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Vikings NFL Playoff Hopes: Does the Math Work?

At the time of writing, the Vikings are just hours away from their crunch tie against the Chicago Bears. The Vikings will face the Bears again in Week 17, so the two games against Chicago will be an important determiner of the Vikings’ Playoffs hopes. Those games sandwich much tougher ties against the Rams (December 26th) and Packers (January 3rd). Four games to make or break a season, with every game having the threat of elimination hanging over it.

The Vikings are 6-7 right now, but Mike Zimmer will feel his team have a real chance if they can get the win over Chicago later tonight. Going into Christmas 7-7 is obviously not going to mean anything is assured, but 6-8 will mean the Vikings have been eliminated in all but name. But what do the Vikings actually need? And how do the number stack up? After all, the Vikings will also be depending on other teams’ results.

Approximately a one in four chance of the Playoffs

As it stands currently, FiveThirtyEight, the stats wizards who know a thing or two about probability, put the Vikings’ Playoff chances at 21%. This isn’t far off the sportsbooks’ take on the matter. MansionBet’s NFL betting platform, for example, cites 3/1 for the Vikings to make the Playoffs – that’s an implied probability of 25%. So it’s slightly higher than the statisticians, but not by much. For reference, teams in a similar position, i.e., gunning for that NFC Wildcard place, like the Saints (7-7) and Eagles (also 6-7), are given slightly higher chances by FiveThirtyEight, which cites a 49% chance for the Saints and a 30% chance for the Eagles.

Nonetheless, wins for the Vikings will start to change that picture. If the Vikings were to go 7-7 after a win against the Bears, then the Playoff chances increase to 32%, while also lowering the Eagles’ chances to 26% and the Saints to 47%. 8-7 (i.e., winning against the Rams the day after Christmas), will raise the Vikings’ chances to 53%, while also lowering the Eagles’ to 20% and Saints to 41%. Beat Green Bay on January 3rd, and it’s 91%, but with a big caveat (see below). Go 4-0 down this final stretch, and it’s almost a mathematical certainty that the Vikings go to the Playoffs.

Calculations must allow for other teams’ results

However, here’s the rub. Those calculations are only valid in the sense of not factoring in the results of other teams. While 4-0 would nearly guarantee postseason football, you’d expect that Mike Zimmer and the majority of Vikings fans would be happy with 3-1; finishing the season with a 9-8 record puts everything up in the air. The New York Times, which does its probability calculations in a different way to FiveThirtyEight, puts it at 51% for the Vikings to qualify for the Playoffs with a 9-8 record. But this method of calculating factors in probable results from other teams.

TLDR, it’s going to be a coin-toss if the Vikings aren’t perfect from now until January 9th in the final game against the Bears. 4-0, and they are there; 3-1 means there’s a 50-50 chance. Anything less and Vikings fans will be resigned to thinking about getting it right for next season because this one will be over.

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