginning of the season, what are the Vikings real chances of making the playoffs at 0-2 ?
The fact that both losses were narrow defeats on the road, as opposed to large ones at home, probably increases the Vikings chances somewhat, as the Vikings now have more home than road games left on their schedule. The fact that the Vikings have roughly a top ten offense after two games figures well too- 12th in points, 7th in yards. On the other hand, a near the bottom ranked defense- 26th in points, 27th in yards- doesn’t figure well.
The other big factor in guesstimating the Vikings real playoff chances is the strength of their division and the NFC. At this point the NFC North is looking fairly weak, with every team having at least one loss so far, and at least one other team at 0-2 after tonight’s game between the Lions and Packers. We don’t know yet if the Packers crushing loss to the Saints was a sign the team has fallen off from last year, or if it was just a terrible, but isolated game. How they do against the Lions at home will reveal a bit more, but I wouldn’t consider the result as definitive, one way or another.
The NFC East looks to be not much better than it was last year, so I’m not sure there are strong wild card contenders in that division at the end of the season. The NFC South is a bit more difficult to figure at this point. The Bucs look like shoe-ins for the division crown, but early results from Carolina and the Saints are more puzzling. Carolina is 2-0, having beat the Jets and Saints at home. That leaves 9 of their remaining 15 games on the road. The Saints started the season bi-polar, largely the product of new QB Jameis Winston’s performance, and who knows which game is more indicative of the future- maybe they both are. It wouldn’t be surprising to see both teams end up near the .500 mark, but the NFC South plays the NFC East this season, so there are a lot of winnable games on their schedule. There is a wild card spot open between the NFC East and South if a team other than the Bucs can emerge a bit better than the 7 mediocre teams in the two divisions, and rack up some close wins. Whether or not that will happen, remains to be seen. Just as likely is a group of teams around the .500 mark or below, if the mediocre teams split and everyone loses to the Bucs. The South teams each have a game with the North, while the East each have a game with the West.
For the NFC North, based on last year’s division standings, diverge in which NFC South, AFC West, and NFC East teams they face, as follows:
The Bears and Packers look to have the toughest matchups among the divergent part of the NFC North schedules, followed by the Vikings, and the Lions with the easiest of the bunch. As always however, how each team fares in division matchups will be key.
The biggest competition for the Vikings, assuming they can right the ship in the coming weeks and remain competitive for a playoff spot, are the NFC West teams. In that respect, the loss to Arizona was a key one, as the Cardinals hold the tie-breaker with the Vikings. Beating the other NFC West teams- Seattle, SF, and the Rams- would certainly elevate the Vikings playoff chances.
Lastly, the Vikings haven’t suffered any significant injuries since the season began, which is a positive.
In any case, based on all of the above, FiveThirtyEight still gives the Vikings a better chance than most 0-2 teams to make the playoffs, prior to the outcome of the Packers/Lions game:
They give the Vikings a 32% chance to make the playoffs, with only the Colts having a slightly higher playoff chance among 0-2 teams. I suspect that chance will decline some if the Packers win, and increase some if they lose. They’re an 11.5 point favorite at home tonight.
While the Vikings 0-2 start would seem to put them in a huge hole in terms of making the playoffs, at the end of today they’ll be one game back in the division race, with 5 of their division games still two months away, and 3 of them 3 months away.
A lot can happen between now and then, and its probably better to focus on the team and where things stand across position groups and various metrics and what needs to improve, rather than speculate on future success.
I’ll do just that in my next article.