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Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Impact: Vikings still have fair shot at title

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Quick. Name the defensive tackles on Minnesota's roster.

(And, no. You can't use Kevin Williams or Pat Williams. The NFL suspended them Tuesday for the final four games of the regular season.)

Give up?

OK, here goes: Fred Evans, Ellis Wyms and Letroy Guion.

Evans has nine tackles this season. Wyms has three Guion, a fifth-round draft pick, has been active for one game all season and missed practice last week because of an ankle injury.

(You didn't ask, but there are no defensive tackles on the Vikings' practice squad.)

This precarious depth situation is one of many examples you could cite to illustrate just how impactful these suspensions are. Kevin Williams is a three-time All-Pro, and both players have participated in the past two Pro Bowls. They are the key reasons why the Vikings led the NFL in rushing defense during the past two seasons; the team ranks No. 2 through 12 games this season. Kevin Williams also has eight sacks and has helped draw attention away from defensive end Jared Allen (11 sacks).

ESPN's Chris Mortensen has reported that at least one player will file an injunction Wednesday in an effort to continuing playing through the suspension. That effort would be fraught with its own risks: If the injunction merely delays the inevitable, the suspensions would carry into the playoffs, if applicable.

So if the Vikings end up losing both players for the remainder of the season, the question will be whether they can hold on to their one-game lead in the NFC North and earn the franchise's first postseason invitation since 2004.

My take? It's very possible.

Start with Sunday's game at Detroit. Yes, the Lions have a better chance of running through a line made up of Evans and Wyms. But let's face it, the Vikings should defeat the woeful Lions with or without the Williams Wall.

A victory at Detroit would lift the Vikings to 8-5. Practically speaking, they would need only one more victory against an admittedly difficult schedule -- at Arizona, followed by home games against Atlanta and the New York Giants -- to secure the NFC North title.

How do I figure that? Based on a review of the NFL's playoff system, the Vikings will take the division title at 9-7 unless either Chicago or Green Bay wins its final four games. (Feel free to check my work. It wouldn't be the first mistake I've made. Here is the tiebreaker system and here are the NFL's expanded standings.)

As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times points out, the Bears are unlikely to win a tiebreaker with the Vikings as long as Minnesota defeats Detroit this weekend. (The best the Bears could hope for is winning the No. 5 tiebreaker, strength of victory, which can't be determined until the regular season is complete.)

As a result, the Bears almost certainly would need four victories to finish 10-6 and win the division outright over a 9-7 Vikings team. Will the Bears, who haven't won more than two consecutive games since 2006, suddenly grab four straight?

The Packers, meanwhile, need four victories to get to 9-7. (One would have to come against Chicago on Dec. 22, thus eliminating the possibility of a practical three-way tie.) Green Bay would win the title in that scenario because of a better division record. But can the Packers, who have lost seven of their past 10 games, reel off four in a row?

So, in summary, the Vikings very likely can win the NFC North with victories in two of their final four games, with one of them coming against the hapless Lions. It's by no means a slam dunk, but not nearly as insurmountable as it might have appeared in the initial emotion of the NFL's ruling.