Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Cross your fingers, knock on wood, say a prayer, wish upon a star. Whatever you do, send positive vibes to the Minnesota Vikings this week. They’ll play the Arizona Cardinals this Thursday, likely move to 8-5 without four of their defensive starters available for the game, and prepare for a brutal three-game stretch to end the regular season. If they want to make the playoffs, the Vikings will need to win at least nine games by year’s end.

While 10, 11, or even 12 would be ideal, nine victories almost ensures Mike Zimmer’s team sneaks into the postseason as a Wild Card contender. After tomorrow’s matchup, they’ll host the Bears and Giants before a crucial Week 17 game at Lambeau Field, which could very well decide their playoff fate and determine the winner of the NFC North. But if you’re the Vikings, who would you rather play come January?

Win the division, and they’d enter the playoffs as the NFC’s third seed. Based on ESPN’s projection models (adjusted for win percentage), the third seed would host the Seattle Seahawks in the first round; definitely not an opponent the Vikings want to meet again this season. Finish second in the division, and the Vikings (fifth seed) would travel to play the winner of the NFC East, which has been lackluster as a whole for the majority of the year.

There’s a few ways the rest of the regular season can play out, and all but one guarantees the Vikings a shot at the playoffs. The question is, who would you rather see the team play on the road to Super Bowl 50?

The example above is just one scenario to end the season. ESPN’s Playoff Machine gives the user multiple options and variables, which are listed and explained below:

  • Highest win probability: Fifth seed — Vikings (10-5-1) @ Redskins (6-8-2)
  • Home team wins every remaining game: Fifth seed — Vikings (10-6) @ Eagles (8-8)
  • Away team wins every remaining game: Third seed — Seahawks (9-7) @ Vikings (10-6)
  • Highest-ranked team on ESPN Power Rankings: Sixth seed — Vikings (10-6) @ Packers (11-5)
  • Highest offensive rank: NO VIKINGS
  • Highest defensive rank: Third seed — Buccaneers (9-7) @ Vikings (10-6)

Realistically, the Vikings have a shot at three postseason opponents — the Eagles, the Seahawks, and the Packers. Winning the NFC North would yield them the Seahawks at home, and as mentioned above, that’s the one game the Vikings wouldn’t want to play. Last week, fans saw what happened when teams shut down Adrian Peterson and attack Minnesota’s offensive line — the Vikings lose.

The story was similar against the Packers, who found a semblance of offense at TCF Bank Stadium three weeks ago. They beat the Vikings handily and like the Seahawks, stuffed Minnesota’s then top-ranked rushing attack. Teddy Bridgewater couldn’t keep pace with Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s offense, stirring the first doubts about Minnesota’s playoff chances. Unlike the first game, though, this matchup would be played at Lambeau Field, with the Packers hosting as NFC North champions.

And finally, the Eagles, who have stumbled repeatedly through their 2015 campaign. It wasn’t until they beat the Patriots last week that they discovered an ounce of their full potential. More so than the Seahawks or Packers, though, Philadelphia is a beatable team with the most holes on its roster. They can’t run the football consistently, they can’t stop the run, and they turn the ball over far too often in the red zone. If any team is built to beat the Eagles, it’s the Vikings, who control the time of possession with Adrian Peterson and win with defense — a formula for stopping Chip Kelly’s high-octane teams.

A playoff berth isn’t guaranteed for the Vikings, but they control their own destiny. Win one or two of their remaining games, and they’ll sneak into the Wild Card round. Sweep all four, and they’ll likely finish as NFC North champions. Both paths lead to the same destination, but one gives the Vikings a better chance to move deeper into the playoffs.

Before asking this week’s question, Ben Goessling from ESPN deserves a shout-out. His tweet (below) inspired my thinking and prompted me to chug away through ESPN’s nifty simulator:

So, Vikings fans, which is better? An NFC North title and first-round game with Seattle, or a wild-card trip to the winner of the NFC East?