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Vikings could be headed toward NFC North title game with Packers

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings won't return to work until Tuesday after a long weekend off following their loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night. But even though the 23-20 defeat was their third in four games, the Vikings are still in prime position when it comes to the NFC playoff race.

The Vikings (8-5) will enter Week 15 as one of only five NFC teams with fewer than seven losses. No matter what happens around the conference in Weeks 15 and 16, they can clinch a playoff spot by winning back-to-back home games against the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. And while they'd be marching into a thicket of tiebreaking procedures if they win only one of their final three, they'd still have a good chance to reach the playoffs, considering the teams chasing them for a wild-card spot are all 6-7 or worse. Essentially, if the Vikings get to nine wins, one of the teams chasing them would have to win out just to be tied with them. And if they get to 10 wins, they're in no matter what.

They're also in control of their own chances to win the NFC North, despite the Green Bay Packers pulling ahead of them in the division with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. If the Vikings win their final three games -- including a victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 17 -- they would at worst be tied with Green Bay at 11-5 and would win the division by virtue of a better division record (5-1 to 3-3). Even if the Vikings lost to the Bears on Sunday, they'd have a chance to win the division title as long as they're within a game of the Packers by the time the two teams meet.

Considering the Packers have back-to-back road games against Oakland and Arizona, it seems entirely possible we're headed toward an NFC North title game on Jan. 3. The Packers appear to be figuring some things out -- they've won two in a row now, and coach Mike McCarthy took back play-calling duties in a 28-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday -- but coach Mike Zimmer sounded hopeful on Friday that the Vikings' key defensive players (Linval Joseph, Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr) were making progress in their recovery from injuries.

The Vikings slipped to the sixth seed on Sunday after the Seattle Seahawks pulled even with them in the standings, but by no means are they stuck there. With the Packers facing a couple of tough road games while the Vikings play at home, Minnesota could get the chance to do what Chicago and Detroit failed to do the past two years: beat the Packers in a Week 17 division title game.

"All of our goals are still in front of us," tight end Kyle Rudolph said Thursday. "We've got to take this time off this weekend, get healthy and we've got three games left."